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“I want Iga to know herself better”: our interview with Daria Abramowicz, the sports psychologist connected to Swiatek’s mind – updated after rise to world No 1
Sports psychologist Daria Abramowicz spoke to Tennis Majors in 2021 about her work to support the success of the young woman who is now the world No 1
In the past year, reigning Roland-Garros champion Iga Swiatek has often talked about how important mental training was for her in order to achieve her goals.
For more than two years, the 20-year-old from Warsaw has been working with a sports psychologist Daria Abramowicz (see her LinkedIn profile, Twitter and Instagram accounts). A physical education and sports academy graduate, Daria is a specialist in sports and performance psychology, as well as clinical psychology.
Currently in her mid-thirties, Abramowicz’s vast experience in sports include sailing competitively for 12 years and then coaching for more than 10 years. Since she is familiar with all points of views – having been an athlete, a coach and a psychologist – Daria describes her approach as holistic (“I always try to see the big picture”).
Before she started her collaboration with Swiatek, Abramowicz worked with the Polish national cycling and swimming teams, and even chess players, among others.
In her interview with Tennis Majors, among other topics, Daria Abramowicz spoke about what makes Swiatek unique, how we can recognise Daria’s influence on court or during Iga’s interviews, as well as changes to their routine since Roland-Garros last year.
“Even on her worst day, Iga is open-minded“
Tennis Majors: Iga was a teenager when you started working together. I am curious to know how someone so young is ready to work with a sports psychologist on a permanent basis? What are the traits that made Swiatek willing to do so?
Daria Abramowicz: Iga is willing to put in the work. She is aware of the importance of psychology – not just mental training, but of sports psychology in general, as a big piece of the puzzle in order to succeed at top level in tennis. Even on her worst day, she is open-minded and able to process things. She is always ready to learn, and I found some ways that work well for her: to feed her with knowledge in regards to psychology. When you listen to her interviews, you can probably hear a lot of my thoughts or my knowledge that I am passing on to her. It makes me proud, obviously. That is the main trait: Iga’s urge to broaden her horizons and improve her knowledge.
You cannot go into too many details, but how does your relationship work on a daily basis? Does it revolve around casual conversations or do you have scheduled meetings?
Daria Abramowicz: Every member of our team has his or her own role and an area of expertise, but also, there is always one of us passing the ball or handing the towel, preparing the food or giving a lift when we are in Warsaw. Those things are normal, we are a good team: even if tennis is an individual sport, it is a team effort in some ways.
As far as us, there is a lot of casual talk as well. One of the points of my philosophy is that sometimes a chat over dinner or lunch proves to be more effective than the scheduled session. We do have some strict appointments, but casual conversations as well.
We do a lot of work on court: right before practice or a match, and right after practice or a match. Sometimes it is intense and I communicate very directly, and sometimes Iga takes charge. All the time, I am trying to be sensitive, to feel what she needs and to adjust the programme so that it fits her as an individual in the best manner.
“Maintaining the balance between work and recovery, especially with all the sponsorships and partnerships Iga now has”
Could you name one or two examples when we can recognise your influence on the court?
Daria Abramowicz: You can probably see it between the games: how she approaches the changeovers, the way she breathes or does some other things. And in between points, you can see how she just turns her back to the match, thinks a little bit and takes a breath.
That being said, most of the things you cannot see on the court. There are a lot of routines starting with waking up and doing stuff in the order that we already know works well. It is in her…I wanted to say “blood”, but it is better to say that we have established certain routines.
In one of your interviews, I read your words saying that you have changed some things after Iga won the French Open last year, in order for Iga to better deal with pressure. What changes have you made??
Daria Abramowicz: We worked a lot on the off-court stuff: building a personal brand, communicating with the management team and raising awareness in terms of the business side of tennis. If you feel comfortable and you feel safe in these areas, then you are able to be more focused on your tennis, practice and performance. We put even more emphasis on maintaining the balance between work and recovery, especially with all the sponsorships and partnerships Iga now has. It is not like anything changed that much, it is more about stressing certain pieces of the puzzle more.
Being aware of how important it is to change the perspective sometimes: seeing a sunset, to drink a good coffee, stuff like that.Daria Abramowicz
In which direction does that go? For example, do you ever say to Iga: "Maybe you are doing too much media or too much sponsor stuff, you should lay off"?
Daria Abramowicz: It is more about teaching Iga how she can identify all of this by herself. I am not in charge of saying things like “this is too much, you should be recovering right now”. My goal is that she gets to know herself in a way that she recognises when it is time to rest. Basically, I want her to know herself better as an athlete, her mind and her body.
I am going to quote Iga's words in regards to you now: "I can understand my own feelings and I can say them out loud. She just makes my confidence level higher". If you had to single out some main characteristics of your approach, what would those be?
Daria Abramowicz: Especially with elite athletes, it is creating and maintaining the balance between work and recovery that I mentioned. With top athletes, sometimes the most important thing is having your mind and body well-rested, because that is one of the sources of efficiency and confidence. Sometimes, that means focusing on really simple things.
“If we want to peak during the matches, it is extremely important to have the recovery period“
We often hear people from the sports world saying "small things“ or "details“. In your case, what do you mean by that?
Daria Abramowicz: For instance, quality and quantity of sleep. Also, being aware of how important it is to change the perspective sometimes: seeing a sunset, to drink a good coffee, stuff like that. Just to press this “pause” button and to say to yourself: “Hey, this is a very nice moment”. Furthermore, being appreciative of the fact that there is possibility for joy even on the worst of days.
These are small things. Sometimes, when I hear myself repeating them constantly, one might think “this is too simple”, but my area of expertise and experience shows it to be true. In this striving for perfection and pursuit of excellence, we often forget about it, but those small things bring the fundamental peace of mind. If we do not have these basic needs fulfilled, there is no way that we can stay out of our comfort zone constantly.
Actually, Covid-19 showed us this. There is a sentence that I have read online: “I thought that 2020 would be the year when I would achieve everything I wanted, but now I know that 2020 was the year in which I appreciated everything that I have”. It is very simple and it represents fundamental truth for athletes. I know that a lot of people talk about such an approach, but trust me, most of them do not live it.
Going back to the court. When analyzing a match, we can often hear players say that they were not able to keep their focus throughout the match or that they succumbed to pressure at some point. How do you fight those two things?
Daria Abramowicz : It always starts and ends with awareness. You have to be aware of what is happening and why it is happening in order to be able to react to it. There are some techniques, but they are part of my know-how, so I won’t be sharing them now (laughing). As I mentioned, cognitive training combined with stress management. When the pressure comes, it is more difficult to stay focused.
The important thing, when it comes to working with top athletes, is to emphasize cognitive abilities, and reducing and managing tension and stress. These are connected: if we want to peak during the matches, it is extremely important to have the recovery period. The same way we work on our body, we should focus on our willpower, concentration, reaction time, attention, problem-solving, decision making…
That is why you will probably sometimes see Iga doing some Lego bricks or a puzzle. Some, let’s put it that way, analogue, old-school stuff. They help develop our cognitive abilities and allow us to rest from all the technology at the same time.
Since Iga won the French Open and came into the spotlight much more, has she changed in any way – positively or negatively?
Daria Abramowicz : No. Actually, I answered too quickly. Winning in Paris has been a relevant and crucial experience. Iga did change: she became even more mature than before, steadier and more thoughtful about some things.