Matthew Pavlich is a Nine sports presenter and co-founder of Pickstar
Big wave surfer, Laird Hamilton, once said, “Strength does not come from winning, your struggles develop your strength.”
Watching both Cameron Smith’s now famous win-from-behind at the British Open on Monday (AEST) and Nick Kyrgios’ dream-run end at the final hurdle the week earlier at Wimbledon, showed us what a difference mental application can have in elite Sport . Both players certainly displayed to us all what strength it really takes to be the best on the world stage.
Having started the final round at St Andrews, four shots off overnight leaders Rory McIlroy and Viktor Hovland, Smith held his composure in some crucial nerve-wracking moments under the most intense pressure a professional sportsperson can experience.
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The back nine was an insight into the 28-year-old’s self belief and the steely resolve he has, as he shot a bogey-free, eight-under that ultimately sealed the AUD$3.7 million win.
Meanwhile, as Kyrgios took on the 20-time Grand Slam Champion, Novak Djokovic, at last week’s Wimbledon men’s final, we saw both what an amazing skill set Kyrgios possesses in matching it with the world’s best, but also how far the temperamental star has to go, to make the most of his talent.
With verbal blow-ups aimed at his team, to constant distractions from the crowd and chair umpire, Kyrgios failed once again to control his emotions, and just play.
After two weeks of watching the breathtakingly good, and at times staggeringly disrespectful, it made me wonder where Kyrgios sources both his mental and physical strength? Where does he find his drive and resilience? Is winning a Grand-Slam or climbing the ATP ladder really his north star? Or is it earning money and seeking attention?
Quite simply, it is hard to know what is next for Kyrgios.
An unquestionably controversial player whose matches often feature epic displays of ranting, insults, racquet-wrecking, and remarkable trash-talking, lots of people are drawn to him. Kyrgios certainly appears to be living his ‘authentic self’ which seems to resonate with the youth of today. But it is also his controversial behavior that plagues his reputation.
This is why he is so divisive.
Speaking to people within Tennis Australia, he seems plenty have tried to shape his behavior, but the feedback has never landed well with him. He either walks away from those that challenge him or sprays them verbally until they walk away.
And from evidence, he clearly doesn’t get too much feedback from his team or family who all seem too scared to suffer his wrath. My legs were tired just watching all the standing up and sitting down from those in his box at the All England Club.
So what, if anything, will be his catalyst for change?
Given it has got to this point, I’m almost certain there isn’t anything that will force his hand.
Djokovic defeats Kyrgios in Wimbledon final
In my years in the AFL, I crossed paths and played with guys like Kyrgios. Guys that needed less structure and had lower emotional resilience, but unequivocal talent. Playing with these types was a balancing act of respecting their ability and allowing them to shine, while ensuring they still followed the team rules and agreed behaviour. It can be done, but it takes effort from both parties. To make it work effectively, you have to set expectations for both the individual and the team.
I remember former Fremantle assistant coach Chris Scott (now Geelong premiership coach) explaining how his former coach at Brisbane and AFL legend, Leigh Matthews, labeled Brownlow Medallist Jason Akermanis an ‘external consultant.’ That era at the Lions saw a core group led by Michael Voss that demanded daily excellence of one another. Matthews explained that like it or not, Akermanis was crucial to what they did for a few hours a week, but to see that brilliance and in order for the team to benefit from it, they had to put up with some of the other less desirable aspects of his talent during the week.
As long as this was understood and Akermanis played within the team rules, then it was tolerated. While for Akermanis to play at his best and display his natural flair, he needed the super-disciplined and hard-nosed team mates around him in order to shine.
It was a win-win. Until it wasn’t. And when it turned – when one party could not tolerate it anymore – it was time to break the relationship as Akermanis left for the Western Bulldogs.
Whether Kyrgios can get the most out of his talent is up to him. I am almost positive there is no one (from his current supporters at least) who can help him ultimately harness his talent and hold him accountable for his behavior. No one can force him to train harder, become more controlled on court or apply himself more consistently.
‘Drunk’ spectator tips Kyrgios over the edge
Is he riding a surging wave or has he peaked?
It seems being ‘good’ is enough for him. Getting comfortable being uncomfortable and challenging himself to be great seems like a bridge too far.
Don’t get me wrong, he is brilliant at times, but being consistently great is what sets Federer, Nadal and Djockovic apart from the rest. Kyrgios is the only one who knows if he wants it bad enough to be like those greats.
Comparing the two, at times Open winner Smith looks as laid-back and chilled as Kyrgios, but he also looks hungry for more, not satisfied with what he’s achieved and ready to get back out on the range and improve. He looks to have a relaxed intensity that appreciates the hard work, appreciates a good time and understands that others can assist his craving to get better. If he can continue to match his brilliance, with a blue-collar work ethic and that steely resolve he displayed on Monday morning (AEST) at St. Andrews, he can win many more golf majors.
As for Kyrgios, his brash, authentic ways do have a place in elite sport, but when he looks back at his career I wonder if he will be able to say he developed strength from his struggles? It is more likely that he may not even care.
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