Just three weeks before his 36th birthday, Roger Federer won his eighth Wimbledon and 19th career Grand Slam. Among all his other remarkable achievements, the two Grand Slams he has won in 2017 stand out – not because it proves how ridiculously talented he is but simply because they have come against the run of play. It makes them special or as Federer himself said, “Magical, really.”
Still, none of this would have been possible without Federer’s decision to take a break. The Swiss star’s decision to skip the French Open might lead to a gradual shift in mindset in a sport where the physical demands are greatly increasing the risk of injury.
For many generations, taking a break from sport was unimaginable. They said, you lose the competitive edge. They said, you don’t remain sharp enough. They said, champions are forged by challenges and going away makes you soft. And to a certain extent, it all made sense – none of our heroes ever took a break, it was a full-time occupation and you couldn’t approach it with part-time determination.
We get trapped into thinking that if we’re not always working hard, we’ll be surpassed by the competition. Remember those motivation quotes that you see all around: “While you were sleeping, someone else was working hard…” or something to that effect?
But now, thanks to Roger Federer’s success, the popular perception of taking a break might just start to change for good.
“Honestly, I’m incredibly surprised how well this year is going. How well I’m feeling, as well. How things are turning out to be on the courts. How I’m managing tougher situations. Where my level of play is on a daily basis. I am surprised that it’s this good,” Federer said. “I knew I could do great again, maybe one day, but not at this level. So I guess you would have laughed, too, if I told you I was going to win two Slams this year. People wouldn’t believe me if I said that. I also didn’t believe that I was going to win two this year.”
For a while now, sportsmen have been walking away from the sport they so obsessively love, taking a break and coming back even stronger. Federer is the latest in this line but by no means is he the first or the last.
Just after the London Olympics in 2012, Michael Phelps decided to take a break from the sport. He was at the peak of powers – the best in the world by a long shot, untouchable, a legend in every meaning of the word. But he walked away.
Later looking back on his career, Phelps said: “I only saw myself as a swimmer. That’s it. Nothing else. I had no self-worth, no self-love; I was just like, ‘Yeah, I’m just a swimmer, I don’t have anything else’.”
He added, “Two or three years later, I ended up falling back in love with the sport. When I kinda fell away for a while and wasn’t interested anymore, I didn’t wanna go through the pain, didn’t wanna go through the grind, I found this love again...It was amazing, I felt like a kid again.”
The first few years are always a rush – you are winning, climbing up the ladder, making a name for yourself. You have a goal and you are motivated to get there. But what you do, once you get there? Logically, you’d need to reset and that is why you need a break.
Abhinav Bindra, India’s only individual gold medallist, felt the need to do precisely that after the 2014 Asian Games.
He saw that he did not want to go about in the same way, he knew his body and his mind would not be able to take it. So he smartly, he dialed it back.
“I wish someone had told me that after I had won, I would need to find goals beyond winning. Those were dark days too, because I was petrified. If I didn’t want to shoot, what would I do with the rest of my life? Shooting is all I knew,” he later said.
Bernard Lagat, one of the best Kenyan-American runners ever, takes a break every year. For five weeks, he hangs up his sneakers. He relaxes with his family, meets friends, drinks wine and does little or no exercise.
If anything, this is part of the reason why the 42-year-old Lagat, who has run in five Olympics and won two world championships, remains atop the international running scene.
“Rest,” Lagat says, “is a good thing.”
After rest, advantage
Research shows that breaks lasting 7 to 10 days have positive effects on motivation, well-being, and health that last up to a month. Other studies have shown that a week-long vacation can diminish or even completely eliminate burnout.
But, of course, there is another reason to take a break. In order to develop any new skill, we have to get new information into our brains. While you are stuck in the daily grind, it is virtually impossible to work on your game. So when Federer went away, he came back with a reinforced backhand; when Michael Jordan went away, he came back with the fadeaway; after being dropped from ODIs, Rahul Dravid figured out how to angle it just away from the fielders and take a single. There are many more such instances and all of them show why a break is good.
So why aren’t more people doing it? The initial reason is perhaps the lack of self-confidence. The fear that you will never be able to get back to your best can paralyze you. It can mean many things – and most of them are scary.
But if you can look past all that, you will realise the benefits of it too. You rest, recuperate, heal the body and the mind and then finally even have time to level-up.
If you want to survive in modern sport, you need to constantly add to your skill sets. The moment you stop doing that, the chasing pack catches up. And perhaps the only way to stay ahead is not just to practice blindly, but to rest as well.
The body – as Roger, Jordan and all these other athletes have shown – remembers. The skills come back and if you are mentally up for the fight, it just makes you so much better. It might be just a start but soon we might see more athletes over-30 starting to follow the Federer example.
“If you look at the big picture, sometimes you have to step away to come back strong. I always did that throughout my career,” Federer once said. “Maybe not six months, but I did it probably two to three times a year where I kind of stepped away and came back. It’s served me well. That’s why I think I’m still here today and actually eager and excited to play tennis still.”
The ‘rest’ isn’t history. Rather, it’s the future. One that even Federer endorses.