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Like Novak Djokovic, many elite athletes go to extremes to gain an edge

Djokovic, 34 and the top-ranked men's player in the world, has credited his success to a switch to a gluten-free diet in 2011 and a vigorous regimen of yoga, stretching and tai chi to achieve the flexibility at the heart of his game. Picture: AFP

Djokovic, 34 and the top-ranked men's player in the world, has credited his success to a switch to a gluten-free diet in 2011 and a vigorous regimen of yoga, stretching and tai chi to achieve the flexibility at the heart of his game. Picture: AFP

Published Jan 11, 2022


By Liz Clarke

In halls of government and on social media, tennis star Novak Djokovic is being castigated as yet another entitled millionaire athlete for flouting the coronavirus vaccine mandate to compete in the Australian Open.

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But his refusal to get the vaccine despite twice testing positive for the virus reveals another quality of elite, world-class athletes that is often lost on the fans who cheer them.

When it comes to their bodies, which are their livelihood and legacy, athletes who reach the pinnacle of their sports tend to be extreme, bordering on obsessive, in pursuit of anything and everything they believe will give them the slightest edge.

Djokovic, 34 and the top-ranked men's player in the world, has credited his success to a switch to a gluten-free diet in 2011 and a vigorous regimen of yoga, stretching and tai chi to achieve the flexibility at the heart of his game.

While he has never publicly explained his aversion to getting vaccinated against the coronavirus, as have other prominent athletes such as Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Djokovic has long guarded his right to "choose what's best for my body," seeing it as a matter of individual liberty.

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An Australian judge Monday overturned a decision to cancel the tennis star's visa because of his vaccination status, ending a five-day standoff and clearing him to compete in the Australian Open, which begins next week.

Attorneys representing the Australian government warned afterward, however, that the country's immigration minister was considering re-cancelling Djokovic's visa.

Not unlike Djokovic, champions across many other sports often ascribe to extreme diets and fitness regimens they believe are key to their performance and longevity, though they may not share the tennis champion's aversion to the coronavirus vaccine.

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In the case of seven-time Super Bowl champion quarterback Tom Brady, it has manifested in an adherence to an exceedingly restrictive diet that excludes sugar, dairy and inflammatory nightshades such as tomatoes, mushrooms and eggplant.

Golf icon Tiger Woods rewrote the definition of fitness in his sport with a rigorous program of running, weightlifting and aerobic exercise sandwiched around practice rounds. Later in his career, he pushed himself further by training with US Navy SEALs.

Four-time NBA champion LeBron James reportedly spends $1.5-million annually on home gyms, a hyperbaric chamber and a team of trainers, chefs and massage therapists to stay competitive. Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson owns two hyperbaric chambers to speed his recovery via the inhalation of pure oxygen.

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For 23-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps, the regimen was more - of almost everything. More practices, more daily strength workouts at high altitude and more fuel in the form of calories - 12 000 per day while in training mode.

In the case of Djokovic, no one knocks his extreme dietary restrictions or eye-popping flexibility. But his refusal to get vaccinated as a condition for entering the Australian Open triggered outrage in the host nation, which has been under exceedingly strict protocols and travel restrictions to limit the spread of the virus for nearly two years.

Former Olympic bronze medalist skier Zali Steggall, a member of Australia's parliament, was among those taking a swipe in tweeting that she would be cheering for Australian women's player Ashleigh Barty when the tournament begins Jan. 17 - and not for "selfish players putting others at risk."

But the mind-set of elite athletes is often defined by not thinking in terms of what is best for others. Their overriding obsession, at least for the duration of their competitive careers, often revolves around what is best for them. And in pursuit of excellence, the extreme among them often push themselves to lengths their rivals won't.

"The elite-among-the-elite are in, and on, a perpetual quest of separating from the pack in all four pillars of performance - the technical, the tactical, the physiological and the psychological," said performance psychology specialist Colleen Hacker, who worked with the US women's soccer team for 12 years and has served as mental skills coach for the US field hockey and ice hockey teams, as well as Major League Baseball players, golfers, Olympic swimmers and speedskaters.

"Getting to the top is extraordinarily difficult in and of itself. Remaining there is doubly so. As an elite athlete, where do you find this separation? Increasingly, it's at the outer edges."

Hacker added: "This is where champions go in search of that edge, where they may find the good or the bad."

Or, in the case of Djokovic eschewing vaccination, to a place that may prove ill-advised or appear selfish.

Martina Navratilova understands a champion's quest for every available competitive edge, having compiled statistics that rival Djokovic's during her Hall of Fame career, including 18 Grand Slam singles titles. Djokovic has won 20.

"I obviously get the self-oriented obsession with getting better," Navratilova said. "I tried different diets, always tinkered with my game to try to find a little bit extra physically in every way - legally, obviously - working out, eating and sleeping well. I never drank, apart from half a beer to go to sleep maybe. I never drank coffee."

But she doesn't understand Djokovic's logic on declining the vaccine.

Navratilova, now 65 and a broadcast analyst, said that if she were playing today, she would be waiting in line to get vaccinated, adding that she already is.

"For the greater good, as a leader, it behooves one to take one for the team, even if you don't believe in it," Navratilova said. "Clearly it's better for the world and for your peers. I would be embarrassed to be the one more likely to infect them if I don't get vaccinated. Even on a selfish level, you get less sick if you do get it."

It's hard to say what's driving Djokovic's decision-making, said Bob Rotella, a professor of sports psychology at University of Virginia who has worked with top golfers such as Rory McIlroy.

"There are athletes who think there is enough conflicting information out there that they are not sure if it's a good idea or a bad idea," Rotella said. "It's not necessarily that they are being entitled; they are just not sure that this might not do something bad to their body. Some athletes feel they're actually better off not getting the vaccine. Whether that's accurate information or not, who knows?"

Djokovic is tied with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for the most Grand Slam titles in men's history, which underscores the significance of this year's Australian Open. Federer won't compete; Nadal intends to.

Whether Djokovic competes next week at Melbourne Park, where he is a nine-time and defending champion, or a tournament to follow, Rotella said he is convinced he will turn this controversy into a positive.

"Most great athletes will just find a way to turn this into a chip on their shoulder they can use," Rotella said. "He'll just decide: 'They want someone else to win; they don't want me. They wanted Federer or Nadal, so I'm going to turn that into a motivation.' "

The Washington Post's Matt Bonesteel contributed to this report.