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
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!