Mental Toughness: Character in Action

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The 2012 Australian Open Men’s final between Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal started at 7.30pm Sunday evening on the 29th of January and it didn’t end until about 1.30am Monday morning. It lasted for 5 hours 53 minutes. Tennis fans witnessed the longest grand slam final match in history and saw a test of endurance as the top two seeds in the world slugged it out on the court. Djokovic was victorious and he also took Nadal’s unofficial title as the toughest man on the tour. Barely 40 hours before the final, Djokovic overpowered Andy Murray, ranked world number 4, in a five hour marathon thriller. Some doubted he would have the mental and physical strength to challenge Nadal after a demanding semi final match.

A couple of years ago, Djokovic would never have been able to win either the semi final against Murray or the final against Nadal. 2011 was his breakout year when he proved virtually unstoppable for most of the year. He won three of the four grand slams and replaced Nadal as world number one. A tennis player’s career is judged on the basis of how many grand slams he or she has won.  Many factors have been cited as responsible for Djokovic’s rise and dominance in the last 15 months – his gluten free diet, a CVAC pressurised chamber, and a punishing training regime.

I believe the most critical factor responsible for his success is the development of his mental toughness. Djokovic used to be considered mentally frail by his peers. Vince Lombardi, the legendary American football coach, referred to mental toughness as “character in action”. Mental toughness allows you to stay strong when your body is pleading that you quit because it is tired. Mental toughness allows you to win the critical points that will determine the outcome of the game, set and match. Mental toughness enables you to be the one standing at the end of the match with the cup and a smile on your face, having your photo taken with the ball boys and girls while your opponent is in the locker rueing his missed opportunities. Mental toughness is all between the ears. It is the confidence, self belief and desire to win and succeed despite the odds and obstacles.

Djokovic’s coach, Marian Vajda, said in an interview in 2011 that “Djokovic has found a way to play the (top) guys, learned how to beat them, how to prepare properly, how to handle the pressure. It’s a process. Before, he had lapses, nerves, we could see he often couldn’t handle the pressure.” Andy Murray, in another interview, also said that “when Djokovic played against the top guys, he’s raised his level, which maybe in the past he hadn’t done. He’s found a way of winning against them, and now obviously he’s got a lot of confidence.”

Mental toughness is not just for top athletes but every leader who desires to be effective needs to be mentally tough in order to handle the pressures and demands of leadership.

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2 Responses to Mental Toughness: Character in Action

  1. Itee

    Without the requiste mental committment to a course of action/desired outcome failure is guaranteed at the first, second or third obstacle. Before you act as a leader you must be prepared to stay the course, having first fully considered the cost and any feasible hindrance to the desired objective.

  2. Ogechi Ekpo

    This is a timely piece, Prof. I was just asking myself what more i need to do to up my mental stamina for my studies. I was also considering the other projects I have in mind to do.
    It sounds like the key message here is that quitting is not an option because there are higher heights to attain, and there is a bigger picture.
    From this piece I also gather that a key issue is what I am focused on. Since it is success, I choose to stay in the game, and find ways to maximize my potential.

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