In the second of our 6-part series on mental toughness we examine the game of tennis. We have previously written on mental toughness in running.
By way of introduction, here is how we define it:
What is Mental Toughness?
Mental Toughness not hard to identify but difficult to define. Inc magazine provides an interesting starting point in “4 Excuses Mentally Strong People Don’t Use“. These are:
- I’d rather beg for forgiveness than ask for permission.
- You only live once.
- I don’t care what anybody thinks.
- I deserve to be happy.
While these sayings aren’t necessarily bad, when used as excuses they tend to have deleterious effects. When mental toughness is defined as one’s ability to consistently demonstrate outstanding results in the most critical circumstances, then an excuse designed to shirk one’s responsibilities is counter-productive. In addition to the cliches above, we would humbly propose the following addendum:
- Whatever will be, will be.
Now, there is probably a time and place for this. However, the mentally strong don’t use this as a way to avoid follow-through but rather as a comfort that when he has “worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted one the field of battle – victorious.”Not necessarily a victor in the battle itself but a victor in knowing he has done all that he could. (h/t Vince Lombardi)
Mental Toughness in Tennis
Why does Novak Djokovic always seem to win the most critical points? Or Roger Federer prevail in tie-breaks? Or Serena Williams peak at the biggest tournaments?
Why do they always get that extra ball back? Make a jaw-dropping shot? Win the deciding set?
The winners and losers are applauded alike; the victor for taking another step toward immortality and the vanquished for having fought a tiresome but ultimately vain battle.
Is it because the winners – the ones we all read about in the papers, watch on SportCenter, and see in advertisements, on billboards, and in magazines – is it because they are just that much talented than everybody else? Are the defeated just a worthy challenger, fluffer, best of the rest? Is it because the legends are blessed with gifts that no one else possesses? A work ethic that no other can match? A will to win that bests everyone else? Over and over and over again?
It is tempting for those who have never played tennis to say that these statements are truth. However, we would argue the contrary, that others are just as (if not more) talented than the champions, work as hard (or harder) than the winners, and want to win even more because they have to win just to put bread on the table.
Those who live in ignominy, outside the top 50, need to win because if they don’t they will starve. If that isn’t motivation, I don’t know what is.
And are we really saying that out of the entire world, three or four players possess so much more talent than anyone else that they win every (or nearly every) single time they go out to play a match. Even when these players have a “bad” day, it is highly improbable that they will lose to someone ranked outside the top 50.
And so it comes down to mental toughness. The ability to harness the proverbial butterflies, contain nervousness, and revel in the opponent’s anguish – the anguish that she is choking, capitulating to what everyone watching expects.
I have won many tennis matches, matches that I should not have won based on talent. But you can see it in your opponent’s eyes when they fade. Focus on that and not about your own feelings.
Focus on breaking down the resistance. Focus on making him feel trapped by the boundaries of the court, alone and isolated. Then you can play your game, taking solace in the fact that you know you will win because it just won’t happen any other way.