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Rafa: My Story - Book Summary

Haikal Kushahrin
Haikal Kushahrin
10 min read

One of the best biographies I've read from my favourite tennis player, Rafael Nadal. Enjoy these highlights.

Focusing on the present moment

The feeling suits me; the cathedral hush of the Centre Court is good for my game. Because what I battle hardest to do in a tennis match is to quiet the voices in my head, to shut everything out of my mind but the contest itself and concentrate every atom of my being on the point I am playing. If I made a mistake on a previous point, forget it; should a thought of victory suggest itself, crush it.
That’s where the mental strength comes in, what separates champions from near champions. You put that failure immediately behind you, clean out of your mind. You do not allow your mind to dwell on it. You draw, instead, on the strength of having won the first point and build on that, thinking only of what comes next.
I played some poor shots myself, missed some winners I should have put away fairly simply. I’m not poker-faced at these moments. I do let out yelps of frustration, or close my eyes in despair, as anybody who has watched me play knows. But as soon as I take up my position for the next point, the frustration is gone, forgotten, erased, and what counts, all that exists, is the moment.

Rafa's winning mentality

After dinner I played darts with my uncles Toni and Rafael, as if this were just another evening at home in Manacor, the town on the Spanish island of Mallorca where I have always lived. I won. Rafael claimed later that he’d let me win, so I’d be in a better frame of mind for the final, but I don’t believe him. It’s important for me to win, at everything. I have no sense of humor about losing.
One thing I do seem to have in common with everyone I’ve ever heard about who has succeeded in sports is a fanatical competitive edge. As a little boy I’d hate losing at anything. Cards, a little football game in the garage, whatever. I’d throw fits of rage if I lost; I still do.
I don’t think there is anything in any area of life that gives you the same rush as winning in sport, whatever the sport and at whatever the level. There is no feeling as intense or as joyous. And the more you crave winning, the greater the rush when you succeed.

When he lost in Wimbledon despite having a great season

“Come on, you’ve had a terrific summer. Why’s that not enough?” “Yes, Dad,” I replied, “but all the fun I had then can’t make up for the pain I’m feeling right now. I never want to feel this way again.”
I grasped that the one thing that upset me above all other things was the feeling that I had let myself down, that I had lost without giving my best.
I take my cue from Tiger Woods. From start to finish, I barely say a word to my rivals; I certainly don’t compliment them on a good shot. They complain, they get angry with me, curse me for my rudeness. They say I’m more aggressive even than I am on the tennis court, that on court I’ve been known to smile, but on the golf course I never do, until the game is over. The difference between me and my friends, some of whom are much better golfers than I am (I have a handicap of 11), is that I just don’t see the point of playing a sport unless you’re giving it your all.

On having rituals

Forty-five minutes before the game was scheduled to start I took a cold shower. Freezing cold water. I do this before every match. It’s the point before the point of no return; the first step in the last phase of what I call my pre-game ritual. 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 sat down, took off my white track suit 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.
That’s why Toni, Titín, Carlos, Benito, and Tuts must be friends as well as professionals, why I need a team around me sensitive to my way of being as well as diligent in their attention to my needs, why I want my family close by. That is also why I have to follow my locker room rituals in the same order always, why I must sip from each of my two bottles of water in each and every break between games. It’s like a great big matchstick structure: if every piece is not symmetrically in place, it can all fall down.

On persevering with challenges

He always stressed the importance of endurance. “Endure, put up with whatever comes your way, learn to overcome weakness and pain, push yourself to breaking point but never cave in. If you don’t learn that lesson, you’ll never succeed as an elite athlete”: that was what he taught me.
Ask him what he says to Rafa on those days when the body rebels and the pain seems too great to compete on court, and his reply will be: “I say to him, ‘Look, you’ve got two roads to choose from: tell yourself you’ve had enough and we leave, or be prepared to suffer and keep going. The choice is between enduring and giving up.’
“Endurance” is a word Toni has been hammering into Nadal’s skull from a very early age. It expresses a Spartan philosophy of life uncommon on an island, and in a country, where the pleasure principle reigns.
Another disciple of the endurance principle, in which he believes with almost as much reverence as Toni himself, Miguel Ángel says that success for the elite sportsman rests on the capacity “to suffer,” even to enjoy suffering. “It means learning to accept that if you have to train two hours, you train two hours; if you have to train five, you train five; if you have to repeat an exercise fifty thousand times, you do it. That’s what separates the champions from the merely talented. And it’s all directly related to the winners’ mentality; at the same time as you are demonstrating endurance, your head becomes stronger. The things you receive as gifts, unless they come with a special sentimental attachment, you don’t value, whereas the things you achieve by your own efforts, you value a lot. The greater the effort, the greater the value.”
Enduring means accepting. Accepting things as they are and not as you would wish them to be, and then looking ahead, not behind. Which means taking stock of where you are and thinking coolly.

