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5:36 AM Tue, Oct. 16th

Column: Mastering the art of mental toughness

Have you noticed that in tight competitions some tennis players have a special talent to excel under pressure while others crumble?

Do you believe that mental toughness is a God-given skill or a learned one?

Those who have been playing tennis for quite a while have certainly been in the situation where they're serving for the match at 5-2 and in a few minutes and a flurry of points find it ended 7-5 in their opponents' favor, wondering to ourselves what the heck happened?

The term "choking" comes to mind.

There's also the fear of winning - that's when you're ahead in a match that you were expected to lose - and the fear of losing to a team or player you expected to beat.

These forces that are definitely mentally self-imposed, create a lack of confidence that once set in place are practically impossible to reverse.

The culprit in this type of downward emotional spiral wraps around doubting yourself to negative thoughts and body language.

Not only is it an ugly pattern to watch, it's ugly to be a part of . ... yet we've all done it and it's anything but mental toughness.

When you're ahead in a match and doing well it's not the time to start wondering when you're going to come back down to earth.

When you're down and out, inwardly and outwardly berating your game, your partners or your opponents great shots or luck, it's just a matter of time until the match will conclude in their favor.

Training your thoughts are certainly as important to work on as your strokes.

As you reach higher and higher levels of play, the mental becomes the most important aspect of your tennis game.

Start with having you and your teammate come into each match without any expectations of winning or losing, but to play each point the best you can, no matter the score.

If your opponents hit the ball and play a "crash-bash-boom" or a "lob-push-weenie" game, you have to use the skills you own at that moment with a positive and competitive attitude to do the best you can, without too many mental lapses.

Try to stay in the present, the "NOW" moment. What just happened is over and what may happen in the future hasn't yet. Take your time and stay focused on this point, this moment and with a solid positive plan of action.

A match is a constant tug of war.

Winning the first set feels great and it gives you some confidence, but the match isn't over until the last point has been played.

Take ahold of the match instead of it grabbing you.

Get rid of the mental highs and lows. Stay positive, dig in and keep working hard until the job is done. How many times have you been ready to give up and your opponent rolled over first?

If you're playing in a competitive situation, you need to have on your game-face and your game-brain. If you can win the match 6-0, 6-0, do it. This and every other competitive match you play are training tools.

You are going to be cordial, fair and good-natured, but not overly talkative until the match is over. To win a tough match it takes the right shots, a good plan and especially great focus.

Remember, cut the self-criticism or that of your partners (spoken or unspoken) and play each point and match with the intensity it deserves. Never lose without a fight and show that you're willing to stay out there as long as it takes doing what it takes to win.

If you rarely play pressure-filled matches, it'll be tougher to preserver when it does take place. You need to compete to master the skills of mental toughness.

Win or lose, walk away from every match with a champion's attitude, one that's real and full of respect for yourself, from and for your opponents.

The characteristics you're putting in place are a constant work in progress. Keep at it with as much practice and patience as the rest of your game and your mental toughness will surely develop.

Chris Howard is a local USPTA Tennis Professional with over 35 years in the racquet and fitness industry. He can be reached at 928-445-1331 or choward4541@q.com