Andy Murray has worked with a sports psychiatrist to understand why he feels what he does, and crucially, how it can help him win matches
Professional sport is a macho business. The locker room oozes testosterone and the man with the biggest muscles, the fastest serve and the heaviest groundstrokes will win the day. Weakness is for wimps and only losers show a hint of fear.
The only flaw in this theory is that all sportsmen share the same basic limitations: they are all human and all humans have their frailties and failings. No champion can deny that at some point in their life, they have had doubts in the thick of competition, the little voice that whispers in their ear on match point: “Don’t screw this up or you will never forgive yourself.” The trick, then, is learning to keep the tension under control and out of sight of the opposition. Bjorn Borg was a master of showing no emotion at all; John McEnroe was a master of letting the emotion out and then returning to match mode in an instant. And both started to burn out in their mid-20s.
Andy Murray, though, is different. He has spent a lifetime being criticised, in turn, for being downbeat on court (his body language sometimes gave the impression that he was beaten after three games) or too hyped up (his ranting at his team in the players’ box was a favourite target for his critics). The stone-faced Ivan Lendl persuaded him to keep his feelings under wraps but simply ignoring his emotions was not the answer – Murray is an emotional man and winning major championships is a stressful business.
This year, Murray has been a much happier man on court. His tennis has been getting better month by month until now, as he approaches Wimbledon, he is one of the favourites for the title. Since he sorted out the personnel in his support team at the end of last year, he has returned to peak fitness and added more variety to his game, while since his marriage to Kim Sears in April he has lost only one match. Happy on and off the court, he is in the form of his life. At the age of 28, Murray is getting to know himself better thanks to his work with a sports psychiatrist, and the more he understands what is going on between his ears, the better he can perform on the court.
“It’s more about understanding myself better,” Murray said, “and I think the better you understand yourself, it does help you before big matches. When I won Wimbledon, 40 minutes before I went on the court I didn’t know what was happening to my body, what was going on. I was so nervous. I had felt absolutely fine in the morning. So when that came, I was like ‘why was I not feeling that way two hours ago? What’s going on?’ It’s just learning about those things. If that was to happen next week or in a couple of weeks and I was in that position I’d be like ‘OK, I know what’s actually going on here, I know why this is happening and why I’m thinking this way – and it’s fine’. I know better how to deal with that now.
“It’s all about what’s happening inside than what you’re showing outwardly. I was still anxious at times during the week [of Queen’s] but I genuinely enjoyed it. When you look back you enjoy matches that you play and whilst you’re out there you don’t always enjoy it because you’re putting a lot of pressure on yourself but I really enjoyed the end of the second set and the third set against Gilles [Muller] – my energy and emotion on the court were, I think, very helpful out there. Also, at times, in the final as well, I felt the same way. And that’s something I need to actually learn from that and go ‘look, I actually played really well’. I need to try and encourage myself more and understand psychologically how that’s helping you and how to get in that frame of mind more often.”
Psychologists tend to have their pet theories on everything and some of their advice is a little hard to take. As anyone who has ever tried to give up smoking will tell you, the suggestion to “go and do something useful and energetic” when you have the craving for a fag is about as much use as a eunuch in a brothel. You try finding a lawn to mow or a car to wash when you are in the middle of a stand-up row with the boss. Murray, although never a smoker, has listened to plenty of psychologists over the years and has been unimpressed. Instead, he talks to a psychiatrist in order to learn what the mind can do and how it reacts under pressure.
“I’m more interested in actually learning the science behind it and why the brain works in certain ways and why you may react or say things at certain times,” Murray said. “I just tried to learn and understand myself better. When you do that you know you can cut yourself some slack sometimes. As you go along, you learn.
“I used a lot of sports psychologists when I was younger. And sometimes it helped and sometimes it didn’t feel like it did. But the stuff I’m doing now, I’m actually interested in learning about how the brain works rather than being told how to count to ten, or whatever it is, to calm yourself down. Which, for me, didn’t help. I didn’t find that helpful.
“The work I’m doing is different to the work I was doing in the past. I find it extremely interesting. And when you see how you react in certain situations it’s like ‘yeah, that’s correct’.
“When you are getting frustrated, you’re thinking only with emotions on the court. That isn’t great. Ideally, you don’t want to be thinking loads when you’re playing but it’s also helpful when you finish, and you have maybe not dealt with things as well as you can, to understand why that’s happened. You can cut yourself some slack there, too, so that you can actually get on with enjoying your life rather than it being like so gone for five, six, seven days – and then it affects your practice and your training and your preparations, throughout the course of the year.
“Some years, after the Australian Open I struggled for three months. I didn’t know why. I was obviously upset and disappointed and didn’t really get over those losses for quite a long time, whereas now I don’t see that sort of thing happening. It could still happen, but it will be for different reasons.”
The process has been plain to see. From the Australian Open final in January, where Murray allowed himself to be distracted by Novak Djokovic’s antics on the other side of the net rather than concentrating on his own performance, Murray is now a more focused and single-minded competitor. At the French Open, he regrouped from two sets down to the Serb to force the match into a fifth set. True, he did not win, but it was the closest he had come to the world No.1 in two years. Should they meet on a faster grass court in SW19 – and that could only be in the final – the gap between the two will be narrowed even further.
“I feel like when I’m in the right frame [of mind] for every tournament, I give myself more chances to win more events,” Murray said. “When I reached 500 matches in Miami I didn’t think loads about it before. I wasn’t like ‘I really want to get to 500 match wins’. But when you see the players that have done that and where you could possibly get to, that’s motivation for me. So I want to make sure that the next few years I give myself the best opportunity to win as many tournaments and matches as possible.”
If he can maintain that focus and form to win the next seven matches, he will be Wimbledon champion.