Mental toughness in tennis is not about ‘being tough’ in the traditional sense.
Toughness on court is not primarily about showing grit, determination, or courage, though all of these can be useful at times.
Rather, the mentally toughest tennis players adopt a gentle, light approach to their mental experience on court.
They are able to deal with the inevitable difficult emotions, pressures and events of matchplay with a sense of measured internal calm.
They have taken to heart the epic Rudyard Kipling quote inscribed above the players’ entrance to Wimbledon’s Centre Court:
“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same…”
A tennis match contains multiple mini-Triumphs and mini-Disasters. How we respond to those triumphs and disasters determines whether we play to our full potential or not.
Mental strength means not getting carried away by our experiences during a match, whether good or bad. It means staying focused on what’s happening right here, right now.
We need to aim, as Kipling suggests, to respond with equanimity to whatever happens to us in a match.
We may have hit a fine winner and experienced an exhilarating rush as a result. We still need to refocus immediately on the next point.
We may have hit a short ball into net and missed an open court. We still need to concentrate with full attention on the next point.
So, how do we treat triumph and disaster ‘just the same’ on court?
It’s not by being tough with ourselves.
The tougher we are to ourselves in our minds during a tennis match, the harder it is to find the ease, freedom and flow that we need to play our best.
Instead, we have to adopt a light mental touch. We need to develop an ability to notice our triumphs and disasters on court, accept them and move on quickly.
In a sense, we need to be soft not tough. We need to be able to relax quickly, whatever is going through our mind.
This is the psychological skill that all the great champions have.
This might, at first, seem counterintuitive. You might think that you have to try hard mentally in order to perform well in tennis and to control your emotions on court.
You might believe that you need strict mental discipline to maintain concentration during a match. But ask yourself this: when you’re playing your best, when you’re in the zone, are you trying hard mentally? Are you being ‘tough’?
No. You’re actually in a state of deep flow and relaxation. You’re not consciously doing anything much with the mind. You’re in the moment. Right here, right now.
Ever notice what it feels like to make a mistake when you’re playing in the zone? It doesn’t feel like much at all. We simply accept the mistake and move on. We have an inner confidence, an inner peace which knows that the mistake is not meaningful.
Likewise, when we’re in that flow state, hitting winners might bring us a rush of positive emotion, but we don’t get distracted by those feelings. We just let them be and move on.
This is real mental toughness.
But we don’t need to be playing in the zone to experience this mental approach to tennis.
Anyone can learn how to treat triumph and disaster just the same on court.
The key is to regularly practice noticing what’s going through our minds.
The key is to regularly practice allowing our experience to be as it is, without interfering with it or trying to change it.
The key is to regularly practice refocusing the mind on the present moment, on what’s happening right here, right now.
The more you try to interfere with your mental experience on court, the less calm, focused and mentally tough you’ll be.
The more you engage with emotions on court, whether positive or negative, the more distracted you will become.
The truly mentally tough mind is a mentally soft mind. Understanding this is an essential part of mastering the mental game of tennis.