Daria Abramowicz can think of no better research lab for sports psychology than the high-stakes, high-stress world of Grand Slam tennis. The 33-year-old Warsaw native has served as Polish phenom Iga Swiatek's sports psychologist for nearly two years, traveling with Swiatek's team to big events to help address the challenges of playing on the tour.
The 19-year-old has been an unstoppable force in Paris, booking a spot in her first Slam final in just her second main draw appearance at Roland Garros. Unseeded and ranked No.54, Swiatek paved her own way over the fortnight, defeating last year's finalist Marketa Vondrousova in the first, playing pitch-perfect tennis to oust top seed Simona Halep in a 6-1, 6-2 masterclass, in the Round of 16, and showing no signs of nerves or pressure as she played as the clear favorite to defeat Martina Trevisan in the quarterfinals and Nadia Podoroska in the semifinals. Swiatek is now the first Polish woman to make the Roland Garros in the Open and just the second all-time, following Jadwiga Jedrzejowska, who was a runner-up in 1939.
It is rare to see a young athlete not only employ a full-time sports psychologist but to also speak so openly about her struggles and successes in handling the psychological strains of being a professional athlete.
"I just believe that mental toughness is probably the most important thing in tennis right now because everybody can play on the highest level," Swiatek told reporters after her fourth-round win. "But the ones that are tough and that can handle the pressure are the biggest ones.
"So I always wanted to develop in that way. I was working with some other psychologists, two probably when I was younger. But Daria was the best I could get because she just understands me very well and she knows me very well and she can kind of read my mind, which is weird.
"She was a sailor so she has experience in sports and she was a coach so she has the full package. She just made me smarter. I know more about sports and I know more about psychology and I can understand my own feelings and I can say them out loud.
"She just makes my confidence level higher."
Abramowicz has spent over 25 years in sports. She picked up sailing at five-years-old, became a coach, and pursued her physical education and psychology degrees at university. After graduating with her master's degree in sports psychology, Abramowicz transitioned into working with a variety of Poland's national teams, focusing her work on high-performance athletes, coaches, and parents.
"[Having a traveling sports psychologist] was also new for me because when I worked with the other psychologists, they stayed in Warsaw," Swiatek said. "Basically that's how Daria works. That's her style of working. I'm really happy that she chose me to travel with because she has, like, many other players. She was also traveling with them, like with sailors or cyclists. So right now she's focusing to me, and I'm really happy because she's doing a great job."
WTA Insider spoke with Abramowicz in September during the US Open, to discuss her work and how she sees the mental game play out in the world of professional tennis.
WTA Insider: First of all, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.
Abramowicz: I'm always so grateful to speak about sports, sports psychology and moreover, psychology in sports, because it's kind of still a fresh topic. Obviously, science in sports is more popular. We talk about psychology more but it's not so scientific as others, like physiology or conditioning or medicine.
I do feel that we have a lot of work to do in terms of social awareness, especially in sports environments.
WTA Insider: Do you have a philosophy when it comes to working with the mental side of sports?
Abramowicz: I'm not only working with mental training, but I do implement psychotherapy as well. So therapeutical methods and tools, because I do believe that psychology in sports is more than just sports psychology, especially in our modern world.
Sports psychology is the mental training and all of those tools to help athletes and teams to develop the best performance they can get in the sports arena. And then by "psychology in sports" I mean obviously a lot of things in the background, everything that encompasses sports. Especially tennis, as such a high profile sport connected with business, with such complex relationships, with a lot of different stuff that you cannot see on the TV screen.
WTA Insider: How did you decide to go into sports psychology?
Abramowicz: I thought about it since I was a sailor because I felt, especially when I was choking under the pressure, that there is something more. I thought, OK, what is more here? What is my coach not saying to me?
I was interested in coaching and started to reach out to a lot of educational stuff, a lot of literature. And it wasn't so popular in that time. I met some people who guided me and I'm so grateful to them because they guided me in terms of how to be ethical, how to be professional, how to develop this complex approach.
Because what I value most in terms of my experience is that I connect all of those areas I have experience in. I do feel and think that I have a complex understanding of sports.
WTA Insider: The world of professional tennis seems like fertile ground for you as a sports psychologist, as it's such a mental game. What are the particular pressure points in tennis that you see the most?
Abramowicz: Managing stress is a thing that every sport and every athlete at every level has. It's obviously the biggest challenge or one of the biggest challenges.
But I do see this pattern right now with expectations. Especially with those players who before the hiatus had a good run. They felt good. They played well. They had successes. They were climbing up in the ranking. So then when you are coming back, you feel OK, so I had this good run, and I worked hard during this hiatus, then obviously I must do well again. You can observe it on court, off the court, and you can feel it in the air, actually.
So from my point of view, that's very important now and I would say even crucial. The new COVID reality plays a big role here, in my opinion, because, for example, we don't have an audience and spectators. So you can see how the dynamics changed. I know these are details, but you add the detail to detail and then you have the whole picture.
WTA Insider: The idea of working with a sports psychologist has been embraced more and more and athletes have become more open and vocal about it. But there seems to be a stigma that still exists about admitting you need mental help. When you talk to athletes and pitch them on your services, what seems to resonate most with them?
Abramowicz: There are two paths. One is when an athlete, team, or coach comes to you and says we have a problem. That's the sentence. That's the main thing. We have a problem.
So then we try to diagnose the challenge. As a psychologist, I like to say "challenge" over "problem" because it's important for us to be aware of our words.
The other path is when someone wants to be more aware, to be better.
