There are thousands of tennis players across the world with great fitness levels and excellent technique. Some are so good that if you watch them you wonder why they are not competing regularly at the highest level. In most cases, the gulf between these players and the greats of the game is primarily explained by a difference in mental skills, and in particular the way these combine to produce resilience under pressure, or ‘mental toughness’.
Former Grand Slam singles and doubles champion Samantha Stosur has even gone so far as to say: ‘Tennis is all about mental toughness‘.
A mentally tough tennis player will be well equipped to deal with the many ups and downs which occur during a close tennis match. There are many mental skills that combine to create mental toughness, and these can be developed through specific drills and matchplay.
Learning to be mentally tough can be useful in life, as well as in tennis, as it gives you the ability to overcome setbacks and keep working towards your goals.
The Importance Of Being Mentally Tough
In tennis, players are often faced with situations where they feel under pressure. This may be simply due to the amount of money or ranking points at stake, or it might be a result of a desire to impress those who are watching.
Whatever the reason, a player is often alone with their thoughts on a tennis court, and, if they are not sufficiently resilient, doubt can quickly creep in. Any such lack of belief can cause tentative play and errors.
A mentally tough player does not allow negativity to seep into their mind, and can remain strong under pressure. A very large number of tennis matches are won by the most mentally tough competitor, and for this reason alone mental toughness is crucial.
The Different Mental Aspects Of Tennis
There are many mental skills that contribute towards tennis success, but the ones which combine to create mental toughness are generally thought to be as follows:
- Staying focused
- Coping effectively with pressure
- Remaining unaffected by factors beyond the player’s control
- Maintaining self-belief no matter what happens
- Increasing effort when required
- Demonstrating awareness and control of thoughts and feelings
A player who is strong in these six key areas will appear to be extremely mentally tough.
How To Practice Being Mentally Tough
Some players can look extremely impressive in practice, yet struggle to translate this into success in matches. This is often due to the very different perceptions of pressure in the two situations. In practice, a player can try things with little fear of negative repercussions, whereas in a match they may be up against a tricky opponent, a hostile crowd, and possibly unfavorable officiating.
Mental toughness can only really be improved by working on its constituent parts in a situation where the player genuinely feels under pressure. The obvious answer is to play a lot of matches and work on mental skills within these.
However, it is also possible to attempt to recreate the kind of situations in practice that are likely to occur in matches. This will require some imagination, and perhaps team-mates or friends to act as an audience, but it can be done to some extent.
Well-designed training sessions can contribute significantly towards improvements in mental toughness.
Mental Toughness Drills
There are many exercises that can help to develop the constituent parts of mental toughness. At a global level, the following practice ideas can be useful.
– Play lots of ‘big points’ in practice. It is a quirk of the scoring system in tennis that some points, such as break points and set points, matter more than others. The best way to prepare for these is to design your training to include more of them. Matchplay where a set starts at 3-3 can be excellent for this, and if you are pushed for time, games can start at 30-30.
– Create pressure in training. Bringing in an audience can do this, as it makes players feel judged, just as they tend to during matches. Creating this feeling then allows coaches to help players to develop strategies to deal with it and become more resilient. Matchplay sessions with leaderboards and prizes can also create the type of mindset which players need to experience.
Mental Toughness In Tennis = Mental Toughness In Life
Even if you are never going to be a top tennis player, mental toughness can be extremely useful in many aspects of your life. At work, there will be times when you feel under pressure to perform well, and the skills discussed above will help you to stay calm and believe in your own ability.
It has been found that the most mentally tough athletes can not only give the highest priority to their sporting goals, but they can switch this focus off when they wish in order to maintain a balanced lifestyle. This is the ideal in all walks of life: total focus on what you want to achieve, but not to the detriment of family and friends.
If you want to achieve what you are capable of in tennis, you will need to become mentally tough. A sport psychologist will be able to help you improve the constituent mental skills, and well-designed training sessions and regular matchplay will do the rest. In addition, developing mental toughness in a sporting environment will enable you to deal as effectively as possible with any ‘bumps in the road’ which you might experience in life.