Pressure Is A Privilege - Inner Excellence, Tennis, and Putin

Rafael Nadal

I had the distinct pleasure to once again attend the last three days of the BNP Paribas tennis tournament at Indian Wells. I purchased tickets for the quarterfinals, semi-finals, and finals for both men and women for singles and doubles. I love to observe the players in action to study how they approach their craft and adapt to different situations, especially how they react to adversity and make adjustments to overcome obstacles. Watching these great players reinforces for me the power of purpose in one’s life. It is so clear that the best of the best feel they are here to compete at the highest level and they are on a continuous journey of self-improvement and mastery. Nothing makes them feel more alive than competing and preparing for competition.

Seeing Rafael Nadal Play

One of the highlights was being able to see Rafael Nadal play for the first time in person. The first match I saw was against a fellow Spaniard who was only 18 years old. It was clear pretty early on that we were watching a future superstar in the making. He had such poise and hit the ball so well and intelligently. The sky’s the limit for Carlos Alcarez. He took Nadal to three sets in a nail-biting three-hour and 12-minute match. And if facing each other in a grueling match battle wasn’t enough, during the second set there were 40 to 50 mile an hour wind gusts that wreaked havoc on them. There were some discussions about delaying the match but it was decided that they would have to play through so they were forced to accept and adapt. The winds eventually died down enough for the third set such that they were no longer a material factor in how the players approached playing. 

Rafael Nadal March 2022 BNP Paribas tennis tournament at Indian Wells

One of the things that become clear when watching Nadal is that he has so many rituals that border on the obsessive-compulsive. The way he walks, the routes he takes back to his serve and to the sidelines, and the incredible number of touches to the face and body before he serves are all examples of his OCD. There’s a side of me that feels a little badly for him that he is such a slave to his rituals and, yet, on the other hand, they seem to have served him (pun intended) so well that it has made his tennis life so much more predictable and simpler than it has probably created tremendous focus for him having virtually every non-playing second scripted. He has one more majors and overall tournament than anyone in history so who am I to criticize? It works for him and as long as he is a joyful and happy person then even better. This picture shows a glimpse of a component of his pre-serve ritual.

Rafael Nadal March 2022 BNP Paribas tennis tournament at Indian Wells

Unfortunately during the semi-final match, Nadal tweaked something that required him to go to the umpire and ask for the trainer to come out and take a look at him during the next break. I came to learn that the injury was pretty significant because in the finals he was clearly impaired as his serve was slower and there were a few balls he actually let go by without even making an effort to get them, which is something he never does. In fact, the announcers said they had never seen Nadal have such a negative demeanor in all of the matches they had seen him play. Something was clearly off. 

Nadal ended up winning that incredible match in the semis. He was now having to face 24-year-old American Taylor Fritz, a Southern California native playing in front of his home crowd. It turned out that he too was going to have to play hurt as he injured his ankle in his semi-final match against 24-year-old Russian Andre Rublov. As an aside, because of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, announcers were not allowed to say he was from Russia and there could be no Russian (or Belarussian) flag symbols next to players’ names on the scoreboard who were from those countries. 

Fritz’s ankle injury during the semis got to the point that he said he couldn’t have played a third set if that was required. What I didn’t know was that he re-injured it even worse the next morning when he went out to practice. We were told that it was too painful for him to play for longer than five minutes on it. It turned out that he hurt it again and it was far more painful this time as evidenced by him screaming out in pain.  In fact, his coaches wanted him to pull out of the match.  Fortunately, he chose not to and went ahead and decided he would do whatever was necessary to face Nadal and compete head to head against him.

Returning to Nadal, he has returned to Spain and it turns out that he ended up having a stress fracture of his rib cage. He played an amazingly tough and gritty final, as did Fritz, but he didn’t have what he needed to beat the younger, more agile Fritz, even though he was playing hurt as well. Nadal said afterward that it felt like he constantly had a needle in his chest which led to difficulty breathing and dizziness. He had to have the doctor and trainer come out one time and then he went into the locker room a second time to get treatment. This picture shows him being escorted to the locker room.

injured Rafael Nadal March 2022 BNP Paribas tennis tournament at Indian Wells

It was great for Taylor Fritz to win his first major tournament in his home area. Seeing these warriors compete while both being injured reinforced, yet again, how vitally important physical and mental resilience is in life. This can only occur through rigorous, consistent, focused training. I often quote Russell Wilson when he says that “the separation is in the preparation” and these two guys showed that yet again. 

Mindset is obviously so important when dealing with adversity and overcoming obstacles. Fritz showed tremendous grit and character to fight through his challenges. The opposite was the case for Rublev, the Russian who he played in the semis. Rublev is a great player and yet he is burdened with a very bad temper and negative mindset when times get tough and things are not going his way. He would often look over to his coaches and throw his arms out and gesticulate “Why? Why?”. He wanted to know why he was breaking down. He didn’t like it and his anger and frustration showed. By turning to his coaches, who couldn’t do anything for him, he was looking for an external locus of control, some sort of savior that could get him out of his predicament. This of course is never a healthy approach to dealing with any type of challenge in life. The first thing to do is to look in the mirror and see how one has contributed to the situation and what can be done to make positive contributions to reverse course. Things got so bad for Rublev that one time he took his racket and started hitting his thigh with it multiple times and then another time he punched his racket multiple times with his right hand such that he bruised it, made it bleed, and required the trainer to bandage it up. It turned out that he ended up being able to play better after that but not well enough to win the match. 

