In his first press conference at the Miami Open, Rafa Nadal left an interesting headline when asked about what he would say to all those kids around the world dreaming of being like him.

“I would tell them not to dream to be like Rafa Nadal, but to enjoy every single day; that is the most important thing”. And he added: “I never had ambitious dreams. When I was little I never thought of becoming the next Agassi or Sampras. I worried about training well every day and enjoying my childhood and being with my friends. On the court, I always tried to give my best. That’s the only thing I worried about, but I always tried to have fun. A child needs to enjoy and just think about the next day, nothing else.”

 This powerful statement hides an even deeper thought: Nadal is not trying to encourage children to not have heroes, to not be like him (another humble gesture that shows his greatness), but rather that:

  1. enjoying the path will save you from getting frustrated if you don’t reach your goal, whatever it is (and enjoying doesn’t mean there won’t be any suffering, something Rafa knows well given his last injuries…)
  2. you have to always be yourself (find your essence, that thing that makes you unique and different)
  3. control your expectations (those that you set and those that others set for you). Don’t set goals too high, because they might lead you to frustration.

Rafa, one of the few players that truly thinks any opponent can beat him, but that he can also beat any rival (something many players say but few deeply believe), is the best example of how we should always try to find our own balance in order to grow: stand up when we feel we are going under (or when someone tries to make us think that we are) and to keep our feet on the ground when we think we’re touching the sky (or when others make us think so –a difficult task that basketball rising star Luka Doncic is doing perfectly thanks to his incredible maturity and to being so well surrounded).

I agree with Rafa’s opinion 100%, yet I believe that it is indeed important to have a role model (and a mentor if we can), and that we should aspire to be like Rafa, or like all those people we consider worth learning from.

When psychologists Penelope Lockwood and Ziva Kunda requested college students to list what they hoped to achieve over the following decade, the students came with perfectly ordinary objectives. Another group of students was instructed to read a newspaper article about an outstanding peer and then list their goals; they aimed much higher. Having a role model elevated their aspirations.

primer encuentro Rafa Nadal y Carlos Moya

Nadal meets his hero Moya

It would not be crazy to think that Rafa had big aspirations since he was little. And he also had role models. As a matter of fact, he has shared a few times that Carlos Moya was his childhood hero and Moya would later become his mentor when Rafa started beating everyone on the island of Mallorca at a very young age. However, when Nadal’s precocity was amazing the entire world and titles would come on a weekly basis, his uncle –and coach, in this order- Toni, would be there to remind him to stay grounded. And he was an absolute expert in this…

Parents and relatives (in the case of Toni Nadal) play a major role in helping youth manage expectations and search for role models. But what can we do as parents or coaches in order to help our children/players find those role models in sports or in any other discipline?

The first step is to understand that those mentors won’t be us. Yes, as parents we are the first role models our children have, but the idea is that we don’t become the first and last role models they have…A good example of this paradox was experienced by Lizz Winstead’s father. When the comedian went public with her rebellious political views, her father said, “I screwed up. I raised you to have an opinion, and I forgot to tell you it was supposed to be mine.”

Are we as parents willing and ready to let our children think different than us? Sometimes it is hard to picture our children rooting for a different sports team or voting for the opposing political party. Some even go further and consider it a betrayal… Is our children’s aspiration to meet our expectations or to establish their own?

If we as parents or coaches want to encourage our children to be unique, to broaden their horizons and become the best version they can be, we must be brave and help them find their own role models in diverse fields so it can be more enriching for them.

And let’s encourage them to question everything, even everything we say to them…

– And what if we (or they) don’t find this mentor or mentors?

Finding the right mentor is not always easy, but we can find inspiration in the small actions, such as through books, reading the biographies of great originals through history (as Adam Grant suggests in his book Originals), reading Rafa Nadal’s brilliant biography, or simply by sitting together to watch Rafa give everything he has in every point.

Agassi letter to Rafa Nadal recorte

Agassi’s letter to Rafa Nadal (@AndreAgassi)

I want to join Andre Agassi and so many others in having Rafa as our role model and let me insist: let’s not be like Rafa Nadal, let’s be Rafa Nadal. Let’s be this person that gives his or her best in every little thing that we do. Doing this, who knows if one day we will outpace our role models, like Rafa did with his childhood hero Carlos Moya.

Isn’t that what evolution is about?

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Who beat who? Nadal sad after beating his hero (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Who beat who? Nadal sad after beating his hero (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)