I believe there are three main components that must be present in a tennis players arsenal in order for them to say they are “Mentally Tough.”
The first of these components is the toughest to obtain and maintain: Awareness. What I judge awareness to be is the ability of a player, in any moment during a match, whether winning or losing, to be aware how they got themselves in that position. More often than not, people think being in the winning position may relieve them of some pressure to win. I think it’s just as difficult to maintain good judgment while winning as it is when you are losing, in which case you have the score to consistently remind you of the importance of every point and gets you focused on a goal.
While winning, a player may enter a “Relaxed State.” This can be very dangerous. A player who is winning should be aware that their opponents may be more willing to try different things in the match to win. They may also feel less pressure to play their ideal kind of point, and “Go for broke,” which may throw the winning player off balance. The point is that, regardless of position in a match, every and any player should know how and why they are in the position they find themselves in.
This brings us to the second of the three main components: Confidence. It’s common to hear people comment on a player who hits the ball hard and goes for risky shots when it’s not necessary to be a confident player. I don’t think that’s what “confidence” should be considered. I see “confidence” as the ability of a player to act calm in pressure situations, and to be calm before a match even begins. This confidence should be like a support system for a player … the catalyst to play your best. You know for a fact that if you go in a match thinking‚ “I don’t have a good slice or my second serve is weak,” and think for a second that you cannot do something about it, then you leave yourself vulnerable. What helps, naturally, with developing confidence is practice. I don’t think any player can hear enough times that practice is the key to being the best, both on and off the court. So, the more we practice, the more we mature as players and learn to depend on our shots to help us win matches. Displaying negative emotions towards yourself is not a good thing and is a waste of time. Believe in your ability, it shows.
The third and final piece to mental toughness is “Strategy.” By strategy, I mean the ability of a player to measure risk, know their own capabilities, and read their opponents as best they can. Together, these observations can provide a picture of how you can win a match … a blueprint of your tennis match which can show you what your best way of winning any situation in the match is.
Although the three components of mental toughness I discussed, Confidence, Awareness and Strategy, are separate, it seems they are each equally as necessary as the next one. Of course every player is different, but it’s safe to say that without awareness, a strategy would be hard to come across and make up, and without confidence, your match might end sooner than you think. And of course, without a strategy, your confidence might go down the drain and leave you saying‚ “But I hit a million backhands cross-court this past week getting ready for the match.”
Be mentally tough … be yourself … be good!
Stefan Ilic is a Staff professional and Associate High Performance Coach at New York Tennis at Great Neck. As a junior player, Stefan was ranked as high as top 10 in the USTA Eastern Section, won a PSAL Singles Title at Forest Hills High School, was a member of a Junior TeamTennis National Championship team in 2010, and finished as a four-star recruit.