She described it as “the most panful loss of her career.” Those of us watching could feel it. Ons Jabeur, the 28 year old tennis player from Tunisia, was the favourite to win this year’s Women’s Singles title at Wimbledon. She knew it. We all knew it. We could all feel how much winning this title would mean to her. But then during the match, her game slowly started to unravel. Her opponent Markéta Vondroušová, a 24 year old unseeded player from the Czech Republic, owned the court by her ability to respond to each serve, shot, and surprise. What happened was a huge heartbreak for Jabeur, made bigger because this wasn’t how she expected this tournament to end for her.
For Jabeur, having reached the finals last year, there was a determination to make sure this would be her year to win the Championship. And when she reached the final, she could all but taste the win. What we didn’t see was the pressure she was under to deliver this honour not just for her but for her country and for women on the continent. Jabeur, the first Tunisian to reach the levels of success in tennis and to be seeded 6th in the world, meant the hopes and dreams of a nation laid squarely on her shoulders.
While Jabuer isn’t the first athlete to carry that kind of weight nor will she be the last, the factors of pressure (self and external), of expectations (self and external), and of the weight of a single momentous event can mean we lose sight of our game.
It made me think that when we want something so much, when we feel we need it more than anything, perhaps we hold on to the end result too tightly. We feel the enormity of the moment too much and it engulfs us. We lose the ability to be deft and flexible to deal with surprises and challenges that come our way. We look ahead instead of focusing on the present moment. Basically, we get in our own way. Jabber's experiences, while on a global stage, aren't unique. We've all been there in one way or another. We've all felt at some point in our lives this palpable desire to get that grade, that job, that title, even that person that we los sight of who we were.
What you're about to read may go against everything you have been taught to think and feel about winning and success. There are countless numbers of articles, books, blog posts, social posts that all point to visualising a goal, feeling that goal with every fibre of our being, even expecting that win and to act as if it has already happened. And they're all not wrong. However, things can start to go sideways if we are only looking at what defines our success from a myopic perspective. What those words of wisdom in the self-help aisle don't spell out is the agility one needs to deal with challenges when they come our way on the road to that success.
While it is often said that winning depends on who wants it more, sheer desire alone does not guarantee success. True achievement stems from knowing that we have given our all, having done everything within our power to reach our goals. Once we shift our focus from predicting how the game should unfold, to embracing how it is unfolding and we respond accordingly, remarkable things can happen.
By letting go of the desperate need to win, two significant transformations occur. Physiologically, we loosen up, allowing the adrenaline to flow without tension. This relaxed state enables us to use that adrenaline as fuel, propelling us to move more fluidly and effectively. Psychologically, we move from a state of wanting to a state of knowing. Knowing that we are exactly where we are meant to be, doing what we are meant to be doing. This deep sense of purpose and confidence in the present moment allows us to enter a state of flow, where our performance is at its peak. It's also where we enter what the American psychologist calls a "growth mindset".
When the men’s singles champion Carlos Alcarez was playing against arguably the best tennis player of all time Novak Djokovic in the Wimbledon final, what not only kept him in the game but led him to victory wasn’t just his ability to play and return some incredible shots it was his mental strength to stay focused on what the present moment needed, what each shot need. Afterwards Djokovic said in a press conference, “Carlos is a very complete player. Amazing adapting capabilities that I think are a key for longevity and for a successful career on all surfaces.”
And then there’s the X factor. For Markéta Vondroušová, for whom this whole tournament wasn’t of wanting or knowing. It was simply an appreciation of each moment. In an interview she gave she said she was just proud that she had made it to the second round. In one year she had gone from being in a cast with a wrist injury to being a Wimbledon champion, the first unseeded player to do so. She didn’t expect to win. She allowed herself to just focus on what she does well without the pressures of wanting something so badly it takes over everything.
None of this means we don’t visualise our goals or even feel that wanting. Feel it. Visualise it. But in the moment when it counts, let it go and remember your game, your process. Remember, desperation whether at work or in your personal life is a deeply unhelpful emotion. When you’re desperate you’re in survival mode and you make choices out of fear, not out of a state of empowered control. When you're desperate every part of you is tense as all you focus on is how things must unfold. When you hold on to something or someone too tightly you squeeze the love out of everything. And love, whether for a person or a sport or a career needs space to flourish for it to feel good. When it comes to the crucial moments, we must let go and trust our process.
The tennis legend Billie Jean King said, “you have to isolate your thoughts and get into the now. One ball at a time. Get rid of the noise. Stay in the present. It’s the process. Always the process.” It’s in the moments of the process where the magic happens. It doesn’t mean we’re guaranteed success—but what is guaranteed is the peace wel feel when having done the work regardless of a perceived outcome. The disappointment we feel when we don’t get what we want will be short-lived because we’re then pivoting our thoughts away from the doom of failure and more towards focusing on what that failure is teaching us. We focus on the process again and fine-tuning/adapting to what needs to change. As the indomitable Nick Cave says, “the heartbreaks that routinely befall us – personally, societally or universally – are, in fact, the necessary gifts of change. These painful upheavals always provide us with the option for self-destruction or for transcendence. Heartbreak can be the engine of obliteration or growth. The choice is ours.”
Maybe the kinds of challenges we're facing are the kind that force us to up our game. Easy challenges are, by definition, not challenges. True challenges, the ones that threaten to break us are the ones that contain the secret sauce required to instil in us the spirit of a champion. In essence, a champion isn't made by winning games or getting to the top rung on the corporate ladder. A champion is made by moving and adapting to the needs of what each moment requires; what each stumble, failure, rejection, loss requires. The needs aren't about responding with more of the same but with a determined focus to change tack, change perspective, focus, and fortitude.
In the pursuit of our goals, it is natural to feel a strong desire for success. We should feel it. We should want it. However, finding the balance between passionate wanting and detached presence is crucial. By appreciating the journey, staying present, and trusting our process, we open ourselves up to unforeseen possibilities and allow our true potential to shine. For Onjs Jabeur and others like her who know of what they are capable of achieving and haven’t yet done so, lift your head up high, be proud of the experiences that have got you here. Now re-centre your thoughts and your energy. Focus on your game in this moment and respond from a place of power not fear.