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Monday, September 5, 2011

Does a Mentally Tough Player Suffer from Nerves? According to Del Potro, Nadal "Yes"

Which player in the men's and women's draws at the US Open is most likely to succumb to the pressure? Is Wozniacki ready to pull the trigger in the big moments? Will Mardy Fish conquer his nerves in Week 2 of the Open or fall to them as he did in the Davis Cup? Will Rafa Nadal hit out against the best players in the world? Can Serena keep her focus knowing that another Slam is within her grasp? Does Vera Zvonreva finally and completely overcome the perception that she is not mentally tough enough to win a Slam? With Roger facing the thought how many more chances do I have, can he stayed focused and playing his game when the opportunity is there to win the Open?

All of these mental dynamics are in play as we move in to the second week. Every player has some form of pressure that he or she is facing.

The interesting question is, "Mental toughness - is a player born with it or can it be learned?" According to Fred Stolle, commentator and former Grand Slam champion, you cannot teach being calm under pressure. He discussed this point in the Fish-Anderson match. Stolle's example was that Fish will always get nervous. He elaborated the key is whether or not he can "get around it". What does that mean, "get around it?"

The answer to the question is that some players may have a predisposition to be mentally tough, however history has shown us why mental toughness not only can be learned but also lost at times. 

Take for example, Juan Martin Del Potro who lost in a battle yesterday to Gilles Simon. Del Potro made buckets of unforced errors on his forehand. He seemed to lack the confidence to go for the big forehand in tight rallies. When he did go "big" he seemed rushed, out of rhythm, and hopeful instead of hitting the forehand with conviction. Simon continued to use Del Potro's pace and hit the ball back deep, making the former US Open champion uncomfortable and fatigued. I guess we should have seen this coming since Del Potro said earlier that he was mentally not there yet to win against Top 10. This despite having what seemed to be supreme confidence in previous years and at this tournament. Exhibit A that mental toughness is not a permanent quality.

Of all people, the guy I would say may not get nervous has talked about getting nervous. Rafael Nadal has admitted he has been getting nervous and does not have great confidence right now. This was revealed in his loss to Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon, and likely has something to do with Novak's championship match wins over Rafa this year. If mental toughness was born in to us then for sure Nadal would have it, right? Exhibit B, mental toughness is not a permanent fixture. It comes and goes. And watch, he will find his supreme mental toughness and confidence.

Exhibit C, Sam Stosur double faulted in the second set tiebreak against Maria Kirilenko and later lost 17-15. The perception of Stosur is that she can get tight and not stay aggressive in tight moments...

Stosur goes down to the wire, again (

Just to increase the pressure Stosur thought she had won the match on two occasions but Kirilenko challenged and overturned out calls. Most players would wilt under such circumstances. Having it won twice and still having to dig deep and go to a third. Instead, Stosur leaned on her great serve in the third set and was the aggressor as she defeated Kirilenko in a tough 6-3 third set. Kirilenko competed hard in the third and Stosur had to stay mentally tough to hold serve and finish her off.

Mental toughness can be learned, but some players may have a predisposition to struggle more with the nerves. A part of the personality that influences the anxiety players feel is trait anxiety - a behavioral disposition to perceive situations and circumstances as threatening. So, what should not create anxiety, serving out a match actually causes anxiety.

How can a tennis player with trait anxiety stay relaxed then in big moments? For sure they care greatly about the result of the match, that is not the issue. The issue is that they want to win "too bad" and are not okay with losing. It is a bigger blow to the ego, or at least the person anticipates that it will be. To overcome a tendency to become nervous under pressure tennis players actually need to worry less about the outcome; be okay with the fact that winning in tennis is a 50-50 proposition. Once the burden of fearing losing is lifted it is amazing how free and how well the player will compete.

If you don't believe me think about a player that is losing by a set and 0-4. They are resigned to their fate and decide just to hit out and play tennis. The other person across the net is feeling the pressure of "Having to Win" because they are way ahead. What happens? The player makes a comeback playing loose, aggressive tennis. Then, they get all the way back and the nerves come back and they get tight. Why? Because they have something to lose again. Mental toughness is not a permanent quality, but it is something, like Roger Federer who learned to manage his nerves, that can be taught to players. You are not looking to make the player impervious to nerves - that is impossible. Instead, you are trying to give them a skill set that they can work through tough situations and more often than not handle them well.

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