This interview was originally posted on BenoitFoucher.com on Sept 2015. Worth re-reading.
Today I have the big pleasure and honor to introduce to you an interview full of clarity and enthusiasm, with Stephane Robert.
About Stephane Robert
Stephane is a top tennis player in the world. His best ranking has been 62 ATP and he’s been more than 10 years among the best of the best.
As you will hear, he has developed a clear understanding of himself and how to be at his best. His most famous match has been a victory against Thomas Berdych, 6th in the world in 5 sets in the French Open. Curiously, he seems to say it’s not the match he’s been at his best.
Enough said! Let’s dive into it.
Benoit: “Stephane, we met when we trained more than 10 years ago with Ronan Lafaix, who taught us his method. Since then, time has passed and I’d like to know what you’ve kept and what has changed with you?”
Stephane: “I have worked with Ronan Lafaix from 2001 to 2010.
With his method, I discovered a new way to work and I was able to build my game with Ronan as my guide, and I saw an evolution in my rankings on the professional Tour.
Step by step, our work became more and more precise, the exercises have transformed, and we cut through the chase to what was essential for me.
We have been able to go in depth with our work.
You have witnessed the beginnings of the method P.R.O (read the books of Ronan here, all in French). Later, Ronan and I have clarified things for me to become as competitive as possible.
When we stopped our collaboration end of 2010, I didn’t look for another coach because I knew that with all what we built, I learned to be independent.
Therefore I still pursue nowadays my trainings in the same manner.”
B:“My upcoming book is called Flow Tennis (update 2019: I’ve published The Confidence Journey instead), and I’m talking about this state of performance where we are at our best, relaxed and confident. I explain how it is possible to train to be in this Flow and I suspect that you know a lot about this topic.
Do you have precise memories of matches where you were in what others called the Zone?”
S: “We all have had these sensations for sure when we were unbeatable, we feel that whatever we dare is working perfectly.
Before I trained with Ronan, I was wondering why some days I didn’t feel as good.
Because of him, I learned to place myself in the good mental and physical state to be in the flow.
And finally, to different extents, I’m always in the flow, each match, listening to my sensations and with my senses awake.”
B: “When we watch you playing, we sometimes feel that you are completely detached from the score. Is is something that you cultivate? If yes, why?”
S: “I not only look for detaching myself from the score, most importantly I look for detachment from everything that could disturb me during a tennis match: I look for total detachment!
It goes with a great knowledge of ourselves, a great honesty towards ourselves.
Recently, I won again a match being lead 5/1 40/15 in the third set, on the serve of my opponent in the 3rd set. I’m against the wall at that time, and of course, I totally detach myself, I live the present moment and start to play some really good tennis again.
Obviously, I look for being detached as best as I can. Sometimes I have to negotiate with myself between the points to find the good balance. Sometimes I just need to accept I am not in a good day while at the same time still continue to fight.”
B: “What was special in these matches?”
S: “Each match represents a new adventure.
Will I be able to handle what is going on in my mind regardless of the match’s scenario?
Each match is different and the goal for me is to find out a solution in order to win.
When I play tennis, I’m like a manager, I’m making some choices, I’m taking decisions, I’m making mistakes, I’m adjusting in order to to giving the best of myself.
In this regard, each match is special, whether I end up winning or losing.”
B: “Could you tell us how you did it, or how you do it, to find this state, match after match?
More specifically, what do you place in your preparation before your matches?
Do you have rituals or habits to find this state in your matches? Is so, what are they?”
S: “Each player is going to create his own routine before match in order to arrive on the court in the best manner.
For a long time, I have researched what’s good for me.
The most difficult is to know what to do, because there are so many possible ways to prepare ourselves.
I warm up physically, awakening my senses. I do the same during my tennis warm up and then I think about what can happen during the upcoming match, I imagine what my opponent is going to play with and I see what I’m going to use in order to destabilize him.”
B: “What do you mean by “awakening your senses? Specifically?”
S: “I’m waking up my my senses, this means while I’m doing warm up movements, I’m focusing at the same time on what I see, what I hear or how different parts of my body feel, first without then with racket.
I’m doing a 15 meters run while I’m focusing on external sounds, then I’m coming back focusing on relaxing my shoulders.
I’m doing another 15 m run while I’m getting aware of my hands and so on and so forth.
Same thing with the racket, I’m placing my attention to the sounds of the ball in my racket for one minute then I’m focusing on something else.
Each time, a small goal to keep in order to see whether I am focused.
Benoit: “What seems to you the most important when you are on the court?”
Stephane:“Everything is in the art of negotiating with myself.
When I’m not satisfied with the manner I’m playing, while being aware of what’s going on, I’m doing my best to understand what distracts me.
Of course I need calm in order to be totally able to analyse what’s going on during the match.
Therefore it’s on this specific point I’m the most vigilant.
Calmness provides this ability to decide with serenity and to do the right choices.”
B: “What are the traps to avoid?”
S:“There are many traps and it depends from one person to another.
Some players will be excited to play in front of 10 000 people, some others will become paralysed.
For some others, the fact to play in front of their family can place them under pressure, or playing for ATP points, or for money.
Many things can happen in the mind of a tennis player.
The ideal is to play each match, each point, for what it is.
We come back to the awareness of ourselves in order to tame the emotions that can rise during the matches, and achieving to handle them as best as we can.
