The Borg identity

[WARNING: This blog entry consists of an extended sports analogy.  Some people love sports analogies and some people hate them; if you are someone with no love or patience for sports analogies, please give this entry a chance anyway.  All I ask is that you read the first three paragraphs.  If you are not intrigued by that point, you have my permission to stop reading. -R. Rauser ]

Bjorn Borg falls to his knees after defeating John McEnroe to win the 1980 Wimbledon title

Bjorn Borg falls to his knees after defeating John McEnroe to win
the 1980 Wimbledon title, his fifth consecutive championship.

Sweden’s Bjorn Borg was the world’s top ranked tennis player during the late 1970s.  In his illustrious career he won five consecutive Wimbledon titles, the final coming in 1980 against John McEnroe, a match frequently described as one of the greatest in tennis history.  He also won six French Open championships and two Masters titles along with 51 other tournaments.  Nicknamed the “Ice Man” for his unshakable demeanor and near-legendary focus and concentration (that hard-to-define concept in sports sometimes called “mental toughness”), Borg dominated his opponents psychologically as well as physically, with few able to consistently challenge him.

But Borg had a chink in his armor.  In 10 attempts he was unable to win the U.S. Open, the world’s second most prestigious tennis tournament after Wimbledon.  He reached the U.S, Open final four times, but was stopped twice by Jimmy Connors and twice by John McEnroe–his two arch-rivals and the only two players to ever beat him in a Grand Slam final.

It was September, 1981 when everything fell apart for Borg.  His dominance over professional tennis was fading; he had already lost the world number 1 ranking to John McEnroe and had suffered a conclusive defeat at McEnroe’s hands in the Wimbledon final earlier that year.  The U.S. Open in September was Borg’s chance at redemption–and revenge.  But facing McEnroe again in the final, Borg fell apart and lost a surprisingly one-sided match in four sets.  After the match, his nerves shattered, Borg left the court before the awards ceremony, refusing to accept the runner-up trophy.

Bjorn Borg depressed

Borg’s emotional breakdown and subsequent retirement came at a young age, even by the standards of professional sports.  He was only twenty-five years old when he walked out of the stadium at the U.S. Open and jumped into the back of a Volvo without speaking to reporters.  Suffering from anxiety and depression, he retired soon after.

A few things seem to describe Borg’s incredible career and subsequent collapse.  He was unquestionably talented, his name still mentioned as a candidate whenever the question of “greatest tennis player of all time” is asked.  He was also absolutely passionate about tennis, driven to excel, and couldn’t bear the thought of not being the best.  He was a consummate perfectionist.  And his end came about far sooner than he (and everyone else in the tennis world) could have possibly expected.  But he knew his time was over; he had nothing left to give.

I suspect that many talented, passionate people face, at some point in their careers, what I have come to think of as a “Borg moment.”  A moment when, after repeated success, they realize that they have nothing left to offer.  The so-called “people professions”–such as teaching, nursing, medicine, social work–are especially vulnerable to this phenomenon.  I’m trying hard to avoid using the term “burnout”, but it is the common expression for what is more properly and technically described as a complete inability to work effectively in one’s field due to anxiety, depression, and stress.  A recent excellent article from the Financial Post gives some practical guidelines for identifying the signs of this debilitating condition.  But Borg’s story suggests that at least in some cases burnout is not something to be avoided, but recognized for what it is: not a warning to change one’s habits, but an indication that one’s time is up, that one has nothing left to offer, that perhaps a change in vocation is in order.  Last year Forbes published an intriguing article suggesting that career changes will be the “new normal” for the Millennials–a generational label which firmly encompasses today’s high school students.  As an educator one of my many interests is in helping young people think intelligently about their future careers.  Perhaps part of that thinking should involve the very real prospect of being open to the possibility of more than one throughout one’s professional life.

A year before Borg’s emotional collapse, another creative spirit, Mick Jagger, had sung, “You’re gonna get it straight from the shoulder / Can’t you see the party’s over?” Figuring out when the party’s over, and when it’s time to walk off the court for good is probably the hardest challenge any of us face in our professional lives.