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Bianca Andreescu’s US Open Victory:

Magic or Mental Fitness?

By Dr. Sam Gerstein

On Sept. 8, 2019, Cathal Kelly wrote an opinion piece in the Globe and Mail speaking about the inexplicable win by Canadian Bianca Andreescu at the 2019 US Open. He used phrases like…

  • Some people are just born winners.
  • Whatever she has can’t be broken down into steps in a training manual.
  • …if sports really were a science, we would not be capable of being amazed by their magic.

Magic? Magic? That’s his conclusion of why she won? What we really have here is a long article basically saying he can’t explain why she won, and he implies that no one can. That it’s all due to Nature. I would like to point out some other phenomena of achievement in history that were once thought to be inexplicable or magical:

Albert Einstein’s brilliance. There is no doubting his mathematical intelligence but few people know that his practice of visualizing himself travelling on a ray of light at the speed of was instrumental in his discovery of his theory of relativity.

Some people called Mozart a born genius, composing his first significant piece of music at age 10. But when you look a little closer, you understand a little better. His father, Leopold Mozart, was a musical instructor and filled the Mozart home with music played by his students and his older sister, who played morning and evening.  

Anders Ericsson found that you needed about 10,000 hours of practice before reaching expertise in any field. This was corroborated by Malcolm Gladwell, social scientist, who studied success stories like Bill Gates and The Beatles who only started to truly see results after 10,000 hours of practice.

For centuries we believed that the involuntary nervous system couldn’t be changed but studies on meditation has revealed its ability to reduce blood pressure, increase immunity and decrease stress and anxiety.   

…and of course, magicians themselves were once thought their slight of hand tricks and illusions were that of real magic.

We have a long history of labelling things we can’t see or don’t understand as “magic”. Many of the things in history we believed were real magic turned out to have a scientific explanation.   

I believe a similar phenomenon is taking place when people make great mental achievements, like what Bianca did in turning her game around after losing her leads and 4 games in a row in the 2nd set while facing a loud, raucous and hostile crowd. It must have been “magic” for anyone to be able to do that, especially for someone who is only 19 years old. Or was it?

If mankind today were evaluated as if it were in school…

  • we would be in undergrad in technological advances – eg, we can track asteroids so well that we can now land on them. We can talk to people on the other side of the earth with what was once an imaginary mobile phone on Star Trek.
  • we would be in high school with our understanding of physical body eg, We can transplant almost every organ in the body, we have decoded the human genome and many people born in this century can be expected to live past 100.   
  • we would be in kindergarten with its grasp of the power of the mind. Eg, many people on earth are still mired in a very juvenile approach to their fellow human being because of their prejudices and lack of empathy to others because of skin colour, religious beliefs and culture differences. We don’t appreciate our emotional intelligence or use it to its full capacity to guide our decisions in life. And we spend too much time merely reacting to others instead of learning how to manage our own moods.

At the highest level of sport, the difference in physical ability among the elite is very slim. What often separates the greats from the very goods is their mental power. We are just at the threshold of our mental potential. We are evolving mentally, albeit slowly.

Not that long ago only Olympic competitors and some professional European athletes would have professional sport psychologists who made mental fitness training part of their regular routine. It was only recognized as a specialty in the USA in the 1980s and only in the 21st century has it been appreciated by most professional athletes. However, this message still needs to be filtered down to the amateur athletes.

Bianca is ahead of the curve. She has studied and practiced meditation, visualization, breathing techniques and mental focus as part of her training and not only as an afterthought or before a big tournament.

Genetics does play a role. However, in medicine, there is a new field called epigenetics. Someone may have a genetic predisposition to heart disease but that trait can be turned off or on by the environment in which he was raised in – how he eats, how active he is, whether or not he was around second-hand smoke, etc… Many people may be born with the physical and athletic potential for greatness in any sport but you need to actuate that potential with good teaching, practice, hard work and yes, mental fitness tools. So, not only does nature affect nurture but we now know that nurture affects nature.

My belief is that there are a lot more “geniuses” out there. To help them attain their true potential, we have to first stop robbing people of their dream by propagating the myth that only a select few ordained by G-d, can reach the peak in any specialty.  

To prove it we must turn to science. When more coaches begin training the mental side as seriously as the physical side from a young age, only then will we know if Bianca’s victory was “magic” (only nature) or if it was a gifted athlete who honed her physical AND mental potential with a lot of determination and hard work. Like so many phenomena, it will probably come down to a combination of nature and nurture.    

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