Mental toughness is not just a preserve of the great champions

The mind is just as important as the body – and working on it for 10 minutes every day can make all the difference to your mental toughness


No tennis player would enter a tournament having not hit a ball for three weeks, yet I have known some who go into a competition having not done any mental practice – and then wonder why their minds are weak. The mind becomes sharp and strong with practice, just as the body gets fit and strong through training, and any player can improve his or her sporting performance with just five or 10 minutes of practice every day.

I have often heard players say: “If only I had more confidence and was mentally tougher I would be so much better.” The implication is that confidence, belief and mental toughness are elusive gifts that only the lucky few possess. Absolute rubbish! Some people might be more adept at learning how to succeed at a young age, but it is not beyond anyone to learn how to be mentally tough.

Mental preparation falls into two categories: firstly long-term preparation for consistent improvement in both practice and matches, and secondly a routine which you develop in preparation for a match.

The steps I will describe here will not take hours and are not difficult to do. They require the desire to follow through consistently and to apply yourself for five to 10 minutes most days.

As you go about your long-term preparation, it’s important to understand that confidence, belief and toughness are affected by the way you talk to yourself and by the actions you take. Feeding yourself inspiring words can encourage your mental growth and help you become a confident adult.

Over a period of six months you can build belief and trust in yourself by repeating on-court and off-court positive self-statements. Find self-statements that lift and energise you. Here are some examples:

“I am good. I can do this.”

“My talent grows every day. I believe in myself and the quality of my practice.”

“I am good enough now. I do not need to think that ‘one day’ I will be good enough because I am prepared to fight 100 per cent no matter who I play or where I play and I know that this is all I expect.”

“The only point that is going to decide the outcome will be the last one.”

“This is my day. I will win or I will learn – so I always win.”

“Nerves are good. They tell me I’m ready. I also know my opponent will be nervous because we are all human.”

I recommend reading through and contemplating your list of statements every day and any time you want a lift. Try reading your self-statements out loud in front of a mirror, looking straight into your own eyes. You might feel embarrassed the first few times, but if you can’t do this privately then how comfortable are you with yourself? It is imperative that you get comfortable with yourself as a person if you are to succeed.

Long-term preparation is a journey of investigation into yourself, but beware of the “always searching” and “complex confusion” syndrome. Keep your method short and simple. Adjust it with learned experience and always use a method that suits your personality. Every champion is mentally tough in his or her own way. All humans make mental mistakes, especially under pressure, but champions consistently work to improve, because standing still is not an option if you value your career.

In your preparations for a match I cannot stress enough the importance of trying different mental strategies and finding a routine and method that works for you. Here are a few dynamics that in my experience happen before a match and need to be dealt with before you step out.

Being afraid seriously damages your performance. Often a player will simply brush feelings of fear under the carpet and pretend they are not happening or ignore them. Face fear head on with a plan. Decide exactly how to use the weapons you have to strike fear into your opponents’ hearts. Take out their biggest weapons as soon as possible.

Picture over and over again how you will defeat your opponent until you become mentally excited to play this person. A good way to face fear is to write down every fear you have and read them out loud. You will quickly realise that they are easier to deal with or seem less scary once you do this.

How can you stay mentally tough when you are being outplayed or are simply playing badly? Again, it is important to plan for this. Set small, achievable targets within the match. Some examples: “I will make two returns this game”; “I am looking for one opportunity to get to the net in this game”; “I will rally for six balls every point before taking a risk.”

By being motivated to win a small skirmish you may build momentum and win a battle – and then the war.

Use your training to create your best way of playing based on your strengths. Picture your method of play and put your game on the court. There is no point in tactically playing in a way that you never practise. You can only become an expert at your game by playing your game over and over again.

Being mentally tough does not just mean “trying harder”. It involves making a decision to be constantly constructive during your thinking time. Being mentally tough means accepting the possibility of losing and focusing on an action that you will commit to fully. Any decision carried out with conviction is harder to beat than tentativeness, fearful play or indecision.

Confidence comes and goes. Devote the largest chunk of your confidence to your attitude and training. Preparing for a match is so much easier if you know you always compete for small victories – and none come smaller than each point. In tennis, if you think you can’t win the match, win a point. Many a match has been won by one point changing the momentum and a quick return or loss of confidence by one or both players.

None of the above thinking happens without preparing for it. Specific matches can hold new challenges (such as the wind, sun, playing surface or type of ball). If you prepare your responses often enough, experience will soon turn them into positive automatic responses. You will respond to tough questions by posing some tough questions of your own: you will have learned to be mentally tough.

Dave Sammel tennis expert

About the Author

David has more than 25 years experience coaching pros to career-high rankings, many of whom have represented their countries in the Davis Cup and Olympics. David, who became an official ATP coach in 2014, regularly contributes to the UK’s tennis media, including BBC Radio 5 Live, The Times newspaper and Sky Sports. In 2014, he released a psychology and coaching book – ‘Locker Room Power: Building an Athlete’s Mind’ which you can read here

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Tim Farthing, Tennishead Editorial Director & Owner, has been a huge tennis fan his whole life. He's a tennis journalist and entrepreneur as well as playing tennis to a national standard. He also helps manage his local club and volunteers for his local tennis organisation. He's a specialist in content about the administration of professional tennis and tennis coaching for all levels.