Throughout my travels to the top junior and professional tennis events I have seen some pretty crazy things that players have to deal with, so much so that I could write a book about it. For example, I once saw a player who was behind 0-3 in the first set launch all three balls into a pond behind the court, and then proceed to walk slowly to the tournament desk to get a new can of balls. His opponent just stood there in disbelief, not sure what to do or say. One of my favorite examples is about a player who lost the first set and took a bathroom break. A few minutes later the player returned to the court. There was only one problem; his identical twin brother (the better player of the two) came back and began playing in his place until one of the spectators pointed it out to an official. I could easily take a different turn with the rest of this article and discuss the character component to competitive sport, but you know what, players have to learn to deal with the adversity and figure out a way to keep charging ahead. Is it right for opponents to do these things? No, but the reality of being a competitive tennis player is that you are going to be exposed to a wide array of different cultures, conditions, and challenges, and to be successful you must be resilient. Resiliency is no different than any other skill; it has to be strengthened through practice.
Develop a Tolerance to Adversity
To become more resilient, players must build a tolerance to adversity, which is achieved by attacking the rough days with a different mindset and attitude. Instead of trying to get into the "zone" each day, work on building thicker armor that cannot be penetrated by pebbles (the petty events that happen during competition). I disagree with the notion that mental skills development is for the purpose of getting an athlete into the "zone". Instead, I would rather help a player develop a deeper well for handling adversity. The "zone" is such a rare occurrence, and in my experience, not within an athlete's control. The days when everything you do seems to work and is effortless are few and far between. Instead, competition and training is full of random challenges and adverse moments. I have asked pros and grand slam champions the question; How many matches in your career were you "in the zone"? Their answers were all very similar; a very small percentage. One former world #1 said he would guess only about 20 matches fell into this category; he was on the tour for over a decade and played almost 800 matches in his career.
Let's say, for example, that out of 10 practices a player will have 5 good days, 3 average days, and 2 bad days. How much would he/she improve by bringing the good days up to great days? How much would he/she improve by bringing the bad days up to average days? Is it easier to get your performances from good to great, or from bad to average? In my experience, players who improve on their bad days (process-oriented) make bigger jumps than those who want to make their good days even better (perfectionism). Forget the zone, bring your bottom end up. You will improve much more if your mental performances are consistent from the good days to the bad days. Instead of striving for the highest level of physical performance every practice or every match, work on day-to-day mental consistency, which means you have a high level of mental engagement regardless of how well you are playing. Once you can accomplish mental consistency, then you can turn your attention to the top 1% of performance.
Change Your Perception of the Bad Days; See Opportunity
Players who are exposed to struggle and adversity have a great opportunity to fill in their holes, but only if they choose to see it this way. Very few players who I have worked with like the days when things are difficult, but eventually they learn to roll with it and focus on what really matters. When you begin to look at adversity and bad days through a different lens, you begin seeking out challenge as a means of staying motivated and goal-focused. The easy days offer few challenges, and as a result, few opportunities to build your tolerance for adversity. Which matches are you the most proud? The ones where you won easily, or the ones where you had to dig deep? Which matches did you learn the most from or gain the most confidence? Redirect your bad days and challenges into opportunities.
Focus on the controllables to level out performance
A player's mental engagement will often correlate with his/her physical play. Play well and you will see a positive and engaged player; play poorly and you will see bad body language and inconsistent engagement. While it would be great to be mentally engaged AND play well, you only need one of the two to be present to put yourself in a position to win. If you go 0 for 2 then you are in trouble. If you have ever played poorly but managed to win, then you know what it is like to grind out the win mentally. It won't be pretty and you will have to dig deep, but at least if your mind is focused on the controllables (effort, attitude, mindset, making adjustments, etc.) you will be in every match you play. If your mental engagement goes hand in hand with your physical performance then you can expect a lot of ups and downs, which can be very frustrating. Get off the roller-coaster ride and become a consistent competitor; grind it out mentally on the bad days.
Develop your tolerance to adversity by taking challenges head on with a different attitude. Practice and competition represents opportunities to strengthen your armor; the thicker it is the more you can handle and the less your opponent can get through.