“It’s better to teach a player to be like Rafael than to be like Federer. Because playing like Federer is very difficult. If you model Federer, you will not make it easily. It’s better to take someone more accessible like Rafael.”

Thus spoke Toni Nadal, coach and uncle of Rafael Nadal, in a conference held a couple of years ago in Buenos Aires, but those are words that he often repeats, and some which, I believe, all coaches should apply, especially when it comes to the building of a player’s mind.

“In my life, I’ve always given more importance to the training of the mind rather than to the technical training in itself”, said Nadal.  “To me, the mind theme is fundamental in life. With a good mindset, you have possibilities to access anything.

A talent such as Roger Federer's cannot be taught
A talent such as Roger Federer’s cannot be taught

“With a good mindset, it will take you two hours to learn something, and to me 14, but if you train for an hour and a half, and I for 14 years, I will beat you.

“As I see it, you need to build this mind very carefully for that player to fulfil the highest challenges, even knowing that he is not extremely good. I believe that everything in life, or almost, can be accomplished with a good mindset.

“It’s very tough to be a Federer, because you are born with such abilities. Being a Messi is almost impossible. You have to be born with that talent. But being a great player… that, I believe, can be accomplished. It’s possible to learn to improve.”

This constant improvement is ever present in the words of “Uncle Toni”, as he is known throughout the tennis world, and it is a topic on which he constantly insists:

“In tennis, it’s simple: it’s about having a good aim, hitting to the sides, and trying to go a little stronger. It’s a matter of perfecting the ability to insist on the technical, of hitting a bit more inside the court… There’s a series of things that you can go and work on. But you can only work on them if you have a good mindset.

Rafael Nadal has a unique mindset
Rafael Nadal has a unique mindset

“There was this kid, one of the first I trained, who learnt it straight away. He was the best of the Balearic Islands, of our community, and I thought, ‘This kid will be very good.’ What he did, he did very well: the serve, the forehand, but not the backhand… But after a certain time, I realised that he wouldn’t be that good because he was mentally unable to stand making five or six consecutive errors, meaning that if he couldn’t learn the backhand within half an hour, his mind was telling him he would never be able to learn it.

“This is one of Rafael’s great merits: he keeps on thinking that he will improve his serve. He’s been doing it wrong for 15 years and is still trying things out to see if it will work out.

“I think that this is easier than managing to imitate Federer. Mirroring Federer is very complicated.”

What matters in this reflection is not to compare Federer and Nadal, far from it! For Toni Nadal, and he said it many times, Roger Federer is the best player in history. What is determining, however, is the emphasis Nadal, as a coach, puts on the capacity to learn and improve through a good mindset.

With the exception of those who are almost “godlike” such as Federer, tennis is about fighting against the wind, against the unexpected bounce of a ball, against the sun, against a bad day. It is, in the end, fighting against the distinct issues one will encounter on the court.

With a good or a strong mindset, one can learn to play well, including winning even when not playing well.

Today, the mental aspect of the game is as important, if not more so, than the technical side. The dedication, the determination, and the guts play an immense part in the game, as are the context in which an important point is defined, the big tournaments, and everything which brands the spirit of our wonderful sport.

(Photos: Getty Images)