On humility and respecting others

Both my parents and, for that matter, my uncle Toni have always said that, never mind the tennis, their biggest desire was that I should grow up to be “good people.” My mother says that if I were not, if I behaved like a spoiled brat, she would still love me, but she’d be too embarrassed to travel halfway around the world to watch me play. They drummed into me the importance of treating everybody with respect from an early age.
“Humble is the way you have to be, period,” Toni says. “There’s no special merit in it. What’s more, I wouldn’t use the word ‘humble’ to describe Rafael. He just knows his place in the world. Everybody should know their place in the world. The point is that the world is quite big enough already without you imagining that you’re big too.
Respect for other people, for everyone irrespective of who they might be or what they might do, is the starting point of everything, Toni says. “What is not acceptable is that people who have had it all in life should behave coarsely with other people. No, the higher you are, the greater your duty to treat people with respect. I would have hated my nephew to have turned out any other way, to have performed tantrums on court, to have been churlish with his opponents, with the whole world watching on TV. Or, for that matter, to be impolite with the umpires or the fans. I always say, and his parents do too, that it is more important to be a good person than a good player.”

On prioritising

Another thing that depended on me then was whether I was going to get sufficiently serious about my tennis to give up football. It was one of the hardest decisions I have had to confront, though in the end circumstances decided for me. By now I was training five times a week and traveling abroad to compete in tennis tournaments, playing and winning in Europe against some of the best kids my age in the world. Yet I was still training during the week with my football team, then playing competitive games at weekends. And, as my mother reminded me, there was the matter of my school studies to attend to. Something had to give. I didn’t want it to be football. The very idea broke my heart. But in the end there wasn’t much choice. I knew and my parents knew that I couldn’t do everything.

On enjoying your work

But I haven’t sold my soul to tennis. The effort I invest is great, but I don’t consider it a sacrifice. It’s true that I’ve trained every day practically since the age of six and that I make big demands of myself. And meanwhile my friends are out partying or sleeping late. But I haven’t felt this to be a sacrifice or a loss because I’ve always enjoyed it.

On work-life balance

It is possible to do everything, I believe, but always keeping a balance, never, ever losing track of what’s important. In exceptional circumstances I might even skip morning training and train in the afternoon instead. What you can’t do is make the exception the rule. You can train once in the afternoon, but not three afternoons running. Because then training becomes secondary in your mind, it ceases to be the priority, and that’s the beginning of the end. You might as well prepare for retirement. The condition of having fun is keeping the line, sticking to your training regime: that is non-negotiable.

On showing up even when you don't feel like it

And there was another thing Forcades was emphatic about: that we should stick to the training regime even when I least felt like it, when I was tired or in a bad mood or, for whatever reason, just not feeling up to it. Because there would be days during a tournament when I would not be feeling at my best either and by training in such circumstances I’d be better prepared to compete when I was below par.
The real test comes on those mornings when you wake up after a late night out and the very last thing you want to do is get up and train, knowing you’re going to work furiously hard and you’re going to sweat buckets. There might be a moment’s debate in your mind. “Should I skip it today, just this once?” But you don’t listen to your mind’s siren songs because you know that they will lead you down a dangerously steep and slippery slope. If you flag once, you’ll flag again.
One lesson I’ve learned is that if the job I do were easy, I wouldn’t derive so much satisfaction from it. The thrill of winning is in direct proportion to the effort I put in before. I also know, from long experience, that if you make an effort in training when you don’t especially feel like making it, the payoff is that you will win games when you are not feeling your best. That is how you win championships, that is what separates the great player from the merely good player. The difference lies in how well you’ve prepared.

Thinking about your mortality - memento mori

That period allowed me to absorb a lesson that all elite sportsmen and -women need to heed: that we are enormously privileged and fortunate, but that the price of our privilege and good fortune is that our careers end at an unnaturally young age. And, worse, that injury can cut your progress short at any time; that from one week to the next you might be forced into premature retirement. That means, first, that you must enjoy what you do; and, second, that the chances that come your way once won’t necessarily come your way again, so you squeeze the most you possibly can out of every opportunity every single time, as if it were your last.

On finding motivation

“Toni, I’m sorry. I can’t see it. I just can’t.” “Don’t say you can’t,” he said. “Because anybody who digs deep enough can always find the motivation they need for anything. In war, people do things that appear to be impossible. Just imagine if there were a guy sitting behind you in the stadium pointing a gun at you, telling you that if you didn’t run, and keep running, he’d shoot you. I bet you’d run then. So, come on! It’s up to you to find the motivation to win. This is your big chance. Bad as you might be feeling now, it’s likely that you’ll never have as good a chance of winning the Australian Open as you do today. And even if there’s only a one percent chance of you winning this match, well, then, you have to squeeze every last drop out of that one percent.” Toni saw me hesitate, saw me listening, so he pressed on. “Remember that phrase of Barack Obama’s, ‘Yes, we can!’ At every changeover repeat it to yourself, because, you know what? The truth is you can do it. What you can never allow is to fail because of a loss of will. You can lose because your rival played better, but you can’t lose because you failed to give it your best. That would be a crime. But you won’t do that, I know it. Because you always do give your best and today will be no exception. You can, Rafael! You really can!”

Haikal Kushahrin

3rd-year medical student. buy me a coffee :) ko-fi.com/haikal


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