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Art: Mental Toughness
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Mental Toughness
By Joseph Delgado on 8/6/07

Mental Toughness is the primary reason I play racquetball. I know it's a great sport, lots of fun and good exercise, but ultimately I want the ability to think under pressure, to keep my composure, and to keep finding a way to win a point. In short, "to keep moving forward." I love the Rocky series of movies and from the last movie came one of the greatest quotes:

"What is it you said to the kid? The world ain't all sunshine and rainbows. It's a very rough, mean place... and no matter how tough you think you are, it'll always bring you to your knees and keep you there, permanently... if you let it. You or nobody ain't never gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain't about how hard you hit... it's about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward... how much you can take, and keep moving forward. If you know what you're worth, go out and get what you're worth. But you gotta be willing to take the hit." Rocky Balboa (2006)

Goal #1 Thinking under Pressure
It's very easy to get caught up in the rush of the match and there are a lot of internal and external factors going on. It's important to take advantage of the break periods in racquetball to plan, recover, and give your "real self" some reassurance. Most players want to rush into the next point and hate delays.

Time Savers in Racquetball

  1. Time outs. You get three thirty second time outs during each game and two during a tie-breaker.
  2. Once the score is called, there's another ten second period.
  3. Two minutes between games and five minutes between game 2 and a tie-breaker.
  4. Injury time out is fifteen minutes.
  5. Equipment time out is up to two minutes.

Normally I want to keep the momentum going when I'm scoring and destroy it if my opponent is on fire. Taking a time out or my allotted time between rallies can help change the momentum of a game.

Goal #2 Keep my Composure
I'm a pretty easy going guy, but sometimes the competitive fire burns a little too hot. As Dr. James Loehr wrote in his book about anger, "It's like trying to put out a fire with gasoline."

"You see, fear keeps you sharp. It keeps you awake. It makes you wanna survive. But the thing is, you gotta learn how to control it." Rocky Balboa, Rocky V

I remember two examples at the same round robin where anger hindered and helped me. One game, I was totally outclassed and had a one way ticket to the donut shop, but I broke his serve once and did a traditional "Double Kill" fist pump and yelled at myself "C'mon Joe! Do something!!" There was nothing left of myself. I wanted to serve hard and play hard at any cost. I was blinded by bloodlust.

My next opponent won the lower division last time and I didn't care, I was angry about getting the donut, but it wasn't the same out of control anger. It brought a level of focus I always wanted. I wanted the points. I wanted to win. I was the "wounded bear" that Brad Gilbert mentioned in his book. My opponent lost and walked away with three points and it was my best racquetball.

Anger and fear play an important part in mental toughness without them your body isn't really ready to fight, but if they get out of control they ruin your chances for winning and during recreational play anger can ruin friendships.

Tips on Keeping composure

  1. Accept your highs and lows.
  2. Always play seriously.
  3. Give yourself a pep talk between points.

Goal #3 getting the point
Get one point at a time. I thought the score didn't matter, but reading Brad Gilbert's book showed me how "setup points" can set the stage for a win in tennis. A point at 13-5 is a lot different than at 5-3, so taking advantage of the score's psychological effect is often overlooked.

The past and future points often serve as a distraction and have no place in my thoughts during a rally, but they still keep coming up especially at the worst times.

Tips for getting the point

  1. Focus on the ball.
  2. Keep the ball in play.
  3. Find more than one serve that works.
  4. Get your opponent tired and keep them tired.

They say racquetball is 80% to 90% mental. Shame how many players waste the opportunities to rest, to think, and observe. So force yourself to be aware.

You can change your mechanics, your racquet, your shoes, but ultimately your head is the key to winning more matches. Learn about yourself. It will be time well invested.

Additional Resources
Book: The New Mental Toughness Training for Sports
by James E. Loehr. ISBN: 0-525-93839-7
This isn't a book that you can pick up, read, and instantly transform yourself into a better player. There's a host of exercises that attempt to peel back your defenses and give you insight into who you are as a competitor. It's a difficult journey and most of the people I recommend this book to don’t really do it.

Book: Winning Ugly: Mental Warfare in Tennis--Lessons from a Master
by Brad Gilbert and Steve Jamison ISBN: 067188400X
I'm still reading the book, 8/30/07, and it's been years since I even attempted to play Tennis, but I found enough parallels with racquetball to recommend it. Besides providing great advice on mental toughness and tennis strategy, it's also been a great read.

Link: Carl Moody's Racquetball Website
It's a short article on mental toughness with snippets and cool Yoda quotes. Worth reading and it's free.

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