Andy Murray and Roger Federer: How role models work

January 18, 2009


Update note

Updated on the eve of Wimbledon, June 2009. Six months later, Murray had climbed to No 3 in the World. Federer had recently won The French Open fulfilling several personal goals. Murray has won the Pre-Wimbledon tournament at Queen’s club.

Nadal, last year’s Wimbledon winner pulls out, leaving Federer as favourite, Murray as No 2 seed. According to seeding they will meet in the final … [Update ends].

Andy Murray owes a lot to Roger Federer. Their relationship gives an insight into how role models work to sustain motivation in athletes who want to become No. 1.

In the first weeks of 2009, Andy Murray defeated Roger Federer twice on the way to winning two tennis tournaments.

Federer, who had been No. 1 has recently slipped to No. 2 and Murray climbed to No. 4 Federer is still regarded by many experts as the most complete tennis player of his generation. Yet Murray, the in-form young contender, was installed as favourite for the upcoming Australian grand-slam event.

Andy Murray like most (all?) top athletes has a fierce competitive drive. This may be triggered by some important events in childhood, and it is probably genetically determined, at least in part.

My contention is that motivational drive can become anchored and focused by the influence of a role model.

How a role model helps shape behavior

Sometimes the wannabe champion has feelings of admiration and awe towards to the former No.1. That seems to have been the case for John McEnroe. On court, when competing with Borg, Johnnie Mac was a paragon of well-behaved virtue. But the influence of the role model did not extend far beyond their few hours on court.

Murray has also been better behaved while playing Federer, and was closer to the rebellious McInroe when playing almost anyone else.

I speculated elsewhere that an athlete may admire someone for qualities they would like to possess, but feel they do not. My earlier example was from Cricket, and Boycott’s respect for the on-field persona of Pietersen, all flair and aggression, and a near identikit version of Boycott’s suppressed shadow self.

Murray and Federer

Andy Murray is arguably heir to McEnroe. Both were precocious brats as teenagers. McEnroe eventually became a much-loved senior citizen. Murray seems to be emerging from teenage bratdom although the aggressive and sometimes obnoxious side still simmers away not far from the surface.

And Murray admired Federer initially from afar. His view on the new No 1., Nadal is quite different (although he still has been less prone to uncontrolled outbursts in matches against Nadal). The two spent a lot of time togther as juniors.

Federer’s response to Murray’s victories

Federer now to cope with a tough challenge to his own self-esteem and self-belief that he is the best tennis player in the world. still No. 1 image. Roger, a most graceful person in public has had to struggle to acknowledge the progress Andy was making towards that top spot. Recently [Jan 10th 2009] he more or less said that Murray might be a very good player one day but he would have to win a few Grand Slams on the way. Murray continues to refer to Federer with great respect, suggesting he is still the greatest player in the world. Such graciousness by Murray is helped by the fact that he is now well ahead on head-to-heads against the great man, and so his statement is also a nice bit of self- promotion.

Role Models, Motivation, and Learned Need Theory

The general issue of ambition is captured in the theory of needs generally attributed to Harvard psychologist David McClelland.

Need for achievement, (N ach) is typified by a fierce motivational drive towards achievement. The high N-ach individual seems driven by deep personal needs which McClelland believed were acquired or learned by early life experiences.

The high-achieving individual

I will return to the broader issue of the high achieving individual in a later post. Here I’ll just mention a few interesting ways in which Murray may be reinforcing his need to achieve, suggested by aspects of the theory.

High N-ach personalities seek, and thrive on, rapid feedback towards identified goals. In Tennis, after each stroke there is feedback in the win/lose result. There is further feedback in everything that connects to a perfectly hit winner, or a badly executed shot, from the body position, to the noise of the ball off the racquet, and the applause of the crowd. After the match there are the rituals of winning and losing.

So will Murray win the Australian Open?
Murray is now close to the finished article technically and psychologically. My Delphic prediction for the Australian Open is that if Murray remains fit, a great victory will take place.