A great tennis player knows better than to burn through his matches too quickly

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

Modern tennis players are at the front line of sporting evolution. They are pushing at the boundaries of physical virtuosity and mental aptitude. In terms of range and completeness, they’re the most highly evolved sportsmen in the world. It was once assumed that when sportsmen mastered their emotions, they would become blandly monochrome, identikit models devised by coaches and support staff. Tennis proves otherwise. Today’s best players are very different. Roger Federer touches benign serenity, Rafael Nadal is powered by a hounded intensity, Andy Murray mixes strength and deftness and Novak Djokovic’s silken technique coexists with an assassin’s instinct for the kill.

As with the arts, the ultimate sporting achievement is not mastering a textbook; it is mastering yourself. Throughout my cricket career, I bounced frustratingly against flaws at opposing ends of the psychological spectrum. Sometimes, I was too intense, too anxious about technique and averages. On other days, I was too relaxed and my competitiveness was allowed to drift too far below the surface. I erred in both directions. With experience, I got better at tuning my mind to the right bandwidth – but the periods when I was perfectly tuned in, the signal clear and undistorted, were all too brief.

Mental strength, properly understood, is getting yourself into the optimal psychological state – not too tense, not too relaxed; not too anxious, not too complacent; seeing both the wood and the trees.

It is not an easy destination to get to. And then you have to stay there – for hours at a stretch. Today’s tennis players do exactly that. They have dispensed with many of the irrelevant symptoms that sportsmen once paraded to show they were “trying hard”. (Jimmy Connors once snapped at a supporter, “I’m trying, for Christ’s sake!”) Today’s players do not tell, they show. The blank slate of total concentration is generally unbroken: the frustrations of the recent past are forgotten, potential glories ahead are ignored. The next point, the next shot, the next step: that is all they attend to.

Yet within that wider equilibrium, sportsmen must allow themselves moments of inspired self-expression, paragraphs of purple prose when the heart leads the head. The highest form of self-control does not negate wilder spirits but works with them.

This is accompanied by enormous risks. Riders in the Tour de France use the phrase “burning matches”. Every “attack”, in which a cyclist moves to the front and tries to forge a lead, constitutes the burning of a match. You have only so many matches to burn: use them carefully and make them count.

The metaphor of burning matches applies to all sports. The danger is that once you are in full flow, into fifth gear, pushing at the limits of your physical and psychological range, you then cannot resume a state of emotional equipoise. The crucial question is: can you move back down the gears or do you get stuck in fifth? Can you stop yourself burning matches?

Shane Warne used to mock opponents who wanted to impose themselves on the match too obviously. “Gee, he’s up for it today!” he would laugh from slip. By “up for it”, Warne meant the batsman was overexcitable and over-revving. “Enjoy it while it lasts,” Warne was saying, “because it won’t last long.” A short burn, quickly extinguished, is no use to anyone.

The highest form of psychological aptitude is the ability to move between calculated self-control and pure competitive revelry. Djokovic does this better than anyone. He can defuse a street fight using skill and subtlety. But if forced into a corner, if he has nowhere left to turn, he is the ultimate warrior. Best of all, he can revert to cool tactical exchanges after phases of wild ferocity.

At the Australian Open earlier this year, Djokovic was pushed to the limit by Stanislas Wawrinka. Each man fearlessly went for his shots and, if anything, Wawrinka had the edge in terms of pure ball-striking. The remarkable aspect was not Djokovic’s response when roused into fierce combat. It was the ease with which he resumed normality, having weathered the storm.

Boxers, as with tennis players, cannot spend too long in a phase of outright warfare. Few, however, are able to rein in primal instincts once they’ve come to the surface. An extraordinary instance of controlled rage came at the end of the third round of the celebrated “Rumble in the Jungle” fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in 1974. Ali had decided not to throw too many punches, to absorb punishment and withstand pain. But at the end of the third, he was stung into attack. Once launched, he developed a taste for battle, dancing around Foreman – jabbing, taunting. By the end of the round, Ali looked beyond self-control and had to be forced back to his corner by the referee.

