Nadal Is Strong Enough to Cry. Are You?

Rafael Nadal, who just won the U.S. Open for the second time, is my hero.

His athleticism is extraordinary. His focus is awe-inspiring. His skill is, clearly, second to none. His will is unremitting. It’s a joy to watch him in competition. Yet those are not the reasons he’s my hero. In fact, it wasn’t until after he was finished playing in this year’s final that he rose to role model in my book.

So what was it?

It was that, right after winning, he fell to the ground, crying, then leapt for joy, then lay back on the tennis court, face down, sobbing. After a few moments, he got up and hugged Novak Djokovic, his opponent.

“Now that,” I told Isabelle, my eleven-year-old daughter, who was watching with me, “is what it looks like when you put your whole self into something!”

Where is that energy in our companies today? Where are the people leaping for joy, pumping their fists in the air, or weeping, either with happiness or grief?

I sometimes walk through the halls of various companies, looking at people working numbly at their desks or cubicles or nodding off in meetings, wondering, “where are the people?”

I’m not advocating for a workplace of loose cannons. I am advocating for a workplace of human beings.

Before his emotional outburst, Nadal played for hours, channeling the energy coursing through his body with controlled responses and deliberate, calculated movements. In other words, he managed his emotions.

That’s appropriate; it’s how any of us achieve any challenging objective, and we’ve become very good at it.

But after the game, where does all that energy go? Nadal’s post-game response was the natural eruption of energy pent up from the concentration of his game.

That’s appropriate too. Yet how many of us unrelentingly repress our emotions, or eat and drink them back down?

Years ago, when emotional intelligence became the next big thing, I thought that, perhaps, it would give us permission to express ourselves more authentically in our workplaces. It might teach us how to hold the emotions of others, to sit quietly, empathically, with someone who was crying, without trying to fix what was wrong. Or to celebrate our successes without losing our compassion toward others, whether they be friends or opponents.

But that never happened. For the most part, emotional intelligence is simply new jargon for discussing our emotions intellectually or codifying them in competency models. Meanwhile our feelings remain imprisoned in our heads.

That’s not the world I want to live in, and I don’t think you really want to live there either. Sure, it might keep us comfortable. Certainly it might feel safe. But only in the short run. Long term, keeping our emotions nice and presentable hurts us, hurts our relationships, leads to burn out, and makes us sick.

So why don’t we all live our lives with Nadal’s open passion, with his exposed heart?

It’s scary to be emotionally open. It makes us vulnerable. We may feel shame, and we’re likely to feel weak.

When I watched Nadal lying face down on the court, his body heaving with sobs, I was reminded of a time when I did the same, in very different circumstances. Earlier this year, a colleague of mine was very angry about something I had done. In front of several other people, she proceeded to tell me everything I was doing that was making her angry.

My job, in that situation, was to listen to her without defensiveness. I had a very hard time doing that (I kept trying to butt in to explain myself), but the other people in the group helped me; when I tried to talk, they gently reminded me to just listen and, when I did, they told me how much they appreciated it.

As I took in her criticisms, my body began to vibrate and, after a while, visibly shake. I couldn’t control it. I can’t explain it other than I felt like my body was trying to contain all of the energy that was coming at me from her, as well as all the energy brewing inside me. After a while, it was simply too much for me to contain and I just burst into sobs.

I felt exposed and ashamed. Not so much by the way my colleague was attacking me as by my physical reaction. That felt painful.

But I also felt a massive release. I felt unburdened, like there was nothing left for me to hide. I felt completely and fully myself. And that was tremendously pleasurable.

I also felt like I could finally take in what my colleague was saying, without agreeing with everything she said but also without making her wrong or judging her. That felt important.

And what I thought might lead to my rejection led to connection. The people around me supported and comforted me.

My sobbing came from failure, Nadal’s came from success. I have experienced both, and here’s what’s interesting: They feel the same. That’s because, essentially, they are. It’s all energy looking for a way out.

We are, fundamentally, emotional beings. In celebration or sadness, fear or anger or love, our emotions are very much a part of who we are.

It’s high time we openly embrace them.

