The Skill That Most Determines Competitive Success (And How It's Been Key To Djokovic's Resurgence)...

 

 

Given that a break of serve would have almost certainly resulted in another Nadal Slam victory...who would have thought that when Novak Djokovic walked up to the line to serve at 7-7, 15-40 in the 5th set of their Wimbledon semi-final a few months ago that he would wake up regaining his #1 ranking by early November...

After all, in that moment he must have been experiencing significant self-doubt given that he hadn't won a Grand Slam for more than 2 years (which probably included the prediction that he would likely lose the match)...And he must have felt frustration at having just double faulted at 15-30 and earlier twice coming within 2 points of victory (0-30 on Nadal's serve).

But what happened next was that Djokovic cracked a Serve + 1 combo to force a Nadal error, followed by an ace. This gave an insight into what was to come in the minutes and months that lay ahead... And how Djokovic had regained the mental skill that had provided the foundation for him winning 11 of 22 Slams between 2012-2016, but had deserted him during his personal and physical problems.

So What Is the Skill?

The skill is the ability to respond well to the difficult thoughts and feelings that are a challenge for ALL players...

As we compete, whether it be juniors starting out on their tennis journeys, club players trying to beat their biggest rival, or the world's best players competing for Grand Slams, our human nature guarantees that we face a steady stream of unintentional difficult mental experiences. 

Feelings like nerves when starting and trying to finish close matches...and frustration when not meeting our expectations... And doubt when playing someone with better past results than us.

Throughout his dominant 2012-2016 run, Djokovic became a giant in handle and responding well to these stresses of competing (something that has limited his early career success), and it is this 1 skill that most determines how successful players become...

Why Is This Skill So Important? 

At the end of the day, the skill to respond well to the difficult unintentional thoughts and feelings that accompany us all as we compete is the MOST important factor in how successful players are at all levels...

Djokovic's 2nd vs 1st half of 2018 is the perfect example of this...

The reason for this is that mental toughness is the key to effectively developing and applying technical, physical, and tactical skills...And the specific skill of responding well to mental difficulties underlies mental toughness.

Let me explain...

1st, the reason mental toughness is the most important part of the performance puzzle is that if we were to split tennis into  4 x 25% categories (physical, tactical, technical, and mental) which I think is reasonable...if we were incredible in technical, physical, and tactical skill adding up to 75%, but very poor in mental toughness at 0%, the other 3 skills become pretty worthless because poor mental toughness prevents us from applying them.

But if we had say 15% (of a maximum 25%) in all 4 categories to add up to 60% we are in much better shape because every individual skill effects the other...and the other skills in particular are all reliant on mental toughness. 

And 2nd, the most common thing that prevents mental toughness is becoming caught in difficult thoughts and feelings.

How this typically plays out is that players go out with a helpful focus (e.g., a strategy) to try to apply each point. But what usually happens for most is that at some stage in the match we experience difficult match related thoughts and feelings which we begin to act based on (rather than the helpful strategy). This might be nerves, it might be frustration about not meeting ones own expecatations, judgements about expectations, helplessness thoughts "there's nothing I can do, etc...

Once 'caught' in these difficult experiences without awareness (which is how the majority of players spend the majority of matches), players can't be mentally tough...We can't act on an effective strategy because we become a slave to the difficult thoughts and feelings. We can't apply our physical and technical talents.

And so it would have been for Djokovic when we look at his 1st half of the year compared to his 2nd...

So How Can Players Improve This Vital Skill?

Responding to difficult thoughts and feelings effectively has 2 elements:

1.) Self-Awareness

Our natural state is to act automatically based on the difficult thoughts and feelings without awareness. Choice in how we respond to cognitive and emotional difficulties is first grounded in an awareness that we are having and acting based on/ or to avoid/reduce these mental difficulties.

2.) Tolerance/Fitness

And second, because player actions are so regularly driven by reducing or avoiding the natural fears, frustrations, and pain that comes with competing, it is the player who practices becoming fitter in being able to tolerate these experiences who is most able to direct effort and energy towards actions that increase the chance of success.

When we work with players at Mentally Tough Tennis we have 2 foundational activities that are designed to develop both the skills of awareness and emotional fitness. If you would like to access the instructions for one of these activities now You Can Do So Here (this form also includes the explanation of the 3 reasons this activity is so helpful)...

Wherever you're reading, scroll down. Leave us a question or comment, and all the best for the coming week :-)...