One of the key attributes to being mentally tough is to have a Powerful Inner Belief System. In my work as a Mental Performance Coach I teach athletes how to build the self-belief that they have more potential than limitations. Believing that your upside potential outweighs your limitations is a necessity in overcoming the many challenges that athletes will face in their competitive career.
On Sept 2nd at the US Open tennis tournament, there was a David vs Goliath match-up that caught my attention. 5’7” Diego Schwartzman’s from Argentina showed how his inner belief system carried him to perhaps the most notable win of his career to date beating 6’ 6” Alex Zverev in four sets. Diego was asked in the post match press-conference how he was able to stand-up to opponents much taller than him. “I do not think about that” was his response. In other words, in his mind it’s a non-issue and he is not comparing himself to players who may be bigger, stronger or faster than he is. So one might ask, if he is not thinking about the size or strengths of his opponents what is he thinking about? His response to this question was, “I have my weapons on court and I focus on using those in the right way”.
Another interesting question directed to Diego was, “Do you take joy in beating opponents who are bigger than you?” His response told the story of his mindset regarding this, “Not at all. People have told me it was going to be very difficult to make it in professional tennis because of my height. They were just being honest with me. They were not trying to say I should stop competing but that it would be very difficult. I really don’t think about it that much.” He clearly is the type of person who can accept comments and criticisms from others and internalize it in a way that isn’t threatening to him but rather motivating. In my opinion, the way Diego thinks is a large part of why he has been able to look past his limitations and succeed in building his strengths. This mindset serves as a positive example for how to build your inner-belief system. The world may shout out, “You are not enough!” You can choose to look past disbelieving comments and press forward with a “David like” confidence in what You believe is possible.
Schwartzman described how he rely’s on his strengths and one of those is his return of serve. “I have a lot of confidence in my return and I studied many videos of Alex Zverev serving to be prepared. I was thinking about how I was going to take my chances when they come.” This is exactly what Diego did to get the upset against the #6 seeded Zverev. When I heard him start talking about how important his return was my mind was drawn to a common thought about what creates winning tennis. The saying goes, “the two most important shots in the game are the Serve and the Return”. If a player can neutralize a big serve with a solid and deep return it evens the playing field and gives the less powerful serve a chance at getting into a winning position. Like other notable former great returners like 5’10” Jimmy Connors and 5’11” Andre Agassi, Schwartzman has created a strength in his playing arsenal that is a key shot needed to stand up to the big servers.
Now that Diego has made it through to the quarter-finals he was asked in his press-conference what he thought was possible from here. His inner-belief blurted out without hesitation, “Everything is possible. I will take my chances when they come and go for it.” Now he faces the #2 seed tennis superstar, Rafa Nadal. “I think I have a chance against Rafa. I need to study past matches when we played. You never know when the next opportunity comes and I NEED TO BE READY. I have not beaten Rafa before but I do have the confidence to beat him.”
I witnessed a “breakthrough moment” for a player at the US Open that caught my attention. The player was American qualifier Taylor Townsend from Atlanta Georgia. She is currently ranked # 93 in the world and her opponent was #4 seed Simona Halep from Romania, the reigning Wimbledon champion. Taylor won the match 2-6, 6-3, 7-6 and it IS the first time in her career that she has beaten a top 10 singles player.
As I listened to the post-match press conference from both Taylor and Simona, a few revealing things were said regarding the match. Taylor talked about the few previous times she has played Simona and described her mindset in those matches being “I played to not lose” rather than “I played my game to win”. Taylor is known for her unconventional game style as an aggressive player who comes to net frequently. “I have always come to net since I was a young player. Winning this match was a confirmation that this style of play works for me and I need to continue to do it.” Taylor came to net 106 times in the three set match and won 60% of those points. This statistic is called the “Aggressive Error Margin” and refers to the odds of winning points at net. When set up properly, the chance of winning points at net is 66% on average. Many players just don’t have the skills and inner commitment to execute such an aggressive game style but for Taylor she has dedicated herself both physically and mentally to refine these skills to the point where she is now starting to reap the rewards of her inner commitment. She turned pro at age 16 and has been on tour for over seven years with what most would consider a lack-luster career up to this point. “It’s been a long journey with many ups and downs. Many others have doubted that I could make it but what they say doesn’t matter. I know who I am and what makes me tick.”
In Simona’s press conference she talked about how much pressure she felt when Taylor was attacking the net so frequently. “I have never played with someone coming so often to net before. It felt like she was coming forward almost every point! I lost my rhythm and feel as the match progressed Taylor was hitting good volleys on many of my passing shots. She was more inspired than me and was better today.”
It’s important for players to understand that a key goal in match-play is committing to your game plan. An important aspect to committing at a deeper level is a mental process. As this mental switch is turned on your ability to effectively focus on the right things in practice and in competition will improve and in time the wins will come. To illustrate this point Taylor talked about a recent result she had at Wimbledon this past July. “I had a match point against the #4 seed Bertens at Wimbledon and didn’t get the win. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t but you dust yourself off and keep going. I have learned to thrive in these conditions and I think that it showed today.”