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Tennis phenom Boris Becker has been instructing others in a “special type of yoga and meditation,” according to an article published in the German tabloid Bild earlier this week.
In April, Becker was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for failure to disclose assets related to his 2017 bankruptcy. He is currently serving time at Huntercombe Prison, less than an hour’s drive from Wimbledon Stadium.
“As a sportsman, he knows only too well the highs and lows of victories and defeats. He is sharing his life experience with his fellow prisoners,” said a source close to Becker, reported Bild.
Becker’s life in the news
Becker made history in 1985 when, at the age of 17, he became the youngest tennis player to win the men’s singles at Wimbledon. Known as “Boom Boom” for his aggressive serve, Becker took home the Wimbledon trophy twice more and won three other Grand Slam titles. During his 16-year career, he drew almost as much news coverage for his angry outbursts—typically directed at himself—as his strong forehand and aggressive playing style.
After retiring in 1999, Becker became a television commentator and mentor to other tennis players. The media continued to scrutinize his life, focusing on an illicit romantic escapade prior to his divorce, his various business ventures, a conviction for tax evasion by German courts in 2002, as well as the bankruptcy and subsequent imprisonment.
The mental fortitude of athletes…
It’s not uncommon for athletes—including tennis players—to incorporate yoga into their training to enhance both physiological and psychological agility and stamina. It’s unclear the exact role yoga and meditation play in Becker’s life.
What is apparent is Becker’s understanding of mental fortitude. Professional tennis player Novak Djokovi hired Becker as his coach in 2014 following two Grand Slam final losses. “We’re not significantly changing anything in my game…no one-handed backhands, stuff like that,” Djokovic told reporters shortly after he announced his decision to work with Becker, according to a Reuters article. “The biggest part he can contribute is the mental approach. I felt I dropped two or three titles in the last two years I could have won. I felt there was a mental edge I was lacking.”
While working with Becker, Djokovic went on to win five out of six tournaments where he competed, including the coveted Grand Slam.
Becker continued to share the benefits of perseverence with junior tennis players in online trainings, including the World Tennis Conference in March 2021. “Mentality is a lot about controlling your emotion,” Becker explained, according to an article in Tennis TourTalk. “You practice the confidence part, the mentality part, every single day outside of tennis. It starts with how you approach life.”
“Believe me, there are 10 different situations a day I could scream. People disrespecting me, people being nasty, people don’t understand me,” explained Becker. “Ultimately, I hurt myself. By breathing in and out, try to understand the other person and why he is like that. So when you go on the court, and there is a difficult situation, breathe in and out, and don’t let your emotions take over. That is the secret.”
Sounds a lot like yoga.
…but at what cost?
That fortitude can take a toll. When Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open in 2021 and, a month later, chose to step back from Wimbledon, she cited depression, social anxiety, and the need to care for her mental state as her primary concerns. Becker publicly questioned her decision, asserting that pressure is part of the pro tennis lifestyle.
He later changed his approach and emphasized the need for greater understanding of the plight of professional athletes. “The struggle is real,” said Becker in an interview with The Guardian. “It’s easier said than done—with winning comes expectations and responsibilities–but feeling good about yourself will always be more important than winning. The tennis community has to make sure they’re not putting players under too much pressure.”
Becker knows firsthand that pressure. In his autobiography, The Player, Becker revealed his drug and alcohol addiction, which he said began with sleeping pills.
In recent decades, sport psychology has been experiencing a shift from primarily performance enhancement through focus and imagery to include management of self-talk, anxiety, and depression through awareness of the breath and bodily sensations. There has also been an increased emphasis on treating substance abuse. The approach bears a considerable resemblance to certain aspects of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness.
Even before his incarceration, Becker may have already been on his way to understanding how to navigate the challenges of life. In an interview with the BBC in 2015, he explained, “There are many disadvantages of getting older, but one of the advantages is you become a little calmer, a little wiser, you understand more who you are and who you are not.”
Yoga in prison
Most incarcerated individuals receive cognitive behavioral therapy to develop an understanding of how and why they ended up where they did, explains James Fox, founder of the Prison Yoga Project. Although this is necessary, continues Fox, what trauma experts and therapists in recent years have learned is that the healing process has to involve the body.
“When you’re no longer doing a competitive sport, yoga is taking you out of that competitiveness, especially for men,” says Fox. “You’re doing something in order to allow you to more deeply access yourself. And from that, you get clear thinking, clear insight, into aspects of yourself that you haven’t really spent time experiencing.”
Fox began teaching yoga at San Quentin 20 years ago before launching the Prison Yoga Project, a training program for yoga teachers to bring “trauma-informed, mindfulness-based yoga directly to prisoners to support their desire to change their lives.”
“Yoga is such a practical kind of practice that supports transforming character,” says Fox. At some point, he explains, whether you’re sentenced to prison for life without parole or two and a half years, you say, “‘This is my life. How do I want the quality of my life to be?’ Because that’s something you still have control over.”
“He’s also obviously stepped into karma yoga by sharing yoga with his fellow inmates,” adds Fox. “That’s fantastic. I think Boris Becker is using his time well.”