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Raj Persaud in conversation - the podcasts

Feb 8, 2014

Raj Persaud talks to Richard Cowden who is doing a PhD on mental toughness in elite tennis players - can the latest research findings on mental toughness help you get through the stresses of the day?

If you are viewing this podcast from inside the free mobile phone app 'Raj Persaud in Conversation' you can click on the 'gift box' icon which might be on the top right hand corner of your screen to download bonus content - the original paper by Richard Cowden and colleagues on mental toughness in elite tennis players. You can also find this bonus content in the initial main menu screen that comes up when you open the app on the top right hand corner of the screen under a menu icon that reveals 'extras' - click on extras to see the bonus content.

A related article which may be of interest and originally published in The Huffington Post:


Andy Murray, Mental Toughness and the 'Inner Game'.

By Raj Persaud and Adrian Furnham


The BBC News website is reporting that Pat Cash declared Andy Murray "melted down and collapsed" in his loss to Novak Djokovic.

Andy Murray blamed becoming distracted by Novak Djokovic's fitness problems, which emerged during the Australian Open Tennis Final.

But this possibly indicates a key problem related to mental toughness - an inability to control focus during a high-stakes game. Self-control is emerging as the key to success in a variety of competitive predicaments.

This is suggested by the results of a recent study of elite tennis players entitled, 'Psychological predictors of mental toughness in elite tennis: an exploratory study in learned resourcefulness and competitive trait anxiety'.

The investigation, by Richard Cowden, Dana Fuller and Mark Anshel, tested two US Division 1 intercollegiate tennis teams and their respective head coaches. These are elite players from which champions are most likely to be drawn.

The study of mental toughness in tennis is surprisingly neglected as it is particularly important at various key moments. For example, trailing or facing break points, serving to win the set or match, during closely contested and lengthy matches (which the Australian Open was for long periods), which require sustained determination and concentration.

The authors of the study, published in the journal 'Perceptual & Motor Skills: Exercise & Sport', point out that mental toughness is also needed to quickly recover, psychologically and physically, from disappointments, precisely like the kind Murray confronts now, and has faced in the past.

The BBC reports that this defeat was Murray's fourth in an Australian Open final, and sixth in eight Grand Slam finals.

The authors of this study, based at Middle Tennessee State University in the USA, point out that mental toughness is basically mounting a positive response following adversity.

Richard Cowden, one of the authors of the paper comments on Andy Murray's performance in the Australian Open: 'Mental toughness is also critical in more positive situations not only adversity... situations in which a tennis player is a break up or two sets up. It is in these situations that mentally tough tennis players are seemingly more likely to close out the set or match... what surprised me the most was Murray's inability to capitalise on momentum shifts (being a break down and breaking back to even the score) and maintain leads when he had worked incredibly hard to obtain a break of serve.'

Mental toughness is perhaps even more important in tennis, because athletes are uniquely restricted in their ability to interact with coaches during a match, testing emotional control and self-belief.

Do some players rely too much on their coach to help keep up their spirits? Then, when they are not available, this could become a key breaking point? Is there something about the way Murray glances over to his team which goes beyond the usual reliance?

Mentally tough athletes maintain extensive self-control during a stressful event including impulse control, emotional control and physiological self-control.

Is this kind of self-control an issue for a furious Murray who smashed his tennis racket despair?

Mentally tough elite tennis players were also found in this study to perceive themselves as competent in their ability to regularly exhibit high quality performance, which assists in remaining unruffled by pressure and stressful situations.

This appears relevant to Murray screaming "how many times" as his advantage fell away in the Australian Open.

In a study entitled, 'Winning matches in Grand Slam men's singles: An analysis of player performance-related variables from 1991 to 2008', all men's singles Grand Slam tournaments from 1991 to 2008 were analysed - a total of 18,288 performances.

Published in the 'Journal of Sports Sciences', this investigation confirms that first serves turn out to be the best predictors of match outcomes. Aces, valid first serves, and second serve points won, also particularly significantly increased the chances of winning. Perhaps these particularly build confidence.

Winning first serve return and second-serve return points particularly improved the chances of victorious matches.

In addition, winning was also strongly associated with converting and saving break points.

The authors, Shang-Min Ma, Chao-Chin Liu, Yue Tan and Shang-Chun Ma, contend their statistical analysis reveals that the importance of returns has been overlooked. The training of elite-standard men players should place more emphasis on improvements in return of service.

Murray was perceived as a rapidly fading force in this final, double faulting to drop serve at 5-3, and winning just 11 points in a fourth set that took under half an hour.

That tennis is a sport which is uniquely involves psychology seems particularly pertinent to Murray - the more he fails in high pressure situations, the more difficult it might be to maintain high self-belief that when faced with a similar predicament in the future - an Open Tennis Final - that he is not going to mentally collapse.

The study from Middle Tennessee State University also found that the coaches rating of their tennis players' mental toughness bore no relationship to the athletes' own assessment. The coaches seemed to be basing their assessment of mental toughness of their players on their general results and rankings - yet this may be misleading.

Is it possible that success in life is not just about hard work and talent, because Andy Murray clearly exhibits these, and he is good enough to win more?

Victory is also crucially about a dimension which players, coaches and spectators commonly miss - even though it's also played out right there in front of them - the 'inner game'.


Raj Persaud is joint podcast editor for the Royal College of Psychiatrists and also now has a free app on iTunes and google play store entitled 'Raj Persaud in conversation', which includes a lot of free information on the latest research findings in mental health, plus interviews with top experts from around the world. Download it free from these links