Originally published at Harvard Business Review


  1. Somnath says:

    Just one word summarising the feelings I had over the article – Wow!

  2. Irene says:


  3. A beautiful article, thank you. I’m psychiatrist and newly minted CEO (eg. scared, passionate, hopeful) of a firm working in this space. I find it really tricky to hold the dynamic tension between being in authentic vulnerability and being perceived as in control, the calm “alpha”. That said, the more that leaders (like Raf) can hold that space with dignity, the more others are empowered. Thanks for doing so Peter!

  4. Annamarie says:

    Hi there,
    Watched that game too, love Rafa and his come back, Federrer did that too on his Aussi wins.
    Good stuff, beeing tuff is last century.
    Love your mail too.

  5. Peter,
    One of your best.

  6. Susan K says:

    So inspiring Peter! Thanks for sharing.

  7. Peter says:

    Well done. I must admit, I’m not a huge Rafa fan. I was pulling for Novak. However, I do admire Rafa’s grit and determination. Corporate America could benefit from Rafa’s work ethic, tenacity and humanity.

  8. Michael Gagnon says:


    I read this article today at 39,000 feet and was moved by your expressions. I watched the match Sunday, but did not make the deep connection about the human spirit you made in the article until just now.

    Life is about being all in. Life is about moving mountains, not just looking at them. Thank you very much for taking the time to think this through as you did and expressing it with such resonance.

    We are all the better for this in a big, big way. Tomorrow will be different than today for me I can assure you.


  9. Aaves Qureshi says:

    Very nice Peter. Its always so good reading your posts. Please keep it up.

  10. Beena says:

    Nice article, Peter. Thanks for another inspiring article.

    The thoughts expressed in this article sound wonderful but are so difficult to explain and encourage in the Indian corporate context. Our culture too influences our behaviour and as such men here are taught to repress their emotions. We truly need sensitive and thoughtful leaders to demonstrate this kind of behaviour of acceptance of emotions and willingness to express it openly.

  11. Caroline says:

    Thanks for this great post. Have you (that’s you-plural, everyone) seen Brene Brown’s TED talk – I think its very related – on the power of vulnerability. She’s a researcher / story teller, and she says:
    “Vulnerability is . . . the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that [vulnerability is] also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.”

  12. Toyin says:

    Great piece. Thanks.

  13. Nana Fredua Agyeman Pambuo says:

    Once again Peter, you have dared to go where others would not even dream about. Human strength, like courage as Rafa demonstrates lies not in control or always being the alpha male but the ability to give vent to your emotions and through that connect with the senses and spiritually of all of mankind!

  14. Stephen says:

    Fabulous Peter!

  15. heidi says:

    Thank you so much for this article. I had an opportunity to express my feelings of frustration to someone this week who listened with presence only- no interruptions, no nods of agreement. When I started talking, I felt very vulnerable(expecting to be interrupted and corrected or dismissed),but as the person just listened,I felt so empowered! alive! I also got more specific and clear in my communication.My words came from a deeper place. I am the CEO of my household as the single parent of a child with special needs. Every day,it demands I give it my all-with love. Some days, I’m doing Snoopys’ “happy dance” and others I’m on my knees sobbing, but I am in it completely. I hope many,many people read this aticle. Thanks,H

  16. Peter, What wonderful sharing in a world where everyone pretends that they are not exuberant, not overwhelmed, not sad, not successful, etc.

    It’s time to be real and to show your emotions. Like you said, when you let yourself be vulnerable people can really connect to you and relationships can grow deeper. Thank you.

  17. Jim DeLash says:

    Excellent post, Peter. As a tennis fan and a student of human behavior, I really enjoyed how you connected Rafa with the business world. I admire Nadal’s work ethic, focus on the positive and having a plan tremendously and think all of those have applications to business. Now, I’ll add emotions to that list. Well done.

  18. Achilleas Antoniades says:

    Fantastic article. It is about time this culture recognized the role of emotions and the energy they bring to our life. I don’t feel ashamed to cry, but sometimes it is embarrassing to other people who try desperately to control their emotions. They may consider me weak or they simply do not know how to handle it.

