The importance of feeling victorious
NB: In the video above, we join this match one game away from Rafael Nadal's 21st Grand Slam title, at the Australian Open in 2022. He has come, improbably, from two sets down to take the lead in the fifth and final set. When we join the action, he and Daniil Medvedev have been playing for five hours and fifteen minutes. We invite you to give particular attention to Rafa's body language. Watch the moment when he wins, and then the moment, as he turns away from the umpire's chair, fingers dragging across it horizontally, that he allows himself to begin to feel it. Watch the way he sinks into the arms of his team. Watch the emotion that overcomes him, at the end, as he turns to collect his gear.
When I was in highschool, I played tennis competitively. I had a match my junior year against a guy on my team in which we were playing for the top singles spot. He was physically much bigger than me, and he didn’t like me, and he was aggressive. He also, during the match, was cheating. I lost the match, but my nervous system also got overwhelmed, and started to shut down at a certain point. At a certain point, I just wanted to get off the court; to escape. At the time, I didn’t have language for what had happened. But tennis stopped being fun for me, and I stopped playing. My life just went a different direction.
Twenty-five years later my daughter asked me to play with her one day. We have courts near where we live. I took out my old tennis racquet, which I had kept, and handed it to her. We started going out to play, and I started to feel the muscle memory of the game moving through my body. It felt delightful. I wondered why I had stopped. Over the next several months, I got back into playing. I took some lessons. And I found that I wanted to compete. In the first match I played, when it began to get intense, something happened in my nervous system. I got jittery, shakey, over-anxious. Huh, I thought. There’s something happening here.
Over the next couple of weeks, I studied the physical experience in my body and was able to travel back in time to that match in highschool, which I had forgotten.
I have a friend in Santa Barbara, Michael Allison, who is a nervous-system focused tennis coach. I knew him as a friend before I knew he did this. He has trained a number of elite players, including some who are in the top 50 in the world. He began to work with me. We developed a number of small routines for helping me track and state shift my nervous system. Tennis, as it turns out, is a kind of amplification window for the autonomic nervous system.
And I began winning matches. Like, by a lot. Around this time I was contacted by someone on an app I use to find matches. I went out to meet him to play. In some very specific way, he reminded me of the guy I had played in highschool. We started playing a match, and in the second game he started cheating. My body reacted as though I was having a flashback. I became extremely anxious. My heart started to beat really fast in my chest. I couldn’t get my body to stop shaking. My strokes got wild, my timing went away. The cadence of my serve, my forehand, my backhand- all of it got lost. I told myself to relax, worked to bring myself back to the present. He got up five games to two in the first set, and I pulled back to six-five. He won the next game, and a tiebreaker. I kept getting more and more frustrated, but I couldn’t get my nervous system to cooperate. I couldn't stop shaking. He won the second set six-four. I came home exhausted. “What happened to you?” my wife asked. I told her. “That guy sounds like an asshole,” she said. “Don’t ever play with him again.”
“No,” I said. “I’m going to play him again next weekend. And I'm going to win.” I knew I was having a visceral flashback–becoming seventeen again, in my body, when I was playing this guy. And so I put together a strategy. I figured out how I would play him, how I was going to return his serve. Once we got the match set up, I had a friend of mine drop by during the match to watch for about 15 minutes. It’s much harder to cheat when someone is watching. I put a copy of my book in my tennis bag, so that when I changed sides, and walked by it, I would remember where I was in time, and who I am. And in the place in my tennis bag where I keep my racquet, I wrote on a piece of paper, in big block letters, “INACCURATE RESIDUAL NEUROCEPTION (bodily felt sense) OF DANGER.”
Throughout this second match, I still couldn’t get my body to relax, but I kept reminding myself I was reacting to a danger from a long time ago, not from the present moment. My friend dropped by. I fought, and I stayed with it, and I won the first set in a tie-breaker. In the second set, I had pulled ahead five-two, and was beginning to settle into a rhythm, when my opponent told me he was too tired to finish the match. Before we’d begun we had agreed to play two out of three sets and post our score. “This is my last game,” he whined. “I’m just too tired to go on.” I got so angry I blew three serves in a row. And then I realized- Gabriel, he’s just cheating. It’s the same thing he’s been doing the whole match. He won that game and went to serve. I leaned in, felt my feet underneath me, took a deep breath, and won the game and the match.
The amount of energy that moved through me when this happened? My hands came up, skyward, in this universal gesture of victory. Something changed in my body. That feeling of triumph. That feeling of overcoming something, of persevering…the archetypal expression of victory, coming through the tears. You can see it in any sport. Watch someone score a goal, win a race, win a match. We wear our bodies differently when we feel like a champion. It changes our gesture, our posture, our physicality. We hold our head higher, our chest open broader, we breathe in more air. And tears come, but they are different. There is something archetypic about experiencing this sense of victory.
Of course, there are many places where we need to prioritize collaboration over competition. But there is also a place where we need to feel, in our bodies, that sense of victory. It can be in chess, or a tennis match. An individual sport or a team undertaking. The venue doesn’t matter. A pick-up game or the Olympics. What matters is you feel the flow of victory running through the circuits of the body. My tennis has been different since then. I'm playing at a higher level than I've ever played before. It goes back to that match, that moment, holding it together, steadying myself, pushing through, and making it happen. Something in me re-organized at a higher level.
When this happens, this feeling of success, this feeling of victory, whatever the cause, notice how the body wants to move. You don't have to beat another person. You can triumph over yourself, triumph over depression, over an addiction. You can triumph over your previous best score. You can watch athletes. Watch Rafa in this video. Watch the way the body sings in moments of triumph. And when this happens, let yourself feel it. Don’t repress it, don’t stuff it down. That unbridled joy is a kind of medicine; a kind of release. An uplift. Find the way it shifts your gesture, your posture, changes the curves in your spine. Learn to receive the medicine of feeling victorious...
Related Practices:See Feeding Your Confidence. See Natural Vitality, as well as Archetypal Motor Gestures. For its relationship to the fullness of our emotional experiences, see Feel Your Feelings. Applied in the broadest sense, see Taking Charge of your Own Wellness. See Smile when you Exercise. See Play. See Hacking Your Connection System. See Lifting Weights.
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Video: | Photography: | Licensed from Pexels.com, used with permission.