In a recent 60 minutes interview, Novak Djokovic suggested that some of his abilities should not be considered as a gift. And maybe, the way he sometimes smashes his racket may confirm that his mental strength comes with work, as he put it.
His work is based on a simple truth: being a human being.
As he describes it, for humans, the biggest battle is within. There are doubts and fears. And they don’t go away. It’s from this perspective that he rejects the idea to “just think positive thoughts, be optimistic” or to decide that “there’s no room for failure, there’s no room for, you know, for doubts and stuff like this.” It’s an effort to use will to transform fate, at the same time it suggests resisting one’s doubts and fears by pushing them away.
For Djokovic, the better approach is to acknowledge and thus accept whatever is appearing. However, this does not mean accepting what appears to be his identity or his reality. What he worked on was to find a way not to stay for too long in those emotions. How he does it will depend on the situation.
Focus is, for him, at the heart of his game. It’s true in many fields, and something Warren Buffet and Bill Gates both also describe as essential for their success. But what neither of them mean is that focus is related to trying hard. Djokovic knows that he’ll lose focus multiple times during a game, he’ll acknowledge it and learned to come back to it as quickly as possible.
Timothy Gallwey described this already in the 1970s in his book “The Inner Game of Tennis.” He saw that Tennis is composed of two games, the outer game and the inner game. What Djokovic is focusing on to build his mental strength is the “inner game”, the one that, as he describes it “is played against such obstacles as lapses in concentration, nervousness, self-doubt, and self-condemnation. In short, it is played to overcome all habits of mind which inhibit excellence in performance.” And as Bill Gates describes it, this applies to many more areas of life.
Developing focus isn’t done and achieved by only focusing on one thing. It is done by understanding the one objective one is working on as well as everything one says no to. And it means integrating everything that is needed to be less disrupted in one’s focus. Djokovic for example, will study his opponent, observe how he is doing, and how he is interacting with his team. He investigates all the details that can help him see what his opponent is busy with. But he will also pay attention to whatever he needs to do to be at his best when he reaches the court.
Trying hard on the other hand is often what results from needing to exclude all the information that is experienced as disturbing.