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Mind Over Matter

Mind over matter: how tennis players build mental resilience

There is a belief that tennis players and professional athletes are born mentally equipped, to manage challenge in ways the rest of us aren’t. In reality, it’s not something anyone is born with and mental toughness, like other skills, is learnt.

Federer, renowned for his collected court manner, smashed his racket after losing to Franco Squillari in 2001. Federer overcame this and following a string of Grand Slam wins, said:

“I always knew I had it in my hand. The question is do I have it in my mind and in my legs? That’s something I had to work extremely hard at.”

Mental resilience is about maintaining emotional and psychological control in the face of challenge. For athletes, it’s vital for bouncing back from losing and for handling success. To meet successes and failures with control, mental resilience helps and we see this also in life. Whilst some bounce back from adversities, others take longer to recover. But why is this? Research suggests it is grounded in upbringing. Luckily though, for those who are less resilient, it is something that can always be developed.

Embracing the tough challenges and how stressors are perceived internally is at the core of good mental resilience. A negative approach to stress, avoiding or fearing challenge exacerbates the stress in a negative way, leading to become a self-fulfilling prophecy or cycle. Tennis player Nick Kyrgios has openly spoken of his struggles with his mental health following a string of losses in 2017. This included talking to himself in a negative way on court, whilst making mistakes.

Kyrgios later said“: A lot of people were putting pressure on me, I put a lot of pressure on myself. I was afraid to go out and talk to people because I thought I’d let them down because I wasn’t winning matches.” Kyrgios viewed the stress as a negative threat, rather than motivating.

Compare this to Serena Williams, who frames the threat of losing as a positive, seeing it as an opportunity. Whilst losing badly during a doubles game with sister Venus, during changeover, Serena said to her defeated looking partner: “I don’t care what you do on your side of the court, but I’m not going to miss on my side. We will not lose this match. No matter how you feel about your game, you have to show up at the court, right? You have a choice about whether you want to compete well or compete badly. I’m going to make the choice to compete well. Why don’t you do that, too!”

This positive, empowering self-talk is a fundamental difference between those who are mentally strong and those who find it difficult to face challenges head on.


At T21 Group we provide mental resilience and emotional intelligence training to support team development.

Find out how we can help you and your team by emailing


Thank you to Rebecca Eumorfopoulos, who is creating our social media posts and managing the communications of T21, for writing this post.

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