Mental Strength is More Than Just Good Focus

Mental toughness includes several mental skills that help tennis players stay focused, confident and composed on the court.

Your level of mental toughness allows you to realize your full physical potential in matches, or take the skills you show in practice to tournament play.

Remember Melanie Oudin during the 2009 U.S. Open? She attributes her mental toughness to helping her be a tenacious fighter on the court:

"I think the biggest weapon can be mental toughness," said Oudin. "It doesn't have to be a stroke or a shot or anything like that. If you're mentally tough out there, then you can beat anyone. I think that's what I really did well today and I've done in my past matches. I'm so focused and I fight super hard. So it's not going to be easy to beat me or I'm not going to back down at all."

What mental game skills do you have to master to gain more mental toughness?

  • The ability to be proactive with your confidence and keep it under adversity
  • The ability to focus in the present and not get sidetracked by distractions
  • The ability to play freely with expectation or pressure
  • The ability to let go of mistakes and stay confident and composed after errors
  • The ability to accept that you are human and can't perform perfectly
  • Playing for yourself and not paying attention to what others think

I'll assume that you think (as do many other players) that concentration (or mental focus) is critical for maximum performance. But do you think a lack of focus is to blame for making mental mistakes and not ultimately playing to your potential?

If you said "yes," you are only partially right.

Many players blame their poor play on focusing errors. They write me to help them improve their concentration on the court. Tennis players reveal their thoughts to me such as....

  • "I make an unforced error and proceed to lose my focus."
  • "I can't concentrate when I'm down or losing the match."
  • "I drop a couple games quickly at the start of the set because I'm not focusing."
  • "I'm missing easy or routine shots in matches because I get distracted."

However, what's wrong with all these statements? Is their poor focus really to blame? Most players (and coaches) often assume that a lack of focus is the culprit for their lack of mental toughness on the court! Maybe tennis players group the entire mental game under the category of "focus." You are either focused or you're not, right?

But I have a different take on it. Yes, players do become distracted and make mental errors on the court, even the pros. However, distractions and concentration breakdowns usually start with other mental game setbacks.

Based on my experience as a mental game coach to professional athletes, a poor focus results from other mental game errors, such as frustration, a lack of intensity, fear, or lack of confidence, for example. Here's the proof:

  1. Frustration can lead to a lack of focus when you are upset with missing an easy or routine shot you think you should have executed. Thus, your mind is in the past dwelling on something that just happened, which makes it impossible to focus on the current point or shot.
  2. Experts in sports psychology know that a lack intensity causes poor focus. To focus at peak levels (and perform at your peak) you must first have the proper amount of intensity or energy. A lack of challenge can lead to boredom. And feeling like you're outmatched can lead to anxiety for some players. In either state, you can't focus at peak levels--you are out of the flow channel.
  3. Tension, anxiety or fear can cause you to focus on all the wrong stuff during a match. "What's my coach/parent going to say if I lose this match?" A sign of low confidence, anxiety and fear causes players to future-think and make assumptions about outcomes, which again leads to a clouded focus.
  4. A lack of trust in your ground strokes (or guiding your shots during play) can lead to missing easy or routine shots. You're wrong if you assume that you just didn't focus enough for that easy shot. Your body tightened up just at the wrong time because you did not trust it to execute.

Too many times players assume a lack of focus is the cause for mistakes and a lack of mental toughness.

In reality, a poor focus results from other mental game boo-boos such as frustration, lack of confidence and low trust in your strokes.

Your mental toughness lesson for today: Look beyond your momentary lack of focus as the culprit to mental game errors. Find and address the real mental game mistake that leads to poor focus and you are closer to developing mental toughness!

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Dr. Patrick Cohn is a world-renowned sports psychology expert who works with nationally ranked tennis juniors. Pick up his free tennis confidence report, "Six Costly 'Unforced' Mental Game Errors Tennis Players Make Between Points," at

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