From: The Mind-Body Problem

It’s hardly a secret that the sporting world is awash in tedious, knee-jerk clichés: We’re just taking it one game at a time. We’ll get ’em next time. It’s time to step up. For my part, nothing drives me running screaming from the TV faster than hearing about that infamous “110%” — This time it will be 110%. I knew I had to give it 110%. We’re here today because every one of us gave it 110%. — a truly inane combination of the hackneyed and the nonsensical.

But lurking in this mathematically illiterate hyperbole lies the nugget of something actually very meaningful: how much time and effort does anyone — even a phenomenally talented person — need to spend on something to achieve genuine excellence? How many other personal interests have to be sacrificed along the way? How much single-minded focus is required to be the best?

Janko Tipsarevic is a worthy case study. After a glittering junior tennis career, he spent years of his early professional life mired in the mid-level rankings before suddenly breaking out and establishing himself at the very highest echelons of the sport, spending the better part of two years firmly ensconced in the world’s top 10. And this at a time that is universally recognized as nothing less than the golden era of men’s professional tennis: a fearsomely difficult task.

So what happened? How did this almost miraculous transformation occur?

Well, by his own admission, Janko, has sometimes had a hard time focusing exclusively on tennis. He loves to snowboard. He loves to DJ. And he also loves to read.

As it happens, the fact that he has occasionally evinced an interest in 19th-century German philosophy and has a Dostoyevsky quotation tattooed on his left arm has, rather predictably, led to him being publicly anointed as a “tennis intellectual”, whatever that means — it’s hard enough to understand, after all, what a “non-tennis intellectual” is.

Howard Burton in conversation with Janko Tipsarevic

But the interesting question is not how it is possible that a professional athlete could conceivably make his way through an entire book by Friedrich Nietzsche, but whether or not doing so would have any real effect — positive or negative — on his active life.

Well, you might think, it’s just a book. But a hallmark of great literature is that it is provocative, driving one to reflect, to question prior beliefs and assumptions. A good book, in short, leads one to doubt.

Which is, for the most part, a very good thing. “Doubt is not a pleasant condition,” Voltaire wrote, “but certainty is absurd.” Bertrand Russell, with characteristic irony, put it slightly differently: “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”

Doubt, then, is the inevitable ally of healthy scepticism, a necessary antidote to being led astray by our own egos and unjustified sense of infallibility. Most of us could do with a good deal more of it.

But then, most of us are not professional athletes, where unwavering confidence in one’s own abilities and on-court possibilities — “objectively justified” or not — is nothing less than integral to success.

For someone like Janko, the tension was inevitable.

“It could be that some of these books were even influencing me in a bad way, because all these big minds, these philosophers, are seeking the truth. And most of them, at the end of the road, they find depression, hate, and so forth: something that is not really positive.

“If you are surrounded every day by these thoughts of, ‘Why? Why? Why?’, then you start to question a lot of stuff in your life and, of course, on court: ‘Why is this tournament going to change my life? Is this important? Is this real happiness?’

“And tennis is not about that.”

But unhelpful literary stimulation was hardly the only issue, or even the principal one. Achieving real excellence, he came to appreciate, meant that he had to do much more than simply give his all when he was on the court. He had to rearrange his life off the court as well.

“I wanted everything. I wanted to try everything and do all sorts of stuff. Maybe I had this thinking or feeling or urge that life is too short and I really wanted to experience it to the fullest. But this was one of the things that was setting me back.

“I was finding all sorts of stupid things and maybe even excuses to get upset about, to spend energy on; and then when the tennis match came I knew that I hadn’t given 100%, which meant that, psychologically, I was less disappointed if I lost.

I’d say to myself, ‘Sure, if I would do these things differently I could play better, but who cares?’ It’s like an alibi that you have in your mind which makes you deal a little bit better with a loss.”

In other words, Janko was suffering from a classic case of a limiting fixed mindset, unwilling to genuinely embrace the challenge of testing how good he could be for fear of failing, and in the process severely limiting his chances of achieving his true potential.

So what happened? How did Janko eventually unchain himself and adopt a growth mindset?

According to Janko, the turning point was very easy to pinpoint: it came through the intense experience of shared, single-minded dedication with his teammates that culminated in Serbia’s successful Davis Cup campaign.

“I felt so much joy and so much happiness when we won — it was the best moment of my professional career. And I remember thinking to myself, at the age of 25 or 26, Time is flying: I’m not a kid anymore.”

And suddenly, Janko was en route to a spot in the world’s elite top 10. It hardly happened overnight, but from that point forwards, he would simply not be denied.

Well, you might say, he had it coming to him — after all, he is supremely talented. But to hear Janko himself tell it, that’s not the right way to look at the situation.

“Talent definitely exists, but I believe much more in the hard work that you need to put in to arrive at this point. It’s more like the 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell talks about in his book, Outliers: it’s not just work on the court but off the court as well.

“Maybe from the outside it looks like we’re leading a boring life, but as I said, if you don’t give 100% of your attention to tennis, it’s really hard to use your maximum potential.

“In my experience, when you lose, the first emotion that you feel is disappointment because you lost a match. If you gave everything you could before and during the match, the disappointment slowly fades away. But if you didn’t, and you were acting stupidly and doing something that you shouldn’t do, in my experience, the disappointment slowly turns into anger. Then you get angry with yourself and you are angry with people around you and they don’t understand why.

“And I know that when I stop playing tennis and hang my racket on the wall and say I’m done, I will have this huge regret that I will need to live with for the rest of my life if I didn’t do my best.

“It’s OK to fail. But it’s not OK not to try.”

Just another sporting cliché? Well, consider this.

“Look, I’m in a phenomenal situation. But it means that the aspect of this business that is just flat-out hard work is very important to me — it’s the one thing that I feel is really in my control. If I didn’t do that I would kick myself forever.”

Those are the words of renowned particle physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed in The Power of Principles: Physics Revealed explaining why he chooses to focus his time on research rather than actively pursue his other interests.

The problem exists everywhere and there’s no need to reach for oxymoronic phrases to describe it: honestly giving 100% is hard enough.

Howard Burton, howard@ideas-on-film.com

This is the introduction of The Mind-Body Problem which is based on an in-depth, filmed conversation between Howard Burton and Janko Tipsarevic, former professional tennis player with a career-high singles ranking of world No. 8.

Visit the page for Janko Tipsarevic on our website: https://ideas-on-film.com/janko-tipsarevic/.

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