  19. brigitte gouard says:

    Thank you for that article. I am an enthusiastic, dynamic French Canadian woman with lots of energy working in an executive position in a very conservative environment (financial services). I have always felt that my passion and effusiveness is a strike against me and have for a few years worked on appearing calm and collected even if it goes against the grain.
    Your article has allowed me to realize that my energy and passion is something worth celebrating and not stiffling.
    thank you

  20. Saniya Anwar says:

    WOW! Thanks for bringing the Human out from the Corporation!!!

  21. I thank you for your message and am disheartened at its meaning. Your story brings my attention to a current workplace situation with a different kind of emotional challenge. One of the members of the C team who is critical to our success limits the entire organization by his unwillingness to be anything but happy all the time. This is how he thinks (and that is the operant word) you need to be to be a successful leader. On the other hand he infuriates others with his inability to say how he really feels, disappoints his team by not taking a stand and limits his organization by not requiring vendors to do what they said they would do. His inability to feel or feel the entire spectrum of feelings fosters many difficult feelings for others to contend with on their own. This is another consequence of not feeling.

  22. Peter Thompson says:

    Great story on the power of being real, loved it. I did however find myself wondering as I read your article if the same hero status would have been bestowed on Novak if he had cried so passionately because he lost? You answered that question to a degree when you detailed the emotional experience you had with your work colleague, even so it appears that it is easier to ’empathise’ with the high achievers in our midst while not be so gracious with those who aren’t.

  23. kalyani Basu says:

    Hi Peter,
    Wonderful insight into human emotions. Beautifully written. Appreciate it.

  24. Good post, Peter. Too often we ignore emotions in business—to our detriment.

  25. viet says:

    Thank You Mr. Peter! Your article is great, and so is your feelings at that special situation. While listening & at the same time being you, with an open heart…

  26. Dave Forsberg says:

    Is this a call to embrace and reveal our authentic selves? I think (or like to think) that there is inherent value in expressing your emotions in the workplace. The challenge is that most of us only feel comfortable to celebrate or breakdown among a few trusted colleagues. Will it take our senior managers/leaders to lead by example? Or is there room for an EQ grassroots movement?

    Thanks for sharing the candid story!

  27. Elle says:

    Peter that’s a really inspiring and thought-provoking article – just what I needed to read today. I’ve been struggling with my emotions lately and how I express / hide them and your remark about it being an energy looking for a way out just hit the nail on the head. I’ve just realised that each time I let it out and allow myself to shed some tears (whether I’m alone or talking it through with a friend) I feel this cleansing effect. And I think I’m coming to understand what it means to be vulnerable and that it’s not a bad thing….just a new experience I want to embrace.
    I also love your comment about the emotional intelligence – I absolutley agree with what you said and I also don’t want to live in a world where people cannot express themselves. I think I’ll start with myself and see where it takes me.
    Thank you!!!

  28. ed says:

    I rarely get angry, or feel hurt enough to attack someone. But I’ve noticed when others do, it’s common for them to be unsatisfied until the object of their scorn is also hurt. Perhaps you yielded that result, and they were satisfied, and a better connection was made, but I hardly believe that’s always (or even usually) the best outcome. As I see it, ripping others down to feel better is a reduction to the lowest common denominator of unhappiness. Perhaps you really needed to hear it, but that’s a pretty big caveat when most people probably need to work through their own issues, even if their issue at hand is with you, in particular.

  29. michael says:

    Interesting indeed. Appreciate the story. But, I must say I don’t expect too much crying as an expression of emotion in the US business world happening anytime soon. Basically we are talking about culture. I lived and worked in 22 countries. There are many cultures I have been exposed to expressing emotions openly and others being more introvert. American business culture leans heavily toward the macho image, just look as women as they rise to higher rankings they tend to behave and dress more masculine. I think if you ask any female senior executive, if they were to openly cry in meetings they would not hold the respect of their peers. I could be wrong, but I believe we have a generation to two to go through before you see more true open emotions. We wear many layers at work and it might take a while to peel them all off.

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