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Elite Sport? You've got to be Mental!

Today I walked 24km. This will become pertinent in the not too distant future, so keep it in mind. Anyway, after walking such a stupid distance I came home and literally collapsed on to the couch, blisters upon blisters, to watch Rafael Nadal playing Grigor Dimitrov. Rafa is a set down and doing it tough. He has blister issues of his own, and his hands look like mine did after I discovered you could see boobs on the internet. As I lay there barely able to move, I pondered what would be going through his head right at that moment. First and foremost, the pain. Physically, every shot would be burning, every fibre would be strained. I saw down the bottom right corner, after he lost a game to love, that it only took 90 seconds. This is still a long period of time. It triggered a thought. How hard must it be, once that little shadow of doubt creeps in, to maintain full composure for an entire tennis match?

Just think about it for a second. A 5 set match lasts 2 and a half hours, that is 150 minutes. That whole time the athlete must maintain full concentration. Steve Waugh once famously said that cricket is 90% mental, 10% physical. There are a multitude of sports this can be applied to, mainly individual. Tennis, Golf, any kind of endurance sport, Snooker/Billiards, Gymnastics. You might scoff at me and say marathon running is 99% physical and 1% mental, all they do is run! But to possess that mental fortitude to block out the pain, to block out the part of your brain that is screaming at you to stop because your body cannot take any more, is a rare skill. Not only do you need to utilise it on game day, but every single day in training. You wake up and you need to put your body through immense struggle and stress, for seriously long periods of time, and your only companion is your mind. Your mind has a totally captive audience; whatever it says you will hear and feel.

What Steve said about cricket is starkly true of Golf as well. Golf is a curious sport. I've heard people say that for average punters, you're only ever as good as the first time you take a swing, meaning you need to work bloody hard to improve. Why is it some days I can hit 18 fairways and go home and sleep with 13 girls, just like Tiger Woods, and other days I am filling out police reports on the car accidents I have caused hooking golf balls on to major highways? It's all in your mind. A trained and focused squidgy brain can perform miracles, but one frazzled and wracked with doubt can produce jaw-dropping ineptitude. A sound mind, or the ability to control an unsound one, is the difference between being a successful elite athlete and a mediocre one. So often in cricket we hear 'he is a great first class cricketer but couldn't make the jump'. Players like George Bailey, Jamie Siddons, Stuart Law, Darren Berry, Michael Bevan. All of them possess or did possess the skill set to match it with the best. They just missed out, there was something lacking. An element of self doubt, an inability to truly match it with the best minds in the game. Whatever it was it held them back.

Back to my 24kms. I believe that Tennis and endurance sports (marathon running, long distance swimming and cycling) are the most difficult. When you are out there at 6am in the freezing cold with nothing but pain awaiting you for the rest of the day, and then nothing but pain the next, and the next, for the foreseeable future, the mind can dwell. It can get completely stuck on the idea. As an exercise addict I know all too well how excruciating the mental ballet can be. As I walk, I think of how much my legs hurt, my feet, my muscles. I obsess over every niggle, every step brings another wave. And then my mind jumps ahead. It thinks I have only walked 2 kms, I have 22 to go. And then tomorrow another 24. And the next day. Add in an opponent who is of equal or even better skill than you and you have a recipe for a full blown meltdown. I watch Nadal play Dimitrov and wonder what is going through his head. Imagine if he went two sets down? He looks over the net and sees someone who is playing better than him, working harder than him, looking more confident than he could ever feel. And he thinks 'to win this game, I need to put in another 3 hours of absolute supreme effort'. All of this process occurs in a split second. There are a lot of split seconds in 3 hours.. Just ask Bernie Tomic, a man who will never realise his full potential due to his lack of mental fortitude (and his penchant for being the biggest douche bag in Australian sport. Move over Fevola).

That is why people like Nadal, Federer, Steve Waugh, Mo Farrah and Cadel Evans will always be myths and heroes to me. Listening to Mike Hussey speak recently was enlightening and scary. He detailed the pain his mind put him through before an innings. The sleepless nights, the questions, the constant worry about getting out or failing or letting his mates down. You might think being a superstar golfer or tennis player is a dream job. I disagree.

P.S. Nadal won. Legend

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