This is a special post co-authored by Banri Tanaka, Asian Efficiency’s resident statistician and mathematics genius.
At our annual retreat last year, every Asian Efficiency team member gave a short presentation on a topic of their choice. We heard about a lot of different things, from personal finance, to travel hacking, to how to work effectively at night. But the unexpected hit of the series was a simple black-on-white powerpoint slide deck titled, “10 Tips to Become Mentally Tougher in Tennis”.
It was an unexpectedly different and as soon as it was done, we all knew that we wanted to share it with our readers. One of our core values at Asian Efficiency is Pull Others Up – which means, helping others whenever and however we can. So even though Banri is one of the more introverted members of the Asian Efficiency team, with some help from Zachary (our podcast host), we managed to get this article together and released for everyone.
So why tennis? Well, Banri loves playing tennis. For him, it serves as a metaphor for productivity, business and life. It’s that old saying – how you do one thing, is how you do everything.
And this is important, because when you take a skill like mental toughness, or its benefits, like focus, you find that they actually resonate throughout everything in life.
As Banri explains it:
“In tennis, most matches are decided by unforced errors. This means that mistiming or misjudging the ball can lead to errors and losing the point. So to improve at tennis, you need to develop mental toughness and consistency, which gives you focus.”
Kinda sounds like being productive, doesn’t it?
Simply put, mental toughness is the ability to consistently generate and maintain focus in stressful situations and enviroments. And here’s how you do it.
1. Envision Being Strong
The first tip for mental toughness is to envision yourself being strong.
When you have a strong image, you subconsciously get your body to live up to that image. The body is in the habit of fulfilling whatever images you have in your head – that is the power of the subconscious.
If you see yourself as a weak player – you will be. If you see yourself as a strong player – you will be.
In tennis, this means that you should be envisioning the last time you won the point or hit a good shot. Remember it, and feel good about it.
In productivity, this means that you should start your days by envisioning a really good and productive day, because your mental image of yourself and of future events, plays a large part in determining your level of success. If you can see yourself as focused, productive and capable – you will be.
2. Have a Ritual
Having a simple ritual that you perform before each point helps condition the mind to link that ritual to a succesful point, and also prepares your body for the point. This helps clear your mind and makes you more focused.
It’s a self-reinforcing feedback loop – the more you do the ritual, the more your mind associates it with success; and the more success you have, the more effective the ritual becomes.
It’s such an effective technique that all professional tennis players have one – be it bouncing the tennis ball, or twirling their hair before a point. In other sports, rituals can be longer – it’s been said that Michael Phelps has a morning-long ritual from the time he wakes up until the time he’s done training for the day.
Having a ritual gets you ready to play and perform.
If we extend this idea to productivity, rituals in general help keep us happy, healthy and productive. This can be a simple ritual like gathering your focus before diving into a new task, or a more complicated ritual, like the One Ritual that all successful people have.
3. Keep Your Eyes Within the Court
The human mind has the tendency to latch onto points of interest, be they a bystander waving a flag in the crowd, or the glow from a smartphone sitting on the table.
Whenever this happens, we end up using a small percentage of our mental energy and attention to process what we see – and this can often distract us from focusing on what we’re currently working on.
In tennis, the way to overcome this is to keep our eyes on the court – and not be waylaid by outside distractions.
In productivity… well, there are a lot of applications.
First, you have to know what your court is – it could be the limits of your computer screen, or even the application that you’re currently working in.
From there, you need keep your eye on the task at hand – and ignore the “points of interest” generated by co-workers, cellphones, conversations going on around you, and incoming notifications. By keeping those distractions out of sight and out of mind, you can significantly reduce your mental overhead and achieve better focus.
4. Don’t Overthink
A common problem in both tennis and life is overlooking the obvious by making it overly complicated. It’s that analogy of being too deep into the forest, and all you can see is trees (credit: Zachary Sexton).
By overthinking, we tend to generate errors and mistakes in what we do. We get a form of “analysis paralysis” so to speak.
The simple preventative measure for this is to think about something simple.
In tennis, this can be to simply look at the ball – and stay focused on it, so that other random thoughts stay out. In a game like tennis, it’s all about minimizing errors – because he/she who makes the most mistakes, loses.
