Mental Toughness: Separating the Wheat from the Chaff

By Vansh Vermani

An earlier version of this piece was submitted as a school assignment in 2017.

We marvel at the pros on TV. We aspire to be just like them when we step on the court. They make it look so easy. We idolize them, sometimes in a religious manner. Sports, especially tennis (an individual sport), have an emotional attachment where we admire players who overcome difficult obstacles. Some players demonstrate this quality during the course of a single match, while others overcome numerous long-term physical injuries to make their comeback to the sport. 

So what defines a top female or male tennis player? What intangibles do they possess that the rest of the field, who is close in talent, is lacking? These players, the likes of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and the Williams sisters, all have this “it” factor. They have the ability to find that zone of mental calmness, which enables them to play some of their best tennis under tremendous pressure and expectations. For example, at a crucial juncture in a match, where they are in danger of letting the match slip out of their hands like at 5-5 in the fifth set. This is when everybody sees why they are called champions. Brad Gilbert, a well-known sports analyst, former player, and commentator, wrote in his famous book Winning Ugly: “to me, absolute greatness is defined at the highest of levels, when other people will say things are going a million miles per hour, for them it actually slows down to where they actually become absolutely clearer what they are going to do.” Their opponent on any day may be very close to them in talent, but when it comes to crunch time in a big match or occasion, the underdog’s inability to stay calm under pressure may get the better of them. The underdog usually makes a bad decision that costs them the chance to pull off a major upset, and potentially turn their whole career around. When this happens over and over again in tennis, it can be incredibly frustrating and difficult to rebound from, and you find that oftentimes you lose belief in your abilities more and more, losing to players who are ranked below you. It takes a special mindset to break this losing cycle, and start gaining back the confidence. This is the foundation of mental toughness. The willingness and commitment to accept the obstacles that come one’s way and embrace them, for the purpose of personal improvement. 

A good example of a professional player who has had to deal with this pressure is Bulgarian player Grigor Dimitrov. Dimitrov was always touted as the next big thing. The next future star with a game that very closely resembles Roger Federer in playing style and a one-handed backhand, a shot that is rare these days on the pro circuit. The media dubbed him “Baby Federer.” At the age of 23, in 2014, he started to make a push in the rankings, and made the semifinals of Wimbledon, losing an extremely close match to world No.1 Novak Djokovic. It was a match where he had multiple chances to close out the fourth set, which would push the match to a deciding fifth set. After this devastating loss, Dimitrov’s confidence began to fade away. He began losing close matches, time and time again failing to close out wins that were sometimes easily under his belt. He would crumble and wilt under pressure as matches progressed. After two more years of hard-enduring defeats, and crushing blows, Dimitrov began to understand his game more, and switched coaches and racquets. With his new coach, Dimitrov went back to the drawing board, and worked on the basics of his game, starting with his fitness, and making his serve stronger. Dani Vallverdu, a coach who has worked with former top 10 players, got him to push harder in training and helped Grigor develop joy in working hard off the court. He helped his player understand that he belonged at the top of the game. In the beginning of 2017, Dimitrov started showing flashes of the form that got him to the semis of Wimbledon in 2014. He began playing more fearlessly, stepping in and attacking each ball. He seemed to be playing with greater self belief and purpose. He looked stronger as the matches went on. He won a tournament at the start of the year, beating three top 10 players, whom he had never won against. He was starting to play consistent tennis at all his tournaments. He won four ATP titles and finished the season at a career best ranking of 3rd in the world. Dimitrov showed incredible mental strength and maturity during a long process. Two years of struggle cost him many matches, and he dropped out of the top 40 at one stage, but he continued to believe and worked as hard as ever to turn around his fate. Now 30 years old, Dimitrov is ranked 28th in the world, and though a return to the top five looks unlikely, Dimitrov continues to fight for results.

Though he lost in the end, Dimitrov played a fantastic match in the 2017 Australian Open semifinals.

Tennis is not so much a numbers game as people make it sound. At the end of the day, it isn’t about being the greatest player of all time, getting to number one, winning majors. It isn’t a race. It is about maximizing your potential. That can only happen if you build a strong foundation of your mental psyche which can keep you grounded and dedicated to improving for improvement’s sake. In order to be mentally strong and maximize your potential as a tennis player, you must think long term for perspective, but only focus on short term goals. It is important to focus on the process of improvement on a day-to-day basis, without worrying about immediate results. 

