Do Tennis Champions Reveal the Secret to Mental Toughness?

If a key element of tennis is the 'Mind Game,' then what can winners teach us?

Posted Sep 15, 2015

by Raj Persaud and Adrian Furnham

Tennis champions reveal a key problem related to mental toughness. Elite tennis players need the ability to control their focus during high-stakes games, and during very crucial moments.

Self-control is emerging as the key to success in a variety of competitive predicaments.

Raj Persaud
Source: Raj Persaud

This is suggested by the results of a recent study of elite tennis players entitled, "Psychological predictors of mental toughness in elite tennis: an exploratory study in learned resourcefulness and competitive trait anxiety."

The investigation, by Richard Cowden, Dana Fuller and Mark Anshel, tested two U.S. Division 1 intercollegiate tennis teams and their respective head coaches. These are elite players from which champions are most likely to be drawn.

The study of mental toughness in tennis is surprisingly neglected as it is particularly important at various key moments. For example, trailing or facing break points, serving to win the set or match, during closely contested and lengthy matches, that require sustained determination and concentration.

The authors of the study, published in the journal Perceptual & Motor Skills: Exercise & Sport, point out that mental toughness is also needed to quickly recover, psychologically and physically, from disappointments, precisely like the kind that champions such as Roger Federer and others confront now, after the U.S. Open, and have faced in the past.

The authors of this study, based at Middle Tennessee State University, point out that mental toughness is basically mounting a positive response following adversity.

Richard Cowden, one of the authors of the paper comments on Andy Murray's performance in a recent Australian Open Championship. "Mental toughness is also critical in more positive situations not only adversity...situations in which a tennis player is a break up or two sets up. It is in these situations that mentally tough tennis players are seemingly more likely to close out the set or match...What surprised me the most was Murray's inability to capitalise on momentum shifts (being a break down and breaking back to even the score) and maintain leads when he had worked incredibly hard to obtain a break of serve."

Mental toughness is perhaps even more important in tennis, because athletes are uniquely restricted in their ability to interact with coaches during a match, testing emotional control and self-belief.

Do some players rely too much on their coach to help keep up their spirits? Then, when they are not available, this could become a key breaking point? Is there something about the way Murray, or other players glance over to their team, which goes beyond the usual reliance?

Mentally tough athletes maintain extensive self-control during a stressful event. This includes impulse control, emotional control and physiological self-control.

Is this kind of self-control an issue for a furious Murray who has smashed his tennis racket in despair during more than one recent key match?

Mentally tough elite tennis players were also found in this study to perceive themselves as competent in their ability to regularly exhibit high quality performance, which assists in remaining unruffled by pressure and stressful situations.

Raj Persaud
Source: Raj Persaud

In a study entitled, "Winning matches in Grand Slam men's singles: An analysis of player performance-related variables from 1991 to 2008," all men's singles Grand Slam tournaments from 1991 to 2008 were analyzed — a total of 18,288 performances.

Published in the Journal of Sports Sciences, this investigation confirms that first serves turn out to be the best predictors of match outcomes. Aces, valid first serves, and second serve points won, also particularly significantly increased the chances of winning. Perhaps these particularly build confidence.

Winning first serve return and second-serve return points particularly improved the chances of victorious matches.

In addition, winning was also strongly associated with converting and saving break points.

The authors, Shang-Min Ma, Chao-Chin Liu, Yue Tan and Shang-Chun Ma, contend that their statistical analysis reveals that the importance of returns has been overlooked. The training of elite-standard male players should place more emphasis on improvements in return of service.

That tennis is a sport that uniquely involves psychology seems particularly pertinent to some champions like Andy Murray — the more someone like him and other champions fail in high pressure situations, the more difficult it might be to maintain high self-belief that when faced with a similar predicament in the future, like during a major tennis final, that they are not going to mentally collapse.

The study from Middle Tennessee State University also found that the coaches rating of their tennis players' mental toughness bore no relationship to the athletes' own assessment. The coaches seemed to be basing their assessment of mental toughness of their players on their general results and rankings — yet this may be misleading.

Is it possible that success in life is not just about hard work and talent?

Raj Persaud
Source: Raj Persaud

Victory is also about a dimension which players, coaches and spectators commonly miss — even though it's also played out right there in front of them — the "inner game."

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Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen are joint podcast editors for the Royal College of Psychiatrists and also now have a free app on iTunes and google play store entitled ‘Raj Persaud in conversation’, which includes a lot of free information on the latest research findings in mental health, plus interviews with top experts from around the world.

A version of this article appeared in The Huffington Post