Roger Federer’s mental toughness has been central to his ongoing success. In his career to date, he’s won 82% of his matches, two thirds of his Grand Slam finals, and 65% of his tie breaks. These kind of stats can’t be achieved without immense mental strength.
It’s well known, however, that in his teens and early twenties, Federer struggled with a hot temper which affected his ability to play consistently to a high standard.
A turning point came at the Hamburg Masters in 2001. Following a disappointing loss to Italian journeyman Franco Squillari, Federer smashed his racket in a fury. He realized that things had to change. The cool, calm Federer that we know today was born here.
We don’t know exactly what changed in Federer’s mind after that match. In a 2009 interview, Federer commented that his mental transformation came about because he realized he had to take responsibility for his attitude and behavior on court.
But this doesn’t tell us how Federer actually built his mental strength.
Fortunately, over the past year, Federer has opened up more and more about his mental processes on court. We can now see for ourselves much more clearly exactly how he copes with pressure and the challenging thoughts and emotions of competitive high level tennis.
Two post-match interviews with Federer are particularly instructive about his mental approach.
After clinching his 20th Grand Slam title at this year’s Australian Open, Federer revealed that he had been wracked with nerves all day leading up to the final and during the match itself. In his own words:
“All day I was thinking, How would I feel if I won it, how would I feel if I lost it? I’m so close, yet so far. I think I was going through the whole match like this. I’ve had these moments in the past, but maybe never as extreme as tonight.”
When asked how he felt directly after winning, he replied:
“I was just really happy, to be honest, that it was all done. I was so bloody nervous all day. It was eating me up inside. That’s why, when it was all over, I was just so relieved.”
Why are these comments so instructive? Because they show us that even the great Roger Federer feels intense nerves before and during matches, but this did not stop him from performing to an extremely high level.
He played brilliantly and maintained deep focus despite feeling very nervous.
A common misconception is that if you’re mentally tough, you don’t experience difficult emotions such as anxiety or anger. The truth is that mental strength is about being able to perform your best even when difficult emotions are present.
Federer gave us even more helpful information about his mental approach in his press conference after defeating Philipp Kohlschreiber at the Rotterdam Open in February. Fed told journalists that he had been experiencing ‘negative thought processes’ on court. Asked what he was thinking when two set points down in the first set tie break, Federer replied that he was ‘preparing for the second set’. In his words:
“I don’t care how positive a person you are, you just see negativity flying all around you and you’re like ‘I’m down 6-4, I messed up, I should have done this, I should have done that, and now I’ve just got to get lucky and I’m at the mercy of my opponent.’ It’s a bad feeling.”
Needless to say, Federer won that tie-break despite all the negative thoughts that were present in his mind.
So what’s his secret?
He accepts and tolerates all the difficult thoughts and emotions that occur in his mind and body and stays focussed on the task at hand.
He doesn’t fight the negative thoughts or feelings or try to get rid of them. He just rides the waves of his emotions, and stays present and focused on the match.
Federer’s not alone in taking this mental approach. His great rivals Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are able to do the same. In fact, all the greats of game have had this mental ability to one extent or another.
There are many ways individual players might arrive at the ability to do this. Roger will hopefully elaborate more on how he developed his mental strength in the years to come.
For now though, we know that the ability to accept difficult mental experience and then refocus, can be cultivated through mental training.
Tennis-specific mindfulness training is a structured and proven way to build this skill. Novak Djokovic used mindfulness to make his mental breakthrough in 2011. In the women’s game Johanna Konta boosted her ranking from 146 to 4 within a year by using a mindfulness-based approach to mental training. Many other pros are now using mindfulness to enhance their mental toughness.
Anyone can train in tennis-specific mindfulness. We may not be able to play as well as Federer, but we can learn to be just as mentally strong.
If you want to transform your mental approach to tennis, then download my Mindfulness-Based Tennis Psychology audio course and book here.
I also offer coaching via Zoom, Whatsapp or Skype. Feel free to contact me to arrange a session.