July 2021
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mental toughness in sports and life

Mental toughness in sports and in life: A different approach

What is mental toughness? Mental toughness is a term cited often in tennis and other sports, but also applies to life in general.  It is a term mostly used to describe a particular trait of a true champion. But it is also what often separates a talented individual from a world renowned personality. Sports psychology has done more than its part in defining mental toughness already.

Although we all understand the attributes related to that term, it is quite difficult to define properly. Being mentally tough mostly describes the perseverance that helps an athlete overcome the fear of losing and failing. The ability to stay focused on the task at hand, even when things don’t go his/her way. The characteristic that allows them to come victorious out of a tough battle, without yielding under the pressure.  The “cold blood” needed when the stakes are high. It is a particularly popular term in individual sports and the second toughest challenge in learning to play tennis, for me.

More often than not, mental toughness is tangled with aggression and taking control of a match or a situation. However, as I grow up, the more I feel that mental toughness is more about letting go and surrendering, than it is about holding on to control. As if the “mental” part of the term does not actually refer to what our brain is capable of dictating, over our body and feelings. It is not about how our brain can block out emotions, but rather about how to accept, embrace and utilize them towards success.

The counterintuitive attributes of mental toughness

There are many different articles out there, discussing the main attributes that constitute mental strength. Most of them seem to conclude that mentally tough people have specific habits, which most of us could potentially develop if we put our mind to it. Those habits mostly include taking control, having fixed goals, focusing on the positive, looking at the big picture, refraining from getting emotional.

However, most of those attributes tend to go against nature and the way the human brain and body works. Now, to get from mediocre to great, you might indeed need to raise yourself to a “superhuman” level at times. Nevertheless, it doesn’t really make sense that a characteristic which propels you to greatness would be that counterintuitive to the core of your existence. On the contrary, it should be the fruit of embracing the most primal fundamentals of your being and learning how to deal with a situation, in spite of them.

Matter over mind

Mind over matter is an expression often used as an inspirational mantra, when battling anxiety, fatigue or pain. It is supposed to concentrate the essence of the motivation you need when you feel too tired or disappointed to go on. However, when dealing with a high pressure situation (such as an important match) there’s a kind of wisdom that only your body can carry and you ought to trust it. It is your body’s working memory from all the training hours, tactic talks, theoretical knowledge and technique you’ve practiced over and over again. You can’t always “think your way through” to a positive outcome, just like you can’t ignore your body’s reactions when you’re hungry or cold.

If you think about it, when you “choke” it is because blood is not flowing normally from your brain to the rest of your body. The difficult part –and what mentally tough people excel at- is opening up that channel, to eventually isolate the brain with all its complicated ramifications and allow their body to take over at critical points. Matter over mind.

Seeing the trees, not the forest

mental toughness in seeing the trees not the forest

Another popular motivational tactic is to set an end goal and focus on the big picture, each time the smaller details of a situation seem overwhelming. In order to achieve the end goal you have set, you have probably laid out the little things that need to happen for you to get there. But what happens when those little things aren’t really following the pattern you had in mind? Your mind can still see the big picture, but the end goal only gets more distant and hard to reach with every obstacle. The problem is that the big picture can be overwhelming, abstract and scary itself. The “forest” is not just a tunnel-vision of the goal that is ahead of you, regardless of how mentally tough you are. It is a complex structure which includes memories, experiences, fears, cancelled aspirations and failed attempts.

In order not to get affected by the hiccups on the way, you need to break down your end goal to pieces small enough that each one of them, individually, doesn’t really matter. In tennis, coaches often ask their athletes to play the match “point by point”. So as not to dwell over a missed shot or a double fault, you need to be able to see, at any given point during a match, that victory is actually composed of hundreds of such instances. To acknowledge that the forest is in fact a group of trees growing at the same place and give each tree proper (and of correct proportions) credit.

Not quitting vs. giving oneself permission to quit

One of my favorite motivational quotes is the simple, but all-encompassing “Never give up”. I even wear a bracelet with those words engraved on it. It helps me persevere through adversities and try to hit that last ball when life (or my opponent) keeps throwing one back at me. Giving up is to stop trying altogether. But in my mind, quitting is something different. Giving yourself permission to get a break has 2 prerequisites that reveal great mental strength. Firstly, the conviction that you are strong enough to even allow yourself to be weak at times.

Secondly, the belief that success and failure are not destinations, but temporary stops in your journey through life. When you reach that point where you can consciously let go of an overwhelming task or a specific goal, simply because it doesn’t serve that greater life path and still be OK with that, then you are a mentally tough individual.

Taking control vs. letting go

letting go as a sign of mental strength

We all like to be in control, but fear comes from not having it. Nothing can be scarier and more disruptive (in sports or in life) than the feeling that you are not in control. In reality though, there are so few things we can actually control that, if you think about it, we should be in a state of constant terror. Mental toughness is not about taking control, but rather about learning what to do with yourself when you don’t have it. A brave person and a coward feel the exact same amount of fear when they are not in control. The difference is that the weak person gets paralyzed by that feeling, whereas the mentally strong person uses it as fuel to go on.

All in all, mental toughness in sports and in life is something we all want to master. Most expert approaches out there focus on grasping for it and urge us to use our brain and its capabilities to improve upon it. However, being too much in your head can be counterproductive in tough situations. Let’s not underestimate the body’s working memory and the power of letting go. Exhaling is, after all, as important for life itself as inhaling is.

If you liked this post check out some of the ugly things in tennis that you’ll need to toughen up against.


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