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
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A related article which may be of interest and originally published
in The Huffington
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
Andy Murray blamed becoming distracted by Novak Djokovic's fitness
problems, which emerged during the Australian Open Tennis
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
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
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
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
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
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'.