Tense Tennis: Rafael Nadal and the Psychology of Sports Rituals 

Understanding the King of Clay. 

Getty Images / Clive Brunskill

Rafael Nadal had a promising start at Wimbledon this year as he beat John Millman in the first round with a 6-1, 6-3, 6-2 victory. He powered through, knocking out Donald Young and Karen Khachanov, but his winning streak came to an end on Monday as he lost to Gilles Müller. At a post-game press conference, he ruefully analyzed every step of his performance, concluding by saying “I think didn’t play my best.” Watching him break down his mistakes, it’s hard to believe someone so logical could indulge in something as irrational as pre-game rituals.

The following is an article that was first published on July 3, 2017.

The Spanish athlete is notorious for his precise, complicated, and unique match day routines on and off the court. He drinks from two bottles of water, alternating as he goes. He never touches his feet to the lines of the court. Before the game, he checks his socks to make sure they’re exactly the same height on his calves. Before a serve, he spins the ball or fidgets with his clothes in specific, reoccurring patterns. And those are just a few examples; there are so many routines that Nadal performs during every match that keeping track would make your head spin faster than a tennis ball.

Some have called his pre-game rituals and game-time fussing a means of stalling and intimidating his rivals. Others have called these performances superstitious. Nadal himself reflected on these behaviors in his autobiography, Rafa: My Story, describing what he does with his water bottles during a game:

“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.

Nadal writes in the same book of having heavy nerves prior to a game. Taking steps to calm that anxiety makes sense, however a person can do it.

A study by Michaéla C. Schippers from Erasmus University and Paul A. M. Van Lange of Free University found that rituals can have a profound effect on reducing stress for certain athletes, therefore allowing them to perform better.

“The results of the current study show that superstitious individuals are less self-confident and experience a higher level of psychological tension before a match than do less superstitious persons. These findings indicate that rituals can play a role in reducing psychological tension for sportspersons.”

Although Nadal doesn’t like to call his routines superstitions, the compulsion to create systems that one can consistently perform hail from a need to quell the same source: anxiety. As Schippers and Van Lange point out in their study, “Rituals ‘work’ because the person believes in them and expects this.”

We’ll get to see how it’s working for Nadal when he plays Donald Young in his second Wimbledon match on Wednesday. The match begins at 1:25 p.m. Eastern, so if you tune in now, you might be able to catch the king’s routine in action.

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