So how exactly does a tennis player achieve the zenith of mental strength? The first step is the most difficult bit: training and physical strength. This is also the biggest factor, as a huge part of mental toughness is the feeling of knowing that no matter how long the match goes, your back, legs, shoulders, and muscles don’t get sore and affect your point-for-point intensity. A lot of mental frustration stems from not having the endurance and strength of being able to close out tight matches. Training hard and working out in the gym are the first steps. Once you develop some of that confidence in fitness/training, then it has to be carried over to practice. This may take time, but it is very important for a tennis player to have a long term perspective. You may not win many matches right away, and you may lose a lot of close matches, or you may get completely thumped. That is okay, because that actually gives you more information to work with. Once you discover your niche and where your strengths lie, you then have to deal with the nerves of playing in a match. This is something much harder to deal with at first, because while you were training and winning practice sets and points, there was nothing on the line. Now you must prove yourself and adapt your game to your opponent. It takes a while for every player to maximize their skillset. At first, they may feel overwhelmed, thinking they are expected to hit spectacular shots and outright winners to beat their opponent. However, what usually works best is keeping it simple and sticking to your gameplan. Sometimes though, your game plan might work well, but then your opponent finds your weaknesses. The best players will accept that they are not playing their best tennis, and find solutions to slow down the opponent’s rhythm. Instead of attacking a player’s backhand which may be the weaker side, they think hard in the changeover breaks and realize that their opponent is always hanging on the weaker side, expecting every ball to go there. So they try to mix it up and stretch them wide to the forehand. It is this kind of problem solving that wins matches in tight situations. Many of the best players pump their fist when they play good points, and are mellow and keep a poker face, rather than showing negative emotion. They look at the positives and demonstrate a short memory when it comes to their mistakes. It is very easy to get frustrated over one bad decision, and let it linger into other parts of their game. When I think of mental strength, I see someone who is tough, match in and match out, and says “okay, no problem, another long match, let’s grind it out.” 

Another example of staying mentally tough is not getting affected by the emotions on the other side of the net. Knowing that your opponent is struggling physically, it is easy for a player to relax and say, “I’ve got them now since they are hurt.” But a mature and mentally tough player realizes that there could be a rain interruption, the opponent could start to feel better, they could get lucky with a few return winners and play with nothing to lose, knowing they are unable to  move at 100%. The next thing you know, your level is dropping since you are waiting for your opponent to miss. To prevent this, the mentally strong player who knows their opponent is hurt keeps pressing on and puts pressure on where it hurts. This could mean trying variety, like hitting drop shots if the opponent is injured and their movement is restricted. Or, simply just maintaining high intensity between the points, encouraging yourself to only focus on your side of the net, and not get distracted by the emotions of your opponent. 

The phrase “mental toughness” is sometimes incorrectly associated with only the best players of the world. Mental toughness is shown in incredible ways, not based on results, but on the effort and willpower to change your story and past tendencies. For this, a player must figure out what works for them, and have the patience to put in the hard work and wait for the results. Grigor Dimitrov had low expectations in match play, but he always expected himself to give 100% in training and discussing tactics with his coach and team. He was not content at being ranked 50 in the world. His road back to the top was long and hard. Though he might not stay at the top forever, or have the success many predicted when he was a teenager, he will always have the satisfaction of knowing he took the right steps to get there. 

The common theme of every example of mental toughness is accepting the ups and downs, and showing the grit and determination to bounce back. Taking the expectations and pressures of tennis and embracing them as a challenge to get better is what separates the great tennis players from the rest. 

We must not forget that tennis, after all, is just a sport. But the difficulties that one faces while playing the sport and the tools one learns to overcome them are a vehicle that can help one to succeed in any job or endeavor in the future. Mental toughness is needed in all spheres of life to succeed. Without mental toughness, humanity will struggle to evolve and mediocrity will be the summit for success.

Grigor Dimitrov lifts the 2017 World Tour Finals trophy. Photo: news.xinhuanet.com

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