Novak Djokovic is widely considered the greatest tennis player of all time, with 24 Grand Slam victories. One of his greatest strengths is his mental game and ability to overcome opponents in the moments of most pressure. With his record, you would assume he is supremely confident and has a clear head.
But that's not the case.
Recently, I came across a short clip where he discusses a profound realization he had years ago that took his mental game to another level. And I think plenty of golfers can benefit from his learnings.
Djokovic said that earlier in his career, whenever he had negative thoughts, it would discourage him. Like many other athletes, he was led to believe that he couldn't have any doubts and had to remain "present" at all times. It became an internal battle.
Eventually, he realized this was a futile task. He couldn't control what came into his brain at crucial times during the match.
Instead, he accepted that he is human and it is impossible to stay positive 100% of the time. But what he could do was redirect his mind and come back to the present.
"If you lose your mental focus, it's fine. Accept it and then come back. And I think that recovery and how long you stay in that emotion differentiates you from others. I think recovery is more important than working hard to stay in the present. And for me, conscious breathing is the one ingredient that is most important."
If you read my account of how I qualified for the U.S. Mid-Am the other month, you know that this was something I struggled with. After a hot start, I had over three hours to think about the result and fears of blowing it. However, I used my experience (breathing in particular) to help redirect my mind as much as possible. But I knew it would be impossible not to worry because the result was so important to me.
We often hear about "staying present" and mindfulness. But many golfers take that wrong and think the goal is to be perfect with our thoughts. If one of the most decorated athletes can't stay positive 100% of the time, how can you expect to do it?
I think this framework is far more human and truthful. It's OK to get nervous, embarrassed, and anxious. Golf makes that very easy.
But we can have a mental toolbox that we can draw from on the course to redirect our minds as best we can. Of course, you aren't trying to win a major championship out there, so you don't need to be as sharp as a pro golfer. But the simple act of forgiving yourself is a great place to start.
If you want to help bring your mind back to a more productive place, I discuss many strategies in The Four Foundations of Golf.