“We can’t be our best until you’re your best”

Mark Upton
Jan 31, 2017

Without any warning, I started to well-up. As Hawkeye confirmed the ball had comfortably caught the sideline, Roger Federer secured his 18th grand slam title and his face lit up with a smile synonymous with a young child. His emotion was understandable – my response, on the other hand, caught me completely off-guard and as I took a few moments to compose myself I couldn’t help but think “what the hell is this all about!?”

I’m not sure you can rationalise an emotion, yet I can’t help but try to figure out where it came from. It feels like a culmination of factors. The first relates to values and meaning…I’ve been questioning myself lately on how you know your true values and what sport means. I think my emotional response was due to Federer, and no less Nadal, embodying what I believed I valued and confirming that these are genuine for me.

I wasn’t suprised when Keith Lyons elegantly brought these to life in this post

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal embodied all that I hope for in sport (and in life). Their humble acknowledgment of each other and their sense of their place in the game has set a standard embedded in excellence (technical, tactical and ethical).

Watching the game gave me a profound sense of warmth.

Keith’s words resonate deeply. It is about excellence, ethics, humility, playing a “bigger game” than purely “winning”, medals or trophies (a discussion with Al & Jono on Friday evening had brought that to the fore and I’ll come back to that in a bit).

Perhaps it was also the stark contrast against the broader context of sport at the minute. For quite some time I have been disillusioned and frustrated with certain aspects of both youth and so-called “high performance” sport, although maybe this is just a microcosm of wider societal goings-on at the moment…

Following this link on Keith’s post it became clear from Federer’s quotes that he was in a battle to master himself and the game in that deciding set. There was also this…

“Rafa definitely has been very particular in my career. I think he made me a better player.”

“Him and a couple more players have done the most to do that to me because (of) the way his game stacks up with me. It’s a tricky one. I’ve said that openly. It remains for me the ultimate challenge to play against him. So it’s definitely very special … and very sweet because I haven’t beaten him in a grand slam final for a long, long time now”

“he made me a better player”…now we start to get at the heart of what this is all about. It is quite possible that, without Nadal’s existence, Federer may have won many more grand slams. Yet he may not have reached the level of excellence and mastery that he has. At first glance a paradox, now comes a realisation that competition, with yourself and others, is quite distinct from “winning” on the scoreboard and stocking the trophy cabinet. That these great on-court rivals, whilst competing, are simultaneously cooperating. It is not “either/or”, rather “both/and”. By embracing this complementarity the game of tennis (or any sport) evolves and the experience for participants and fans is enriched. Respect and authenticity shine through. We come to genuinely understand what journeys to excellence are all about.

Should we be surprised that this is eloquently captured by an All Blacks mantra…

“We can’t be our best until you’re your best”

Closer to home

Sadly, this dynamic is so rarely understood that most young people will have their journeys to excellence derailed at some point by adults with a maniacal focus on “winning” (at nearly all costs). I have no doubt that it is possible for many more young people to develop into their own unique versions of Federer’s and Nadal’s – technical, tactical & ethical excellence in whatever sport(s) they have a passion for. Given the right environment, the potential is there.

This was brought to light just over 24 hours after the curtain had fallen on the Oz Open final. I drove my lad Sam and his friend Leon down to the local sports pitch to play football. Much to their delight the “real goals” were still in place on the pitch (did you get that same burst of joy from “real goals” as a kid? I certainly did). For the next hour they went at it 1v1 (15 minutes in fading light and the rest in darkness other than some gentle illumination from the tennis court lights in the distance) . Scores were kept and competitive spirit was high, as was exploring a range of ways to destabilise an attacker-defender dyad (sorry, couldn’t help but throw in a bit of theory ;-)).

The need to get Leon home for dinner brought the game to a close. Apparently 22–18 was the final score. As the two boys wandered off the pitch towards me they shook hands and respectively commented on what a great game it was. As they piled into the backseat of the car the conversation continued, both complimenting the other on what skills they enjoyed seeing attempted. No mention of “winning”, no deriding the “loser”, no punishments, no extrinsic rewards. Just respect, friendship and the flame of potential technical, tactical and ethical excellence still burning brightly. As we arrived at Leon’s house I couldn’t help but reflect back to Federer and Nadal.

I want to end this post on a positive note rather than dwell on the negatives. If you feature in a young person’s life the opportunity to help create an environment that is special for them is exciting. Understand the difference between competition and “winning”. Understand learning and reflect on your existing assumptions and beliefs. Understand how precious these kids really are. As a governing body of sport, allocate the appropriate time, resource and sense of community to help adults help young people.

And remember, they can’t be their best until you are your best.