As part of a series of posts looking at the impact of coaching, who better to start with than the current No. 1 player and his coach, Rafael and Toni Nadal. As a long term coaching partnership it seems a good place to start asking the question: What does a coach add? Would Rafa have had as much success without Toni?
While most reports set Toni up as the hard task master and Rafa as the poor hard working nephew I can’t help but feel it is a little more equal than it first seems, pretty much because Rafa is hardly the laid back, relaxed guy, either. He strikes me as every bit as intense and calculating as his uncle. He just presents it differently, probably because, being a player not a coach, his job isn’t about talking, it’s about doing.
I believe the process of coaching is about empowering a player. Teaching them about their game and also about themselves. I can’t help but watch players and see how their private, off-court persona influences their public, on-court style. Rafa is famously shy, quiet, and nervous off-court. Supposedly the polar opposite of his on-court powerful, loud, and confident play. A proper Jekyll and Hyde, you would think. When I look deeper I see an extremely intelligent, sensitive, and passionate person who treats the tennis court differently to real life.
On the tennis court his endless passion makes every point life or death. He only knows how to give everything. He cannot give less because he doesn’t know how. His sensitivity helps him see into the soul of your game. He wants to know what you like and what you don’t like. Off-court he would give you what you like, always showing respect. On-court, he uses it against you giving you exactly what you don’t want. Even worse. He gives you exactly what you do want as bait, to get you right where he wants you. This is where his intelligence shows. He doesn’t try to beat you; he lets you beat yourself. He has learned to enjoy the mental challenge where most enjoy simply the physical. They outrun or out-hit their opponents; he simply out thinks them.
This works on court because intense, unforgiving competition is expected, a sign of respect and what each player has submitted to so Rafa doesn’t have to fear hurting his fellow competitors. In the tennis arena his intensity is admired.
In the real world outside the confines of the court the rules change. If he were to act the same way he would hurt many and most often it would be those he loved. This is because real life is not about competing at all times. Most often it’s about fitting in and complementing others. His sensitivity and intelligence make him acutely aware of the effects his intense passion has on others so it is tempered and redirected. He spends much of his energy keeping his composure, reigning in the raging bull that is so admired on court.
While this will seem like over analysis it is crucial to understand the resulting game forged by Rafa and Toni. My interpretation is that it perfectly fits his personality which is why it is unique to him being built around his strengths and weaknesses like a suit of armour. I can’t help but notice how this is the same for all players in any sport who are at their best when they are themselves. When they know how to translate who they really are onto the court. Playing without fear and without question. Their thought process is at one with their game. They don’t second guess themselves.
Toni’s job has been to help Rafa get to this point but the coach can only work through the player. They cannot and should not do the work for them. So it is as important for Rafa to implement his uncle’s advice as it is for Toni to give it. At the same time it is as important for Toni to understand his pupil and deliver the right advice at the right time, as it is for the player to understand what the coach means and how to apply the advice.
Looking from this angle you can start to see why Rafa and Toni are such a perfect match. Rafa loves to work and Toni loves to talk. At least that is what we hear about. More than that, though, they love tennis. They understand that they need every edge they can get to win so they openly accept advice from others like Carlos Moya. Yet I see intense debate and consideration between them.
When Rafa was young I expect Toni lectured, while Rafa listened and applied. As Rafa matures I expect he is much more involved and starting to make many more of his own decisions. I feel that, particularly with Rafa’s injuries compared to Roger and Novak’s relative health, Rafa is starting to see that his style is causing as many problems as it solving. No player can afford the amount of injury time outs that he has sustained.
I have to wonder if this is putting a lot of pressure on Nadal to be more and more involved in the development of his game. As a coach Uncle Toni can carry on being a coach when Rafa retires but as a player Rafa only gets one shot. Few get a second chance.