Some of the most important moments of this year’s Australian Open took place far from a tennis court and had nothing to do with a certain vaccine-averse Serbian champion.
Ben Crowe, a mind-set and life coach whose clients include the women’s world No. 1, Ashleigh Barty, who is carrying the hopes of her nation for a championship, and Dylan Alcott, another Australian who is among the greatest wheelchair players, does little work on the court itself.
Crowe and Alcott often meet in a cafe for their regular check-ins during the tournament because Alcott loves to be around people. Last week, as Barty prepared for her third-round match, against Camila Giorgi, she and Crowe did their prematch check-in while walking Molly, Crowe’s spanador, a mix of a Labrador retriever and a cocker spaniel, in Melbourne Park.
“Ash loves dogs so that makes for a good setting,” Crowe said in a recent interview. “It creates a happy place to converse. And we’ll talk about anything. Dogs or house renovations.”
Tennis players and athletes in nearly every sport have been using sports psychologists and mind-set coaches for years. Never before has mental health been such a primary focus, especially in tennis, which lost one of its biggest stars, Naomi Osaka, for nearly half of 2021 as she dealt with psychological problems connected to the sport and her performance.
Crowe took a circuitous route to his role as a guru to some of the biggest names in sports. He worked as a marketing executive at Nike in the 1990s, trying to connect the stories of athletes to the industry behemoth and make piles of cash for both parties.
He worked closely with Australian athletes, including Cathy Freeman, an Olympic sprinter, on her campaigns ahead of the Games in Atlanta in 1996 and Sydney in 2000, but also with Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. He became close with Phil Knight, a founder of Nike, who loves both tennis and Australia.
Eventually, Crowe realized it was far more important to athletes for them to truly understand who they were, their back stories and why they did what they did, rather than tying a drummed-up version of their narrative to a global corporation hoping to sell more sneakers and T-shirts.
“You need to separate the person from the persona, separate the self-worth from the business card,” he said. “I try to get them to answer the questions: Who am I fundamentally? And, What do I want from this crazy thing called life?”
Crowe has also worked with the professional surfer Stephanie Gilmore and the Richmond club in Australian rules football.
Away from tournaments and matches, he talks with clients weekly for about an hour during occasionally humorous sessions that focus on finding a balance between achievement and fulfillment. There is a simplicity in Crowe’s bedrock principles:
Focusing on the future or the past is wasted energy because we can’t control either one.
No point in a tennis match is worth more than any other, so why bother treating them any differently.
If you have to do something or achieve something to be someone, you will never be content.
We don’t know ourselves enough, and the bits we do know we don’t love enough.
At a major competition like the Australian Open, Crowe usually watches his clients’ matches from the stands, paying close attention to their decision making and body language, trying to notice if the things they cannot control — the crowd, the weather, the opponent — might be distracting them. He attends their news conferences and chats with them before and after each match.
The deep work, though, occurs in the downtime between tournaments, when he delves with them into questions of identity and purpose.
He said Alcott’s career took off and is now coming to a comfortable close because he came to understand he was playing tennis to help people like himself live better, healthier lives. This week, Alcott received a prestigious award, Australian of the year, given annually to leading citizens. He will play his last professional tennis match on Thursday, in the Australian Open wheelchair quad singles final, but his purpose will not change just because he is retiring.
Barty, who left the sport for 18 months to pursue cricket, draws inspiration from playing for her country, Indigenous people and the team of coaches and trainers she is always crediting for her success. She will meet Madison Keys in a semifinal match on Thursday, and is trying to become the first Australian woman to win the tournament’s singles championship since 1978.
His tennis clients, he said, have learned to accept their weaknesses and vulnerabilities and the endless uncertainty that professional sport and life ultimately bring.
“If there is one thing the pandemic has shown it’s that we don’t do uncertainty very well, and uncertainty is vulnerability, and we don’t do vulnerability very well,” Crowe said. “So you either align yourself with the uncertainty or you suffer.”