Mental Toughness

Focus: what you are doing is the same as what you are thinking. If you focus, you reach a state of passive concentration where you are no longer trying to concentrate. Concentration is effortless and spontaneous. You are in the zone. You are going with the Force. This is a learned skill.

Performing well occurs naturally or it doesn’t occur at all. Trying to play better, trying not to get angry, trying to concentrate, trying not to be nervous makes the situation worse. 

Remember what Yoda said, "Do, or do not. There is no 'try'." 

Savor the moment. Every moment of every game something to be fully experienced and enjoyed. The act of playing is an end in itself.Even slightly negative and pessimistic feelings make staying loose, calm, and confident impossible. Positive thinkers play better.

Don’t be a raging bull (angry) or a possum (detached, lazy, uncaring). You have to love doing it if you want to do it well.

Develop rituals and habits. They are triggers for deepening concentration, staying loose, raising intensity, etc. Recall basketball players at the free throw line, batters and pitchers in baseball, golfers, etc.

Become aware of your inner voice. Say "Stop!" as soon as any negative thoughts arise. Replace the negative thought with a positive thought. Also, be aware of your actual voice. Don’t speak negatively. Negative is catching.

Choking occurs when you allow the situation to be perceived as a threat, triggering the flight or fight response. You have lost control of the right internal condition. Relax, get loose, be positive, etc. and you will regain control.

Become an observer of your inner state. Every time you play or practice, make a deliberate effort to understand what you are feeling. Try to understand the link between how you feel and how you perform.

Some examples. (1) I am not playing well. I am frustrated and a little angry. (2) I am playing very well. I feel calm. I am really enjoying myself. I am intense yet relaxed. (3) I am bored, listless, sick and tired of the same old routine. I am sloppy. I keep making the same mistakes. (4) I am nervous and tight. Everything is going too fast inside. I can’t think clearly. I am definitely not in control. (5) I am still angry over that stupid referee’s call. I have all this negative energy pent up inside. I can’t concentrate. I keep thinking of that stupid call.

Make the commitment that every time you play or practice, you will work at creating the right internal climate for peak performance. Practice mental toughness as you practice or play racquetball.

We can substantially control how we feel on the inside by controlling how we look on the outside. To start feeling confident, start acting confident. To generate intensity, look intense.

Basic principles of mental toughness. (1) Control what you think. (2) Control what you visualize. (3) Control how you look.

Try softer, not harder. Studies in running, weight lifting, and other sports show that performance improves when athletes relax their jaws as they performed. Other studies show that performance improved by requesting athletes to "not try so hard" or play at ¾ effort. In racquetball, remember to loosen your grip on the racquet. 

During play, deliberately slow your breathing. Take more time doing everything, slow down.

Focus on doing the best you can, not on winning or losing. If muscles get tight, shake them loose. Focus on the ball. Let the Force be with you.

Drive out distracting thoughts. Play down the importance of the match (who cares who wins this game?). Keep positive, you are already over-aroused, negative thoughts or statements can make good performance impossible.

Remember your finest hour. Try to regain that feeling. Try to have fun and enjoy yourself.

Don’t get anxious about being anxious. It is ok to be nervous. A little nervousness indicates that you are psyched and ready to play your best. Also, research shows that you don’t need a good night’s sleep before a big match. So don’t worry about not sleeping well the night before.

Visualize, visualize, visualize. The central nervous system cannot tell the difference between the thought and the actual event. Your muscles undergo a 1/3 contraction every time you visualize an action. The more vivid, detailed, and real the visualization the more powerful the effect. The ability to think in pictures rather than words, to control imagery flow in positive directions and to visualize in great detail improves with practice. Practice visualization.

Visualize success. Visualize winning. Visualize perfection: the perfect backhand, the perfect forehand, the perfect drive serve, the perfect lob serve, etc. etc.

You should also visualize dealing successfully with adversity. Visualize overcoming bad calls, opponents who cheat, courts that are too dark, obnoxious opponents, etc.

Mental toughness depends on controlling your emotional response to events. Control the situation rather than letting the situation control you. You can’t control winning, but you can control your mental state, which will help you perform better. Performing better will help you win.

Winning and losing does not define success. If you can answer no to the following four questions, you are a success. (1) Could I have done better if I had tried harder? No, I gave it my best effort. (2) Did I turn negative and sour when problems arose? No, I kept my energy and attitude positive throughout. (3) Did I look like a loser: shaky, unsure, uncertain? No, I projected a strong and powerful physical presence. (4) Did I offer excuses for losing? No, I was totally responsible.

References: James E. Loehr, Mental Toughness Training for Sports: Achieving Athletic Excellence. Lexington, MA: The Stephen Green Press, 1982 and Star Wars.