Andy Murray’s display yesterday was a sign of a huge step in his development as a man. When he burst into tears the world looked on in shock. Suddenly this slightly petulant and not altogether attractive young man was showing himself in a different light. No one could help but be moved.
A lot has been said and written about Murray, the “weight of history” and expectation he carries for the great British public. Less attention has been paid to the weight of his own personal history. There have been two defining events in Murray’s life, the Dunblane Massacre and the divorce of his parents. Murray avoids mention of Dunblane and has said: “It’s obviously weird to think you had a murderer in your car, sitting next to your Mum. That is probably another reason why I don’t want to look back at it. It was something my brain couldn’t cope with. I could have been one of those children”. He hid in a classroom. What young brain could have coped with such a traumatic event?
Children develop mechanisms to cope with extreme trauma and some victims may need to keep trauma buried not just to reduce suffering but to promote survival. This survival mechanism becomes ingrained and we carry it with us into adult life. In Andy Murray’s case he appears to have created a “shell”, a container for his feelings in order to survive at the cost of appearing what we might call “human”.
It is likely that this shell was reinforced by the further trauma of parental divorce in his teenage years. In my experience all children take parental separation hard and find their own ways to survive. The typical child response to trauma is anger, sometimes hidden and sometimes overt. In Murray’s case it normally appears between points in his grimaces and fist clenchings. This is energy lost to him when in play. It is an excess, an overflow and is destabilising to his game.
The effort of containing his anger which is indeed part of his “humanity” may have proved overwhelming at key times in his career, typically a year ago when, one set up against Nadal in the Wimbledon semi-final he missed a forehand to open court. From being the aggressor and the favourite, he deflated in moments and his energy disappeared. Kevin Mitchell in the Observer claimed today that “so tight are his emotions they strangle his talent, that anxiety floods his limbs”. This illustrates exactly what often happens to Murray.
Above a certain level of anger your performance will decrease as an extreme level of arousal can lead to a lack of awareness and attention outside of oneself. In terms of anger this can correspond to the “red mist”, at the extreme we lose all sense of relationship with other people and with the outside world. The key to dealing with this is to find a way of staying in the present. Working point by point it is much harder to go into the downward spiral of self-criticism, disappointment and anger turned on yourself. There are techniques available to achieve this for all of us and they can be life changing as we allow ourselves to live in the present and let the past and future look after themselves.
A key difference for Murray may have been the appointment of Ivan Lendl in his “quasi paternal” role. It has been reported that Lendl gives relatively little “verbal” advice. In sport there is no substitute for looking as the most powerful form of learning. Murray looks over at Lendl and takes in a body image of stillness and containment. This is constantly reinforced throughout the match – it is a form of coaching not covered in the rules, coaching through body shape. By modelling containment Lendl is coaching Murray at the deepest level, one that words cannot access.
The key for Andy Murray as he has begun to show is that he needs to stay in the present. Yesterday Murray showed far less of the anger displays we have seen in the past. He was the most “in charge” of himself we have ever seen him.
In anger we often relive our past or experience our fear of the future. By staying in the present we can avoid falling into old and undermining judgements of ourselves. Andy Murray, with Lendl at his side is experiencing a new relationship with himself and is more likely than ever to achieve his first Grand Slam. As he put it himself when asked about the Olympics, “I will only resume work when my mind is right”. Murray’s tears were important, not for the audience but for how he is in himself. This is the key to sporting success. Murray gave himself permission to show his feelings without fear of what others will think. He said “I’m getting closer”. For this I salute him.