In productivity we can easily control the complex, by limiting our options. We can do this by having a limited set of tasks to choose from, or by only opening applications and windows that are relevant to the task at hand. We do this so that we can focus on just what’s next – and handle that first, before complicating it with what’s to come.
5. Don’t Be Swayed by the Opponent or Crowd
In every situation, there’s you – and then there’s the crowd. In sports, there is also your opponent.
If you let them, the crowd or your opponent will sway you towards what they want. The crowd will have comments about what you’re doing. Your opponent will want you to play a certain way – so that they have the advantage.
If you let yourself be swayed by the opponent or the crowd, you end up playing a reactive game, rather than a proactive one. You essentially end up playing their game, rather than your own. And the net result of this is a decrease in focus and an increase in the number of mistakes that you can potentially make.
In tennis, this means that you may end up making shots and plays that you normally wouldn’t. To avoid being swayed by the opponent or the crowd, you need to 1) have a ritual, and 2) keep your eyes within the court.
In productivity, it is exactly the same. There may no be direct “opponent” in the workplace or business world, but there is most definitely a crowd – consisting of your friends, co-workers, boss, competitors and audience.
Sometimes the crowd is great – and cheers you on. Other times, not so much. Typically, we all know what we have to do and we should just do it – play our own game and be proactive about our moves – rather than let others affect our decisions and gut intuition too much.
And beyond the workplace – not being swayed by the opponent or the crowd means being able to say “no”, and doing what is best for you, and not what others pressure you to do.
6. Focus on the Positive
In tennis and in life, many things can go wrong.
If you dwell on the negative, it makes you tentative, indecisive and paralyzes you – and this doesn’t help you at all.
Instead, remember that the future is not set, and that you can (and should) be focusing on creating a better future.
This is the mindset of getting success, rather than avoiding failure.
In tennis, this means that if you make a bad shot, instead of focusing on that or trying to analyze it, you should go into your next shot clean and positive. You can save the analysis for later.
In productivity, you want to take any negativity that comes up, and walk away with a lesson from it… then reframe it into a positive as quickly as you can. This is how we learn – and how we can train our brains to automatically reframe negatives into positives in the future.
Breathing is a universal techinque that applies to almost everything we do. In tennis, players run around a lot and this makes them short on breath and in particular, short on oxygen. And we need oxygen to make good, calm, composed decisions.
So breathing slowly between points helps players regain composure, helps them relax, and this in turn improves their technique and power.
In productivity, breathing has the same effect – it relaxes and composes us, but instead of manifesting as technique and power, it becomes concentration and productive output. And we all want more of that!
8. Be in a Supportive Environment
While a lot of these tips have focused on our own solo, mental game, it is worth remembering that it takes at least 2 people to play a match. And let’s not forget about coaches, mentors, and the other players in our general environment.
In tennis, we want to pick our opponents, coaches and supporting cast well, because we want to surround ourselves with mentally strong players who provide a challenge, and help us grow through trials. We also want to avoid picking up bad mental habits from negative players.
In productivity and business, it also takes at least 2 to play. There’s always going to be you, and at least one customer or client. Having a coach or mentor is great. And like in tennis, we want to surround ourselves with awesome, positive people – a star team.
9. Learn to Let Go of Stress
Stress is sometimes inevitable. Sometimes nothing goes right, and it looks like you’re going to lose. What you need to do is learn to let it all go.
A simple technique in tennis is to envision all that stress going into an (imaginary) tennis ball – and then throwing it away. This is a conscious choice that we can make – a choice that we’re going to be mentally tough.
In productivity, we can do exactly the same – take all our stress, and frustration… and channel it into an imaginary ball, and throw it away.
Editor’s Note: for added effect, try scrunching up a piece of paper into a ball, mentally pouring all your stress into it… and burning it.
10. Have Fun
Federer is one of the greatest tennis players of all time, and one of the reasons why he is so good, is because he enjoys tough matches and challenging opponents – he sees it as fun.
If we learn to have fun when we play, not only will the entire experience be more pleasant… but we’ll also become better players because of it.
The same is true in productivity and life – almost nothing that we do is a matter of life and death, and 99% of things are so serious that they can’t be recovered from.
Remember that at the end of the day, tennis is a sport, and life is a game!
And that rounds out the list of 10 simple tips to become mentally tougher – in both tennis and life.
If you have any questions or comments be sure to leave them below.