Rafael Nadal: my pre-game rituals
Before a big match I have to follow my locker room rituals in the same order always. It’s like a great big matchstick structure: if every piece is not symmetrically in place, it can all fall down.
Forty-five minutes before facing Federer I began the last phase of my pre-game ritual. I took a cold shower. Freezing cold water. I do this before every match. It’s the point before the point of no return. Under the cold shower I enter a new space in which I feel my power and resilience grow.
I’m a different man when I emerge. I’m activated. I’m in “the flow”, as sports psychologists describe a state of alert concentration in which the body moves by pure instinct, like a fish in a current. Nothing else exists but the battle ahead.
I put on my earphones and listened to music. It sharpens that sense of flow, removes me further from my surroundings. While Titín, my physical therapist, bandaged my left foot, I put the grips on my rackets, all six I’d be taking on court. I always do this. They come with a black pre-grip.
I roll a white tape over the black one, spinning the tape around and around, working diagonally up the shaft. I don’t need to think about it, I just do it. As if in a trance.
After Titín had bandaged my knees, I stood up, got dressed, went to a basin, and ran water through my hair. Then I put on my bandanna. It’s another manoeuvre that requires no thought, but I do it slowly, carefully, tying it tightly and very deliberately behind the back of my head.
There’s a practical point to it: keeping my hair from falling over my eyes. But it’s also another moment in the ritual, another decisive moment of no return, like the cold shower, when my sense is sharpened that very soon I’ll be entering battle.
Titín bandaged the fingers of my left hand, my playing hand, his moves as mechanical and silent as mine when I wrap the grips around my rackets. There’s nothing cosmetic about this. Without the bandages, the skin would stretch and tear during the game.
I stood up and began exercising, violently — activating my explosiveness, as Titín calls it. I jumped up and down, ran in short bursts from one end of the cramped space to the other — no more than six metres or so. I stopped short, rotated my neck, my shoulders, my wrists, crouched down and bent my knees. Then more jumps, more mini-sprints, as if I were alone in my gym back home. Always with my earphones on, the music pumping inside my head.
I went to take a pee. (I find myself taking a lot of pees – nervous pees – just before a game, sometimes five or six in that final hour.) Then I came back, swung my arms high and round my shoulders, hard.
I sat down and checked my racquets, felt the balance, the weight; pulled up my socks, checked that both were exactly the same height on my calves.
Once on court, I sat down, took off my white tracksuit top, and took a sip from a bottle of water. Then from a second bottle. I repeat the sequence, every time, before a match begins, and at every break between games, until a match is over. A sip from one bottle, and then from another.
And then I put the two bottles down at my feet, in front of my chair to my left, one neatly behind the other, diagonally aimed at the court. Some call it superstition, but it’s not. If it were superstition, why would I keep doing the same thing over and over whether I win or lose? It’s a way of placing myself in a match, ordering my surroundings to match the order I seek in my head.
The last part of the ritual, as important as all the preparations that went before, was to look up, scan the perimeter of the stadium, and search for my family members among the blur of the Centre Court crowd, locking their exact coordinates inside my head. I don’t let them intrude on my thoughts during a match – I don’t ever let myself smile during a match – but knowing they are there, as they always have been, gives me the peace of mind on which my success as a player rests. I build a wall around myself when I play, but my family is the cement that holds the wall together.
***To know more about mental preparation – or to work with a Certified Mental Trainer here in Australia, contact Dr Damien Lafont / Vida Mind at [email protected]
from Rafa: My Story by Rafael Nadal with John Carlin, published by Sphere