Andy Murray deserves his place among the elite top four players in the game, as he recently proved by winning three Asian Swing titles in a row, adding to his two Masters 1000 titles this season. Murray can and does beat anyone. In 2011, he’s beaten Djokovic and Nadal in finals, and remains one of the few players to have a winning record against Federer.
Yet unlike his elite rivals, Murray hasn’t come close to winning a Grand Slam. His three major final appearances all ended in straight sets defeat, with the Scot unable to play to his potential on the biggest stages. Likewise, Murray has put in lacklustre performances in crucial Grand Slam semi-finals, notably against Nadal the last two years at Wimbledon, and again at this year’s US Open.
Murray’s Mental Game
So, he’s capable of beating anyone, but can’t do it when it counts the most. Murray’s friend and rival, world number one Novak Djokovic, has said that the only thing standing between Murray and a first Grand Slam win is his mental game.
There was no doubting Djokovic’s wisdom after Murray’s defeat against Nadal at Flushing Meadows. Early on in the fourth set, Murray had the edge on Nadal, but when he netted a straightforward backhand and lost his chance to break Rafa in the second game, he slumped never to recover.
Murray spent time between points commentating on his own play, vocalising his frustration and trying to talk himself into playing better. A similar situation arose in this year’s Wimbledon semi against Nadal, when Murray, leading by a set, missed a simple forehand, which sent him into irreversible decline and another defeat at the hands of the Spaniard. It’s clear that this negative, self-critical approach doesn’t work for Murray, yet he keeps doing it.
Learning to Disengage from Thinking on Court
What can Murray do to improve his mental game and win big? Learn to disengage from his thinking. At the moment, when the pressure’s on and the stakes are high, Murray gets lost in his thoughts, trying to ‘work things out’ in his head. This approach compounds his problem by increasing cognitive activity (thinking) and thereby making it much harder to play with flow and instinct. In tennis, or any other sport, it’s simply not possible to think your way into the zone.
Rather than engaging with the thought stream in his mind, Murray needs to learn to let his thoughts be just as they are, and refocus on the task in hand. A good way to do this is to develop mindfulness skills. By regularly practicing short, daily mindfulness meditations, you can learn how not to get carried away by thoughts, and thereby remain fully focussed on whatever task you are engaged in. If Murray developed such skills it would be much easier for him to let go of the negative thoughts which arise when he misses an easy shot at a crunch moment in a big match.
By not engaging with his thoughts, and refocussing his attention on his present-moment experience, Murray could free himself to play to his potential – and there’s no doubt that he has the potential to win one or more Grand Slams.
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