Throughout my travels to junior and professional tennis events, I have seen some pretty crazy things that players have to deal with, so much so that I could write an entertaining book about it all. For example, I once saw a player who was behind 0-3 in the first set, launch all three balls into a pond behind the court, and then proceed to walk slowly to the tournament desk to get a new can of balls. I guess he didn’t like how he started off in the match. While this might be an extreme example, the point is that players have to learn to deal with adversity and figure out a way to keep charging ahead. As a competitive player, you are going to be exposed to a range of situations and challenges, and to be successful, you must be resilient.
Train for adversity, not to find the zone
To become more resilient, players must build a tolerance to adversity, which is achieved by attacking challenges with a different mindset and attitude. Instead of trying to get into the "zone" each day, work on building a thicker armor that cannot be pierced by pebbles (petty events that happen during competition). The days when everything you do seems to work are few and far between. Instead, competition and training is full of random challenges and adverse moments. When asked how many matches in his career he would consider to have played “in the zone,” one former world number one said, “About 20.” He was on the pro tour for over a decade and played nearly 800 matches in his career. Interestingly, he said he did not really improve at the pro level until he became a better performer on his off days.
Bring your bottom end up
Players who improve their bad days make bigger jumps than those who want to make their good days even better. Instead of trying to find your “Zone,” work on bringing your bottom end up. You will improve more if your mental performances are consistent from the good days to the bad days. Instead of striving for the highest level of physical performance every practice or every match, work on day-to-day mental consistency, which means you have a high level of mental engagement regardless of how well you are playing. Once you can accomplish mental consistency, then you can turn your attention to reaching the top one percent of your performance.
Change your perception of the bad says, see the opportunity
Players who are exposed to struggle with adversity have a great opportunity to fill in their holes, but only if they choose to see it this way. Very few players who I have worked with like the days when things are difficult, but eventually, they learn to roll with it and focus on what really matters. When you begin to look at adversity and bad days through a different lens, you begin seeking out challenge as a means of staying motivated and focusing on your goals. The easy days offer few challenges, and as a result, few opportunities to build your tolerance for adversity. Which matches are you the most proud of? Which matches did you learn the most from or gain the most confidence from? Most players gain more confidence from overcoming struggle and finding a way to get it done. Redirect your bad days and challenges into opportunities.
Focus on what can be controlled to level out performance
A player's mental engagement will often correlate with one’s physical play. Play well and you will see a positive and engaged player; play poorly, and you will see poor body language and inconsistent engagement. While it would be great to be mentally engaged and play well, you only need one of the two to be present to put yourself in a position to win. If you go 0 for 2, then you are in trouble. If you have ever played poorly, but managed to win, then you know what it is like to mentally grind out a victory. It won't be pretty and you will have to dig deep, but if your mind is focused on the factors within your control (effort, making adjustments, etc.), you will be in every match you play. If your mental engagement goes hand-in-hand with your physical performance, then you can expect a lot of ups and downs, which can be very frustrating. Get off the roller-coaster ride and become a consistent competitor—grind it out mentally on the bad days.
Develop your tolerance to adversity by taking challenges head on with a different attitude. Practice and competition represent opportunities to strengthen your armor. The thicker the armor, the more you can handle and the less your opponent can get through.