So one path is going from a minus level up to zero, and the other is from zero to being better and better and better in the plus. I always try to use my experience and show that when someone is addressing the challenges from my experience - I had a lot of injuries, I retired early, I had burned out - I understand a lot.
When they reach out to me they often say, I'm saying this to you and I'm allowing myself to say this to you because I do feel like you understand. So it's kind of personal from my point of view, with me particularly, with my experience. And obviously I try to use it wisely.
In terms of social awareness and especially awareness in the sports environment, I think that psychology is still stigmatized. But then we have a lot of stars in many, many sports, they say more and more about the advantages of working with psychologists, psychotherapists, or even psychiatrists because we do have a lot more mental disorders. It has to be said nowadays.
We have Michael Phelps, we have Lindsey Vonn, we have Kevin Love, the basketball player. We have Mikaela Shiffrin who is such a big advocate of mental health as well. So they are reaching out more often.
But still, I do feel there is a lot of space to implement psychology, mental training, and I do think that it's gonna be one of the biggest advantages in the next years, especially because younger and younger players are climbing to the top of the rankings.
WTA Insider: The younger generation, Generation Z, seems to be very conversant and open when discussing mental health issues. On your work with Iga, it seems unique because normally we don't see players turn to a sports psychologist or mental coach until later in their careers.
Abramowicz: This young generation is more comfortable with talking about mental health, talking about those challenges with reaching out for physiologists or psychologists as well.
With Iga I really appreciate that she's so aware at this younger age. When we started working together one year and a half ago, she always was saying that I think it's obvious that I work with psychologists. For such a young person to say it like this, I can do something here. I can have my advantages.
I do appreciate that a lot. And I respect it a lot as well.
WTA Insider: You mentioned your experience of dealing with pressure as a sailor. The big word in sports is "choking". Who does it, why do they do it, and how do they stop it? It's something that all athletes are still trying to solve. What is your take on it?
Abramowicz: Well, first things first. We identify stress on three levels: thoughts, emotions, and body response.
We identify stress when something is going wrong with our bodies. So sometimes it's our heartbeat, sometimes it's a stomach ache. Sometimes we feel like we are sore. It's tough to try to calm it down, to manage it.
At the beginning almost always there is a thought. Something is popping into our head. It feels like there's this anchor, that this thought is throwing an anchor on our brain, our mind, and then we start to identify it and add to it some emotion.
Sometimes the thought might be, for example, I have to win this, or I felt so good during training or preseason, I have to perform well. This word "have to" or as I said earlier, "must" is such a heavy word. It brings an expectation after. So then we have emotions and this is often one of the biggest reasons of choking up.
This choking up process is the big stress and it causes such a weird reaction sometimes. We can see even on tour. One of the best examples for me is the U.S. Open final with Serena against Bianca. Serena said after, I wish I was more Serena because she wasn't hitting the ball. When she felt I have nothing to lose in the second set, she just loosened up a little bit and it a lot of difference. loosen up a little bit. It was 5-5 I think and she lost again because she felt OK, maybe I will do this. Maybe I will have a third set. No, no, no.
It's so hard to accept some things and to internalize them, and that's one of the biggest challenges, especially for young athletes.
We can see here, in a new COVID reality, we have some very experienced players who are very calm, composed, and consistent. Then we have some young players, they know how to play without spectators, those underdogs. So from my point of view - and obviously this is not scientific advice, it's just my opinion, but I try to watch as many matches as I can and try to find some patterns and solutions - those two groups of players are performing better. Why? Expectations.
They have lower expectations. And what about the solution? I love Mikaela Shiffrin's quote and Iga will be laughing out loud because I always mention it to her and I'm talking about it all the time. Sometimes I'm joking that I should have it tattooed on my forehead.
She said after Pyeongchang at Olympic Games, that she's trying to have low expectations and high standards. To try to be more focused on her work, everyday work, those little things. And then you can have your brain a little bit more busy and not to think about those expectations and then the stress for her a bit less, a little bit lower.
I do think that it really is so, so simple and at the same time so wise.
🍂🌪That was a good day. I really enjoyed being on court today. So happy that I managed to keep my expectations low and standards high.🌪🍂 #intosecondround #jazda #RolandGarros pic.twitter.com/FF2Ylaa8HL— Iga Świątek (@iga_swiatek) September 28, 2020
WTA Insider: High-performance athletes are ambitious. They're striving for greatness. I think a lot of them would happily sacrifice a bit of their mental health for a handful of wins. As someone who tries to address these things from a holistic approach, how do you handle that?
Abramowicz: First of all, I try to help them to organize their world in all those areas which are important. So personal life, management, business, social media, obviously a lot of things to do with that. Obviously, sports, regeneration, nutrition, conditioning, and all that stuff.
I have this helicopter view and try to guide them to be properly organized because it gives them this basic sense of security and safety, that they don't feel the chaos around them and internally as well. So I address it this way.
But it's always important to be aware of your possibilities and potential and accept it, but then try to be aware of the limits and areas that you can improve. Having this healthy perspective and then trying to be focused more on the standards and work, not on the expectations, can give you the chance to have a good result.
The good result might be a win, an important match, or a win in the tournament. And it can bring a lot of money and bring a lot of success in business. But then it might be overwhelming. Being able to stand solid on the ground and having those strong base of relationships, of those basic tools in life, it always is the best way to manage everything.
Every case, every person is an individual, is a human being, is different. So I approach everyone individually. But this is a kind of power, to organize the world inside and outside and then it's working better.
When you have this solid ground, you can build on that. That's what I mean when I say psychology in sports.