And while there are times I’m no angel on the court, the stakes for me are nowhere as high as they are for Rublev. My livelihood does not depend on tennis. His career does. He unnecessarily put himself at great risk of injury that could have resulted in him having to default the match, give up any shot at the finals, and possibly miss future tournaments. In addition, his self-absorption could have led to great disappointment among the fans who spent money and gave up their time to see him play and would have had to see the match cut short.

Focusing on Inner Excellence 

I read a great book called Inner Excellence. It is one I return to in order to review my highlights and notes because it’s been that impactful. He talks about how we all want to feel so alive and we are able to experience such vigor and vitality when we are living from our purpose and using our gifts to their maximum. People like Nadal and Fritz feel the most alive when they are competing at the highest level. That is what they live for and prepare for. They were born to compete. 

During the Australian Open earlier in the year Nadal was down two sets and remarkably he came back to win the match in a five-hour and 24 minute battle of the titans. He was asked afterward if he thought he was going to come back and win even though he was down two sets. The cliche answer would have been to say that “I never thought about it and only focused on winning one point at a time” or “I had faith that I could do it”. Nadal was quite frank in his reply when he said honestly he didn’t think he would win but what he did know was that even though he may have had a 90% chance of losing, the 10% chance of winning was only possible if he gave it his all. If not, then his chances were 100% of losing. He had nothing to lose by doing everything he could to stay in the match and give it everything he had. He persevered and eventually prevailed.

When we are focused on inner excellence and competing at our highest level, we are aligning ourselves with our calling and purpose and we honor those we compete against because they help make us better. We also shift our perspective from viewing mistakes with disdain, anger, and self-flagellation (like Rublev) to becoming very curious about them and viewing them as opportunities to learn and grow. We treat every step of the journey as a form of learning and a potential revelation. And if things don’t go our way and we don’t react in a healthy manner then that is revealing as well and a possible red flag that this may occur in other areas of our lives when we are faced with frustrating situations. We want to avoid making decisions that can have harmful long-term consequences for us. We want to use every opportunity to cultivate wisdom to help us see the end in the beginning. 

If we can think through our actions and what they may lead to and take alternative courses in order to avoid ones that will have a high probability of leading to negative outcomes or go for ones that are significantly more positive, then our lives will be much more fulfilling, satisfying, and joyful. 

I do love to compete because I learn so much about myself when I do. And part of competing is contending with pressure. As Billie Jean King has famously said, “Pressure is a privilege.” It’s a privilege because it means there are consequences to our actions resulting from being in positions of responsibility. If you want to live without pressure then to me that’s not living at all. It’s existing.  I want to be in situations where I’m relied upon to make consequential decisions or be an integral part of the process. This makes me feel more alive and living with greater purpose.

As Billie Jean King has famously said, “Pressure is a privilege.”Click To Tweet

Getting better at whatever we want to improve upon requires consistent practice and a willingness to accept constructive feedback. A sign of what you’re interested in and committed to is to identify those areas of your life in which you relish receiving constructive feedback and enjoy doing the work to get better and to be more effective. I know this is a big leap but the consequences of being closed off to feedback and assuming you know all of the answers at its most extreme can lead to someone like Vladimir Putin ordering his military to invade Ukraine in one of the most horrific acts the world has seen in many, many years and what will prove out to be one of the greatest examples of terrible judgment in the 21st century. 

His decision to invade was a byproduct of an individual with deep psychological issues who cannot stomach that the great Russian empire is not in control of its own destiny in its sphere of influence and that it should have a sphere of influence. And combine this with being deeply isolated and feeling like he had a messianic calling to reunite Russia with Ukraine, which he believes has always been part of Russia, and you have a recipe for disaster. The end he saw from the beginning was a Ukraine welcoming Russian reunification and a new, puppet government installed which would fall under the sway of the Kremlin and collectively being able to check the West and destabilize and neuter NATO. He couldn’t fathom that the Ukrainians would view the situation differently. His delusional grandeur has created the opposite situation as Ukraine has now never felt more distinct from Russia and the costs have been enormous in terms of Ukrainians killed and displaced as well as property destroyed and damaged. And this doesn’t even include the cost to Russia as its forces have been decimated along with their equipment and they have become the pariah of the world. The world will realign back into a much more powerful NATO alliance that will no longer be defensive in nature but will actively serve to check Russian influence at every point possible. 

Back to tennis. It’s one of those sports that, if you want to improve and compete effectively, you have to have humility and be open to feedback and criticism. There is no way to get better. It’s pretty black and white. You either beat your opponent or you lose to her. You get instantaneous feedback. The reality is that most often we beat ourselves. You can either make excuses or you can try to figure out where you fell short and try to reflect on the match in an objective manner to see what worked and what areas need improvement. And if we’re not willing to do that and we somehow find ourselves in positions of responsibility and power then we are at great risk of letting our own compulsions and insecurities get the best of us with the real prospect that bad outcomes could ensue.

Remember, pressure is a privilege. Don’t abuse it. Put yourself in a position to better the lives of those impacted by your decisions.Click To Tweet


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