When asked how he had most helped Dominic Thiem as a junior, his former coach Gunter Bresnik replied, "Stress Tolerance".
And it is this one skill that most contributed to both Naomi Osaka and Dominic Thiem becoming 2020 US Open singles champions.
In a moment I will outline the basic steps to improving stress tolerance. But first, a couple of reflections on the finals matches:
Osaka Navigates Her Way to the Finish Line
Osaka is quickly stamping herself as a very special big tournament, big match player.
Regarding tournaments, 3 of her 6 career titles are now Grand Slams. For some context, excluding Serena, most of the best players in the world have historically won at least 5 regular tour tour titles for every 1 Grand Slam victory.
And in the biggest matches she is now 3-0 in Grand Slam finals. What is super impressive is the differing paths and challenges she's had to take and face to get to the finish line.
In her 1st US Open final she had to deal with the incredible stress of leading throughout, then having Serena go into a self-delusional explosion.
In her Australian Open win, Osaka was incredibly skilled in recovering from faltering when serving for the match in the 2nd only to regain her composure and play an incredibly high level 3rd set to earn her 2nd Slam in a row.
And this time she was getting completely outplayed from the start, down 6-1, 2-0, 40-30. Battling both Azarenka who was playing incredible and serving at around 90% first serves, combined with the nerves that she reported feeling in the 1st set followed closely by the embarrassment of the 'loss in under an hour' that her mind was predicting when down in the 2nd. What was also mightily impressive was the way she recovered from losing serve at 4-2 in the 3rd to give Azarenka hope, only to play an impeccable last 2 games to break Azarenka again then finish the job.
All in all, Osaka is building an impressive big match resume that will serve both her well, and intimidate her opponents in the future
Thiem Stumbles, Scrapes, Falls and Ultimately Survives to Take the Title
The moment Djokovic went out, the stress that every player left in the draw felt would have gone up several notches.
After all, this was their biggest chance to win a major, and the with the Big 3 to be back soon enough, this sort of change might not be back for a few more years.
This stress, and who would survive it better, was ultimately the story of the final.
First Thiem struggled as he got caught up in the extra pressure of having been to several past Slam finals and this time being the favourite to grab his chance.
But as was always likely to happen, as soon as Zverev contemplated the finish line up 2 sets and a break, his 2nd serve and forehand began to break down. This combined with Thiem's never say die attitude meant he quickly took the next 2 sets.
When Thiem broke early I thought Zverev was gone but an incredible pass by Zverev and a double fault by Thiem began the refreshing but excruciating look into the greatest mental challenge that tennis presents....
Trying to tolerate and respond well to the stress of finishing a match that means so much.
And the beauty of tennis is that it is never a game of perfect, rather what is needed is to do just a little bit better, or a little less worse, than the player at the other end.
And on this day, faced with almost inconceivable stress, it was Thiem who responded a little less worse than Zverev when it mattered most.
It was the moment that Gunter Bresnik had dedicated thousands of hours of his life to support Thiem in the hope that one day on the biggest stage it might lead to the miniscule benefit that would make the difference.
What a proud man he must be right now!
So How Do We Teach It To Players?
So how can we sit prouder and more satisfied in the future with the way we've helped our players or child develop the most important skill for tennis success....
There are a couple of basic steps:
1.) Encourage players exposure to increasing levels on emotional challenge and difficulty over time
Think of this like developing physical fitness. To encourage physical fitness we start with a player's level of physical fitness and then incrementally increase physical challenge at tolerable levels. We need to do the same with emotional fitness...
##An important note here: Very often we begin the process of developing stress tolerance at levels players can't cope with. This tends to reinforce bad competitive habits. We need to do our best to estimate what players can cope with emotionally and try to expose them to challenges that match their ability and build from there. This is an inexact science but almost always coaches and parents set initial standards too high.
2.) Develop Self-Awareness
Next, while facing emotional challenges, we need to help players develop awareness of the stresses that show up: frustration, pressure, nerves, helplessness, outcome thoughts, self-judgment, etc.
3.) Normalize the Unintentional Difficult Internal Experiences
Next, we need to become incredibly focused on helping players understand that whatever thoughts or feelings that are showing up for them in the moment during matches and absolutely normal based on the circumstances and their history within similar situations.
4.) Develop Tolerance/Acceptance
Finally, as I have mentioned often on this platform, we need to stop advocating emotional control!
Instead, after we normalise internal difficulties we need to help players understand that, as we saw in the US Open finals, it is the player who has the greatest capacity to tolerate high levels of stress, not the player whose focus is on controlling emotions or aiming for zone/ideal performance states who will compete the best when it matters most.
To do this, between rallies in practice and points in matches players should practice spending several seconds observing and accepting the frequent flow of difficult thoughts and feelings that show up.
When these steps are implemented skilfully players almost always improve win % considerably within 6 months.
It is the simplest way to improve player results.
I hope you find this helpful :-)