Mental flexibility and resilience: the two essential qualities for success in tennis

How to turn challenges into opportunities and improve your performance

by Federico Coppini
Mental flexibility and resilience: the two essential qualities for success in tennis
© Matthew Stockman/Getty Images


Among the most important aptitudes to train, besides patience and confidence that we have addressed in previous articles, is FLEXIBILITY.

Granted that in evolutionary terms we are predisposed to adapt to change and have extraordinary mental flexibility that allows us to turn difficulties into the pursuit of new opportunities, however, on the court this does not always happen easily and automatically.

We know that tennis is an "open skill" activity, in which the player must face constantly changing realities to which he or she must respond quickly and effectively; it is a game of constant adaptation. Every shot is different, every opponent is different, the situation on the court is constantly changing, sometimes playing on indoor courts other times outdoors, in different environments and with varying times each match.

A sport where the score never shelters the player from the opponent's comebacks, the result can be overturned until the last point of the match and the pressure remains high until the end of the match.

Change is the name of the game, and only those who are willing to accept this reality and are mentally flexible will succeed.

This explains why some players, evolve, while others remain at the same level or even become weaker over time.

It is not a matter of genetics or talent, but of mental attitude. A flexible mental attitude is one aimed at growth that is based on the assumption that skills can be improved through learning, experimentation, commitment and training.

Underlying this is a great confidence and belief that through constant effort, hard work, any goal can be achieved.

What are the differences between a rigid and a flexible mental attitude?

Players who have a RIGID attitude assume that technical physical and mental abilities, are predetermined.

Therefore, either a person has these innate abilities or he does not. Such a person generally avoids challenges, gives up in the moment of difficulty, places a low value on effort, ignores feedback, looks outside themselves for responsibility for their mistakes (the weather, the partner, the racket, the lights, the court, etc.), and sees mistakes as final.

Let us now see what people with a FLEXIBLE mindset possess:

  1. They are players who like challenges, constantly wanting to push their limits. In training, they are the ones who experiment with different playing strategies based on the characteristics of the opponents, without being afraid to step out of their comfort zone and abandon the desire to "always look good" by remaining a prisoner of their own securities.

    If our opponents do not allow us to play our best tennis, stubbornly playing the same game over and over again will do no good. Being flexible means varying and finding new tactical solutions on the go to turn around an unfavorable situation and readjust to a variety of situations.

    They are those who are willing to invest in failures in order to succeed in improving themselves. As soon as our ego is connected to the result, self-esteem is defined through this result: if we continually make a mistake and lose the match, we are the mistake!

    In the rigid mental attitude, mistakes are seen as permanent and not transient. People with such a mental attitude fear mistakes, which greatly limits their ability to learn, experience and improve.

  2. They face difficulties head-on and know how to benefit from them.

    When faced with difficulties they bring out their best, knowing that lessons can always be learned from every situation, from the simplest to the most challenging. This ability we can call RESILIENCE. The term resilience is often used somewhat simplistically as a synonym for endurance.

    In this sense, however, it would indicate passivity in the acceptance of events, whereas resilience expresses a dynamic concept that indicates above all the plasticity, the elasticity with which an athlete faces adversity.

    Instead of suffering, the resilient player seeks to change not so much the reality, which often cannot be changed, but the way of experiencing it, with the aim of drawing something positive from even the most arduous situations.

    A "resilient" athlete continually tries to find solutions, maintains a positive attitude both during training or a match and when obstacles arise in his or her sports career (serious injuries, long series of defeats, etc...).Tennis, can be a truly "unforgiving" sport; everything that happens during a match can be very "frustrating" and if we are not sufficiently "resilient"...

    we are unlikely to find a way to "bring home the matches."

  3. They accept feedback and learn from it. The rigid athlete sees things only from his or her own point of view and struggles to consider options-from their coach-that differ from their own.

    Knowing how to receive and welcome criticism is a very beneficial opportunity to learn about one's areas for improvement and to gain information toward which to direct one's growth strategy, while recognizing one's limitations and need for evolution.

  4. They take responsibility for their mistakes.

    They view mistakes as transient and as part of a learning process on the path to growth. When we take responsibility, we are able to intervene and change the error. If we continue to invest others in what happens on the field, we are unlikely to find different and effective solutions.

How can we improve ourselves?

With a developmental and growth-oriented mindset, as opposed to a rigid, ego-oriented mindset.

What does this mean? A player, whether beginner or professional, young or adult, will improve greatly over time if he or she is focused on developing his or her skills. We need to focus on the development-facing approach and place the importance of learning and improvement above winning and losing.

Instead of focusing on the end result, we should ask: What have I learned today? How can I improve my skills? How can I increase my passion? Let us remember that victory is with ourselves; the result is only a consequence of a performance built with dedication and constant commitment.

How can we train mental flexibility on the field?

  • Frequently changing opponents with different characteristics so that we have to adapt to different game situations.
  • Varying shots as much as possible during a point. Always playing the same type of ball will hardly create the conditions for making the point, also because we will risk putting our opponent on the ball.

    Variation equals unpredictability and difficulty in reading the game for our opponents.

  • Training in all weather conditions, against sun and with wind if we will play outdoors, try to play both in the daytime and in the evening when perhaps there is more humidity and the balls travel at a lower speed.

    Play with both old balls, therefore a bit more deflated, and new ones, to train sensitivity and modulate shot power.

  • We look for our worst enemy, the one we fear most and face him or her in a way that moves our limits forward and can deal with any kind of opponent.

    But let's also play with opponents we consider to be of a lower level than ours, to train the ability to stay focused even in the easiest situations.

All that remains is to try, good practice and good tennis to all!