Mental Toughness: What Is It?

Mental Toughness: What Is It? image

Mental Toughness: What Is It?

                During this difficult time, I, like many other coaches and players, have looked for online information to keep building my expertise. In my case, it’s as a coach, but for many of you making progress in your tennis, it can come from a new understanding of how to approach the game. I was very excited when I got an invitation to an online live webinar on Mental Toughness yesterday. It was given live from Australia by former Pepperdine and ATP player, Anthony Ross. The title of Ross’ presentation was The Four Key Components of Mental Toughness.

                Before I describe Ross’ Four components, I’d like to refresh your understanding of the 4-D System, the System which I developed in Deconstructing Tennis (2018). This System is mostly about HOW to spend the time between points. However, two things are important here: 1) HOW you elect to use the time between points is intricately connected to HOW you want to play once the ball is in play; and 2) while Mental Toughness and the Time Between Points are not the same thing, I think we can safely say that there is a good deal of overlap between the two concepts.

                Once again, here is 4-D:

                1. See What Happened

                2. Make a Plan

                3. Relax

                4. Look the Ball into the Strings

                My last post went into considerable detail about #1. It explained HOW I go about helping my students to improve their ability to see What Happened. Here I will be discussing a crucial positive externality that comes with going external first. The important thing to note here is that, by immediately going to an external view, your emotional (internal) reaction is by-passed. This is crucial for several reasons: 1) Most players are over-excited in competition. Staying calm means both better shot execution through a better feel for the ball, but it also means better decision-making. As Ross noted in his presentation, anger, frustration, etc. rarely help a player to play better; and 2) The 4-D System asks you to deliberately touch base with this in step #3 – Relax. This internal place is the same place that emotional reactions come from. However, in this case, the raw feelings of insecurity, disappointment are not allowed in the door.

                Let’s contrast this with Anthony Ross’ Four Keys of Mental Toughness. His favorite analogy is of you, a player, being a school bus driver. He uses the acronym PACT for the four keys. Here they are:

                      1. Purpose – you must know where you want to go.

                      2. Attentional Control – you must be able to say focused on the task at hand.

                   3. Committed Action – you must stick to your plan (level of desired aggression, ball watching, etc.)

                    4. Tolerance – you must get accustomed to the negative unproductive voices in your head so that they don’t derail the other components.

                So, Tolerance is the component that I’d like to speak about most, but before I do, I’d like to touch base quickly with #1-3 and see how they overlap with 4-D. For me, #1 goes without saying: we play competitive tennis in order to win. #2, Attentional Control, is what the 4-D System is all about! And the 4-D System makes it explicit that there are four types of Attentional Control: 1) See What Happened (broad external); 2) Make a Plan (broad internal); 3) Relax (narrow internal); and 4) Ball Watching (narrow external). So, here there is a broad symmetry between our two systems, although I do think (no bias here!) that 4-D does a better job by breaking down the 4 types of Attentional Control. Ross’ point #3, Committed Action, is also broadly in the line with a combination of Make a Plan and Look the Ball into the Strings. So again, I’d say that there is a rather general agreement between us on certain commonalities between Mental Toughness and the Time Between Points.

                However, it is with respect to #4, Tolerance, that I have a complete difference of opinion. Ross continues to use the analogy of a bus driver when discussing this concept. His point is that due to the stress and pressure of competition, some difficult passengers will make their way onto the back of the bus. These difficult passengers are your inner voices of “you suck!”, “I can’t play today”, etc. The voices will be a significant distraction when it comes to achieving #1-3. His claim is that it’s a key component of Mental Toughness to be able to hear these voices, but to be able to not let them get in your way.

                To continue using his analogy: I do not let these “difficult passengers” on the bus to start with! It’s very much like getting cut off on the highway by a poor driver. Early in life, perhaps we all reacted with some form of road rage, but now it’s rather easy simply not to go to that place.

            Simply put, there is no space in the 4-D System for negative emotions. Ross also incorporates into his concept of Tolerance the ability to be aware of when you are not committing to a process. For me, this is all a part of 1) See What Happened. So, again, there is some significant overlap between us. However, I’ll say it just one more time: why make the goal to get accustomed to “difficult passengers” when it’s far simpler just to not let them on the bus?

                Hmmm … good question!

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  • Bob Litwin 4 years ago

    Please expand on how you do not let these difficult passengers on the bus.

  • schewior_tennis_973 4 years ago

    In step #1 when you see What Happened, you do it with the same emotional attachment as watching a player you don't care about. When watching this player, you would not be nearly jumping out of your skin (like a parent watching their kid) on every shot. You would simply be noticing things about his game.
    Like: Didn't watch the ball all the way in or tried way too hard.
    This ability to watch yourself from a neutral position takes training.

  • Anthony Ross 4 years ago

    Hi Bob. Thank you for taking the time to participate in my Webinar and present a summary here. I agree that there are several parts of overlap in our approaches and the main difference is in how we advise players to respond to unintentional difficult internal experiences. Overall, I actually see mental toughness as what happens during the points (with what we do between the points serving to increase the chance that we will act mentally tough during points). Regarding your approach to bypassing the difficult internal experiences I agree this would be the ideal approach if players can achieve it. The question is whether players can reliably achieve it, and what negative consequences may follow if they try to bypass emotions but can't. As my approach suggests, in my experience and understanding of human responses in competition this goal of bypassing emotions is unachievable, especially when players would most like to be able to bypass emotions. Therefore part of my approach focuses on skilling players to respond best to 'difficult passengers' as they show up. This acceptance, rather than attempts to avoid and control emotions. in my experience leads to players developing emotional fitness over time where they are less affected by the difficult emotions and more able to continue to commit to helpful actions regardless of how they might be feeling. After all, if it was possible to bypass emotions as you suggest in a helpful way, why wouldn't the best players of all time such as Federer, Djokovic, and Williams do it? Thanks again for your passion for this part of the game- it would be great if more coaches dedicated more time to improve their coaching skill in this area :-)

  • schewior_tennis_973 4 years ago

    Hi Anthony,
    Thank you for your thoughtful response. With respect to the great players that you mention at the end of your comment, I would add the following:
    The Tennis Channel replayed the 2017 men's final the other day and I got to see Fed come from 1-3 down in the 5th to beat Rafa 6-3. His only emotions were some well-timed "come ons!" He was calm even when he fell behind. And with Serena, her best performances have always been when she quiets down and plays from a place deep inside. Contrast this with her 2018 US Open performance against Osaka. Djokovic, though I must say is a bit more like McEnroe. He's the only player in my memory who can smash a racquet to bits and then come out and play better.

  • Anthony Ross 4 years ago

    Hi Bob one thing I find helpful is to differentiate emotions from actions. I would classify Federer's 'come ons' as actions rather than emotions. Also when you say he was calm even when he fell behind I believe you are talking about him acting calm rather than feeling calm. I would bet a lot of money he was feeling didn't emotions and had difficult thoughts about the situation he found himself in. With this in mind, what Federer was likely able to do in the situation you talk of was to commit to helpful actions even when he was feeling bad. And this, in my opinion is the greatest skill for players to learn. To respond well to the inevitable difficult thoughts and feeling that show up as we compete. Anthony