What 2 Ridiculous Tennis Matches Taught me about Mental Toughness and Life

tennis mental toughness

August 1995

I'm a teenager and I'm competing in a local tournament. Although I'm not committed to becoming a pro, I take these competitions seriously. I see them as a test of my skill and mental toughness. They're also sanctioned by the LTA (the main tennis organisation in the UK) and they carry ratings and rankings points. More than that, though, I'm playing against my main rival.

This kid is three years younger than me. We've played each other countless times in practise sets but this is the first time we've met in an official competition. If the results of our practises are anything to go by, it's not looking good. Baring a recent draw (one set each), he's beaten me every time. However, lately, I've been playing well.

The match starts just as I'd hoped. There are no nerves, I feel light on my feet and unable to miss. He's trying everything he can, but the shots and patterns of play that worked against me in practise aren't working now. As a result, I take a commanding lead. First set to Joe, a crushing 6 - 0.

The second set picks up where the first finished. He can't do anything to break the run of play and the games are stacking up in my favour. As I reach five games in the second set, he still hasn't registered on the scoreboard. Unbelievably, I'm 6 - 0, 5 - 0 up. 

How have I done this? 

This kid is three years younger than me. That really bothers me. It's humiliating to be routinely beaten by someone who isn't as physically developed. 

The main issue, though, is that I've consistently underperformed in all my practise matches against him. When I'm playing, it's like there's something blocking me from giving my best. It feels like I'm a puppet on a string with a vindictive master ensuring that I miss the easiest of shots.

Now, though, it finally feels like I'm putting all of this to rest. I'm going to win. I'm actually going to win.

And that's the problem. At 5 - 0 up, 30 all, it finally registers. I'm two points away from victory.

I'm about to destroy my main rival. Not only am I going to beat him, I'm going to humiliate him. He's going to leave this court without winning a game and all those practise victories will mean nothing in comparison to the thrashing I've given him when it really counts. 

As soon as I think these thoughts, everything changes. The puppet master suddenly appears. He's messing with me again. My arms go to jelly. I can barely hold the racket. My mental toughness deserts me. 30 all turns to 40- 30, and then I lose the game. 

At 5 -1 up, you'd think I'd be able to steady the ship, regroup, and focus on the positives. Somehow, though, I know I've blown my chance. In an instant, the momentum completely shifts and the familiar pattern of our matches returns. In another instant, the set is over. I've lost it 7-5.

It's now one set all. At this point, I should be able to take a step back, clear my mind and focus on putting everything I've got into the final set. However, that's not where my head's at.

I can't stop thinking about how close I was to victory. I'm still reliving the 5 - 0, 30 all point where I blinked, began thinking about the result and everything changed.

It's as if I'm not there for the third set. In what must have been less than 20 minutes, I lose 6-0 and the match is over. Since being 6-0, 5-0 up, I haven't won a single game. 

 

June 2019

I'm playing in the quarter finals of the Surrey (my county) 35 and over summer competition. My opponent is a man I've played four times before. The record stands at 3 -1 in my favour. Although I don't consider him a rival, I want to win. 

After taking a 5 - 2 lead in the first set, though, I start to crumble. Up until that point, I've been relying on his mistakes. He hasn't been playing well and all I have to do is keep the ball in court.

Then, he changes his strategy. He becomes more aggressive, increasing not only his winner count but also eradicating his mistakes. I don't react to this change, continuing to play passively and expecting him to give me the point.

He doesn't, though, eating into my lead (not before I blow 2 set points) and claiming the first set 7 -5.

Now, I'm feeling the pressure. All kinds of negative thoughts are running through my mind. Some of my students were watching the start of the match and I wonder how I'll maintain credibility as a coach if I lose. 

I also can't believe this is happening again. The puppet master is back and I'm missing shots that, in practise, I'd make with ease. I start to think about the history of my tennis career and come to the undeniable conclusion that it's one of self-sabotage. My mental toughness is rapidly eroding. 

The worst thing of all, though, is the feeling there's nothing I can do about it. This odd sensation comes over my body that I can't control. I feel like I'm swinging my racket through water. 

All of this is running through my mind as I go 3 - 0 down in the second set. At this point, I tell myself that something has to change. I'm desperate to overcome my identity as the king of self-sabotage. It's not ok to lose the match, regroup and come again. Something has to change now

I start to realise that my mind is clouded. It's too busy jumping from one negative scenario to the next. I need to channel it in a different direction. 

Picking my strategy, I decide to focus on hitting winners. I have greater artillery and range of shot than my opponent so why am I sitting back and allowing him to dictate? 'Hit winners, Joe, hit winners.' For the next six games this is the only thought in my mind - I don't think about the score or the consequences of defeat. When they're over, I find myself having taken the second set 6 - 3.

As we enter the final set, I'm feeling confident. I'm amazed at how I've manged to stay in this 'hitting winners' trance and nothing has broken my concentration. As a result, I don't worry when he rushes to another 3 - 0 lead. 

