This weekend, as Roland Garros gets underway, I'm doing a two-part look inside the mind of its only seven-time men's champion, Rafael Nadal, with clinical psychologist, Alexandra Guhde, Psyd. Alexandra is also the author of the t...
This weekend, as Roland Garros gets underway, I'm doing a two-part look inside the mind of its only seven-time men's champion, Rafael Nadal, with clinical psychologist, Alexandra Guhde, Psyd. Alexandra is also the author of the tennis blog Extreme Western Grip.
Since your last psychological study of the world's tennis players here was so well received, it seemed appropriate to come back and get a little more specific with one of the more interesting "head" cases in the ATP, Rafael Nadal. We'll probably be seeing quite a bit of him over the next couple of weeks in Paris.
When we talked at Indian Wells, you mentioned that RAFA, his autobiography, was a treasure trove of insight about his mental makeup. It's true, you learn a lot about his worldview, and its origins, in those pages. The most obvious origin is his uncle Toni, who basically implanted his Spartan philosophy of competition and life in Rafa's brain when he was a child. I'm curious: What, from a psychologist's perspective, is the significance of having an uncle, rather than a father, as the dominant figure in your career, and to an extent your life? You told me that Rafa is an "Oedipal victor," which I think means that his father never stood in his way; he never had to "conquer" him. It doesn't seem like Rafa ever tried to conquer Toni either, but he's not afraid in the book to complain at length about how tough, even cruel, his uncle was to him. In general, Rafa always seems to be concerned with doing the right thing, which in his world means sticking to his uncle's philosophy of constant self-effacement. Do you think Toni is sort of a superego for his nephew? Even Rafa's penchant for making his opponents—and the media and just about everyone else—wait for him seems to have its origins with Toni, who would arbitrarily show up later than planned for their meetings and practices.
There's much more to talk about here, obviously, including Nadal's daily transformation from a bundle of nerves off the court—he's afraid of just about everything—into one of the game's most confident competitors on it. From you point of view, Alexandra, what brain type do you think Rafa has? What sticks out at you immediately about him from a psychological perspective?
Thanks for having me back. Did I really describe RAFA as a "treasure trove"? I must have been well under the influence of that gold Indian Wells sun. Still, it’s not untrue. So far as psychologists are concerned, autobiographies are the mother lode.
So, what does RAFA tell us about the forces that drive Nadal? As you say, a lot about his relationship with Toni Nadal, for starters. Is it any surprise that the most three-dimensional character in the book is Uncle Toni? Emphatically a “thinking type,” with a moral code that borders on dogma, Toni seems to be one of the ATP’s most compelling and polarizing supporting characters. The question I am most often asked by Nadal fans—after “does Rafa have OCD?”—usually goes something like, “Is Rafa’s relationship with Toni healthy?”
It’s an important question, and not made less so by the fact that I cannot answer it! The difficulty with psychology, as it offers outlines for human behavior and experience, is that theories work with probabilities, or averages and generalizations. The moment you try to pin them to an individual, you risk assumptive error. This might be part of the reason why the role of psychology in sports remains so unsettled. It can be profoundly useful—except when it’s not.
That said, what is unquestionably valuable about the psychological lens is the way it can expand a field of view, or, even help the explorer reflect back on him- or herself. For example, in the