And yet Ali was able to return to the script of denial and self-control. He went back down the gears, lying on the ropes, soaking up Foreman’s blows. By the eighth round, with his opponent exhausted, he saw his opportunity. A final gear change ended with Foreman lying on the canvas and Ali was world heavyweight champion again.

The word “tactics” does not cover any of this. Tactics implies surveying your hand and consciously selecting the appropriate playing card. Instead, a great sportsman can exploit entirely different domains of his personality – sometimes controlled, sometimes primal and yet somehow slightly controlled, even when he’s apparently out of control.

When I watch a great tennis player, as I have been at Wimbledon in recent days, I see a sportsman evolving simultaneously in two opposite directions: towards controlling those strands of personality that can be totally harnessed, while liberating the dimensions that cannot. It strikes me as a very sophisticated kind of living.

Andy Murray, 2013 Wimbledon champion, stands in front of a statue of Fred Perry. Photograph: Getty Images

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

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“I felt very lonely”: addressing the untold story of isolation among young mothers

With one in five young mothers lonely “all the time”, it’s time for employers and services to step up.

“Despite having my child with me all the time, I felt very lonely,” says Laura Davies. A member of an advisory panel for the Young Women’s Trust, she had her son age 20. Now, with a new report suggesting that one in five young mums “feels lonely all the time”, she’s sharing her story.

Polling commissioned by the Young Women’s Trust has highlighted the isolation that young motherhood can bring. Of course, getting out and about the same as you did before is never easy once there’s a young child in the picture. For young mothers, however, the situation can be particularly difficult.

According to the report, over a quarter of young mothers leave the house just once a week or less, with some leaving just once a month.

Aside from all the usual challenges – like wrestling a colicky infant into their jacket, or pumping milk for the trip with one hand while making sure no-one is crawling into anything dangerous with the other – young mothers are more likely to suffer from a lack of support network, or to lack the confidence to approach mother-baby groups and other organisations designed to help. In fact, some 68 per cent of young mothers said they had felt unwelcome in a parent and toddler group.

Davies paints what research suggests is a common picture.

“Motherhood had alienated me from my past. While all my friends were off forging a future for themselves, I was under a mountain of baby clothes trying to navigate my new life. Our schedules were different and it became hard to find the time.”

“No one ever tells you that when you have a child you will feel an overwhelming sense of love that you cannot describe, but also an overwhelming sense of loneliness when you realise that your life won’t be the same again.

More than half of 16 to 24-year-olds surveyed said that they felt lonelier since becoming a mother, with more than two-thirds saying they had fewer friends than before. Yet making new friends can be hard, too, especially given the judgement young mothers can face. In fact, 73 per cent of young mothers polled said they’d experienced rudeness or unpleasant behaviour when out with their children in public.

As Davies puts it, “Trying to find mum friends when your self-confidence is at rock bottom is daunting. I found it easier to reach out for support online than meet people face to face. Knowing they couldn’t judge me on my age gave me comfort.”

While online support can help, however, loneliness can still become a problem without friends to visit or a workplace to go to. Many young mothers said they would be pleased to go back to work – and would prefer to earn money rather than rely on benefits. After all, typing some invoices, or getting back on the tills, doesn’t just mean a paycheck – it’s also a change to speak to someone old enough to understand the words “type”, “invoice” and “till”.

As Young Women’s Trust chief executive Dr Carole Easton explains, “More support is needed for young mothers who want to work. This could include mentoring to help ease women’s move back into education or employment.”

But mothers going back to work don’t only have to grapple with childcare arrangements, time management and their own self-confidence – they also have to negotiate with employers. Although the 2003 Employment Act introduced the right for parents of young children to apply to work flexibly, there is no obligation for their employer to agree. (Even though 83 per cent of women surveyed by the Young Women’s Trust said flexible hours would help them find secure work, 26 per cent said they had had a request turned down.)

Dr Easton concludes: “The report recommends access to affordable childcare, better support for young women at job centres and advertising jobs on a flexible, part-time or job share basis by default.”

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland