Riding down the highway… stop in all the byways…Gettin’ had, gettin’ took, I tell you folks, it’s harder than it looks….If you wanna be a star of stage and screen: look out! It’s rough and mean.It’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock ’n’ roll.Well it’s a long way, such a long way.ACDC
Classic tune, yes, but what does this have to do with mental toughness in sport? I’m often reminded of these lyrics when discussing the challenges of the touring circuit with tennis players, parents and coaches. One story capturing a lot of attention in sports media in recent weeks involves professional Australian player Bernard Tomic and his comments following his elimination from the prestigious Wimbledon tournament. Like a rock star exhausted by the endless gigs, hotels and hours on the road, Tomic appears to be wondering what to do when something which once sounded so glamorous now seems so unappealing.
To summarise, Tomic stated that he felt “bored” out on the court and that he was lacking motivation during Wimbledon and in his playing career more generally. He reported lacking a sense of fun. He described being happy with his life from a financial perspective but being dissatisfied with the sport of tennis and not caring about his results. Tomic acknowledged the difficulties of playing at the top level for such a lengthy period already (he is 24 years old and joined the professional tour around age 17) but stated that he plans to continue for another 10 years so that “I won’t have to work again.”
In later interviews Tomic said that he feels “trapped” in the sport and that if he could go back in time he’d encourage his younger self to pursue another career. “Do something you love and enjoy” he would advise the 14-year-old Bernard, “because it’s a grind and it’s a tough, tough, tough life.” Tomic has come in for some very strong criticism from the tennis world and in the Australian community as a result of his comments – not all of it constructive. There has been a genuine concern expressed for Tomic’s mental health off the tennis court by some observers, however given that I have never spoken to him it would be inappropriate to offer comment on that front except to wish him well during this difficult period. Purely from a tennis perspective there are clearly some hard questions being asked on and off the public record.
If nothing else, I’m impressed by Tomic’s brutal honesty. Of the many reasons that sporting and non-sporting performers contact us to improve their mental toughness, a lack of enjoyment is consistently in the ‘top 3’ (performance anxiety tends to be ranked #1, and a gap in performance between practice and competition is generally ranked #2). Bernard Tomic is obviously not enjoying the sport he has dedicated his life to. He is certainly not alone in this regard! If we compare Tomic at this stage of his career to someone like the legendary Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt the differences could hardly be more extreme. Among the many contributing factors to Bolt’s success as a runner is his love of racing. It’s remarkable to observe how every time he competes he treats it as a celebration of his passion for running, and I’m sure this has been one of the reasons for not only his success but also his longevity as an athlete. Now please be clear that I’m not saying that Tomic needs to suddenly become the most enthusiastic tennis player in the world. What I would say is that enjoyment is a necessary ingredient for anyone to perform well and at the moment it’s sorely lacking for him (if it was ever really there in the first place).
Enjoyment is surprisingly difficult to quantify and as such it’s no wonder that so many sporting and non-sporting performers struggle to find it when it ‘goes missing’. The word ‘fun’ often gets used in this context and wherever possible we encourage clients to identify then tap in to that pure childlike thrill that comes with performing. One problem is that even something that seems as straightforward as fun is hard to define as a concept. If you’re a tennis player reading this now, ask yourself what exactly is most fun about the sport? If your answer is that you just love hitting the ball, can you describe in words why that is? Is it movement-based, or the challenge of executing a successful shot, or the ‘feel’ of a clean stroke when the racquet and ball meet, or just being in the moment? If you’re finding it hard to put into words why hitting the ball is such fun that’s entirely understandable, but what happens when you’re suddenly not hitting it well? Or when you’re injured? Or when you’re hitting it well but results aren’t going your way?
Enjoyment isn’t simply having fun (whatever that word means to you) and again most people find it difficult to define what the additional components are. Enjoyment also involves challenge, reward, satisfaction, pride, achievement, growth… and more. Too much of a result-focus is well known for decreasing enjoyment and often leads people to lose touch with the simple pleasures that drew them
At the time of writing this edition of the Mental Toughness Digest, Bernard Tomic recently indicated he does not ever expect to truly love the sport of tennis and that for the foreseeable future it will simply be a job to him. Whilst he doesn’t need to love the game, reconnecting with (or discovering) a sense of enjoyment can have tremendous benefits on and off the court. Tomic did express a sense of hope that he can one day win a major tournament such as Wimbledon and experience the joy that would come with such a feat. With the best years of his career ahead of him this remains possible, but only time will tell.
It’s a long way to the top, indeed.