What I do realise, though, is that I can't let him win another game. Even with my calf and quadricep muscles cramping to the point where I collapse after one exhausting rally, I maintain my focus. 'Hit winners, Joe.'

The pain is irrelevant. In fact, it helps. With my mobility greatly decreased, I now have no other option apart from finishing the point early. And I do. At the end of 3 exhausting hours, I win the final set 6 -4. 

 

The Lessons Learned 

1. Turning an opponent into 'a rival' is counter productive 

Considering your opponent 'a rival' only adds to the pressure. Inevitably, you end up playing the person rather than the match. As a result, you rarely play to the best of your ability.

Far better to be like Roger Federer. The media has built up his rivalry with Rafael Nadal to epic proportions. More often than not, Federer has come out on the wrong side of the result. However, when going into his recent semi-final against Nadal at Wimbledon 2019, he commented that he never considered the significance of the so-called rivalry and prepared for the match just the same as any other. He won.

Having this approach removes the nerves. Whether you're playing a tennis match, or competing in business, never make it personal. Focus on what you can do, not who you're competing with, and you're far more likely to perform to the best of your ability. 

2. Focus on the positives

When I lost a game, at 5-0 up in the second set of the first match, I foolishly reacted like it was all over. I was unable to see clearly and view the situation as it was.

Looking at things from a different perspective, I could have told myself that I still had a commanding lead. I could have regrouped, focused on what had got me into this position and continued to play. Afterall, if, before the match, someone had asked me, 'would you like to be 6 - 0, 5-1 up?' I'd have jumped at the chance. However, there I was, one game from winning, and all I could think about was the opportunity I'd blown.

When, in life, are you not focusing on the positives? Are there occasions when you're so disappointed by an outcome that you totally overlook the strong position you're in?

If so, try to think how every perceived setback can be used to your advantage.

I was in a much worse situation in my recent tennis match (3 - 0 down in the final set with my legs cramping), yet I reacted far more positively. I told myself that cramp limiting my options was a good thing. All I could do was be aggressive and attempt to hit winners. And that's what I did.

3. The mind works best when you give it clear and simple instructions 

In my recent match, it became clear to me that my mind was full of too much noise. I was thinking about what my students might say, how I seemed to be stuck in a permanent pattern of self-sabotage, and how I didn't want this to happen again. 

To counter this, I had to eliminate all of these thoughts and focus on just one thing - hitting winners.

When I did that, my mind cleared and my body settled. I regained control over my arm and racket and began to hit my shots properly.  

It's important to remember that your mind reacts like a computer. Program it with a clear thought and it will respond with a clear outcome. However, if you bombard it with 20 different scenarios, it won't know what to do and the only thing you'll manifest is confusion.

What's the one strategy or action you can take, right now, to ensure that you achieve your objective? Focus on this to the exclusion of everything else.   

4. Never think about the outcome

Getting overly attached to an outcome is the surest way to ensure you don't get what you want. In my 1995 match, it caused me to get excited and lose focus. In my recent match, it caused me to get dejected and play within myself. 

It's far more productive to remove all thought of outcome from your mind and remember two lines from Rudyard Kipling's poem, If,

'If you can meet with triumph and disaster,
and treat these two imposters just the same.'

Don't get too over excited about victory for there are more battles to come. Don't get too deflated by defeat because there's always another chance. Stay in the moment and focus on giving the best of yourself to whatever you're doing.

5. Don't rely on your opponent making mistakes

In my recent match, I was lulled into a false sense of security by my opponent's poor form at the start. I was comfortable. All I had to do was put the ball in play and let him make the mistake. However, when this pattern changed, I was left woefully unprepared for what was to come. 

Playing for your opponent to screw up, or hoping that some circumstance will intervene and hand you a victory, is a passive approach. You may benefit from luck on the odd occasion but, as a long-term strategy for both tennis and life, this is a terrible outlook. Instead, you must be bold and take the lead. It's your responsibility to get the outcome you desire. 

6. Your mind is an incredibly powerful tool

Look at the incredible array of symptoms my mind manifested across the two matches. I felt like I was swinging my racket underwater, my arms turned to jelly and it seemed as if a puppet master had taken control of my actions. Then look at the huge fluctuation in the run of games. I won 11 games in a row in the first match and then lost 13. I lost 8 games in a row in the second match and then won 6. 

What caused all this?

You could say my opponent played a role but it was minimal. When my mind was clear, I barely dropped a game. When my mind was clouded, I couldn't win a game if my life depended on it. All of the crazy fluctuations were because of my own mind.

Most people have no clue about the power of their mind and the extent to which it can ruin or save their life. It controls virtually everything.

  • Those very real symptoms you're experiencing, that your doctor can't diagnose yet are causing you extreme pain and discomfort, are because of your mind.
  • Your inability to sleep is because of your mind.
  • Your depression is because of your mind.
  • That mental block you experience, that prevents you from talking to members of the opposite sex, speaking in front of an audience or performing in a match is because of your mind.

This is good news. When things are going wrong, take a step back and remind yourself that it's just in your head. If you can take control of your inner world (thoughts, feelings and beliefs), there is always a way out to a positive future. 

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