The true trap, it’s to believe that everything is going to work well and to see ourselves in an “over optimistic” light.
We should prepare ourselves to have a tough match. Always.”
B: “So, if I understand correctly, before the matches you’re doing like Rafa (Nadal) in his press conferences: you tell yourself that the guy on the other side of the net is very strong and that it’s not going to be easy. Even if, in fact, matches with him often turned easily for him in the end. To what extend this humility and visualisation of the worst things that could happen are helping that much?”
S:“The true warrior can’t go in the battle telling himself it’s going to be easy.
Better to tell ourselves it’s going to be tough then win easily rather than telling ourselves it’s going to be easy then fail facing the adversity.
This is to maintain a state of vigilance and a positive stress that I need in order to be performant.
This is also a form of humility, I can lose against anyone, I accept to lose against anyone, if and only if I have been able to be a warrior.”
B: “When you don’t feel you are at your best on the court, that for one reason or another you’re in a day off, most amateur players tell themselves: “ok, this is not may day anyway”, and they don’t change anything.
Do you have a system to be back?
If so, which one, and what to do in those moments?”
S:“When I’m not in a big day, I’m doing my best to accept it and to not spending my time to blame myself.
I am here to find out some solutions.
And my attitude, my body language, are important.
If I’m negative, I know I have very few chances to find the exit gate, except if my oppenent is not doing his job.
On the other hand, I know that all the work I have done for so many years is here, all this experience is helping me to remain composed and to never give up facing adversity.”
B: “In general, what is the most important, or even essential for you to place in your training in order to arrive at the top of your game during matches?”
S:“With the training of waking up my senses, I work a lot on my concentration and I keep my ability to stay focused at the moments I need it the most.
I love to pay attention to the fluidity of my movements as I work on the rhythm of my strokes.
When I feel I can hit the ball effortlessly, that I’m one with the ball, then I know I’m at my best.
I repeat this like a pianist repeating the same patterns again and again.”
B: “Would you have any advice for those motivated players ready to make changes and in order for them to improve, especially their mental toughness?”
S:“Once we have trained well, it’s time to go and play in competition.
The magic recipe, it’s to play with calm and determination.
Each player will have to tame his mind and to not listen to the dark stories this latter wants us to believe.
Match point on my serve, second serve, my mind is telling me that I’m going to make a double fault, another voice is telling me to go for the ace, I find my calm, I visualise a target, and I go for it.
3 choices in my mind! My job is to make the right one!”
B: “About trusting ourselves at those times, your answer is prompting me to ask you other questions:
– how do we do to work on this ability in our decision making? Is it just to remain calm and to cultivate determination? What kind of exercise do you do for this?”
S:“In order to trust ourselves, we have to give clear directions to our minds and do some repetitions.
It’s a virtuous cycle.
The more we train being aware of what’s going on, outside and inside our minds, and especiallly in tough moments, the more we’ll be able to handle those moments.
We need a plan and for this, the guide, it’s the calm.
Each person talks to himself in his own way, this language has an influence on what he’s going to plan. Or not.
Learning to know ourselves, this is the lesson!
What do I need now in order to place the ball where I want?
Is it calmness, determination, relaxation, conviction? Each one of us has his recipe depending on his feeling in the moment.”
B: “2nd question with the targets: when you play, do you have an clear target on each stroke you hit? Or do you play in “automatic mode” and the ball goes there automatically?”
S:“Regarding the target, I can visualize them when I serve and when I return a second serve (on first serve return, I do what I can).
During the game, my body feels where to play.
Sometimes, there is a battle between my body sensations that want to aim somewhere and my mind that make me change ideas.
In those cases, I often end up making a mistake because I think too much.
B: “Therefore we can say calmness is what you’re looking first and foremost during matches?
How do you do to remain calm when doubts are coming up? Do you have a technique?”
S:“Calm is essential, this is what I didn’t realize at the beginning of my career.
It still happens I lose my temper, I am not a machine.
In this case, it’s for me to observe my emotions and the thoughts that cross my mind. When I judge they can have a negative impact, I take my time to start the game only once I’m with empty thoughts again.
My technique, it’s to observe myself from the inside, it’s a bit like meditation.”
B: “How are you training fitnesswise nowadays?”
S:“For the last 10 years, I’ve been working on the same manner physically, rather a simple method I have to say.
I choose to work for the most part with my racket, in order to be ready psychologically in real situation.
To summarise, I work my cardio with someone sending me balls everywhere, or doing sequences right-left-right-left.
Outside the court, I work my “specific tennis motricity” listening to my sensations in order to do the right things technically and detached, because detachement can be worked without racket as well.”
B:“Last point you’d like to share?”
S:“Regarding my match against Berdych [first round 5 sets victory in French Open 2011], I was not in the flow during the first 2 sets lost 6/3 6/3, only at some few moments.
That day, what I’ve done very well is to deal with my emotions.
I have played matches where I was in the flow almost all the time, and the score was much less tight!”
B: “Last point to conclude?”
S:“At the moment I’m writing those lines, I just lost last round of the qualifications of Wimbledon (2015) in 5 sets.
I missed a break point in the 5th set daring to hit a shot down the line…that I missed for just a bit.
I can blame myself for having missed my target.
But I am proud to have dared to take my chance rather than waiting for things that don’t depend on me.