On Mental Strength

The statement was given seriously and wholeheartedly. The professional sports caster uttered, without any self-doubt or hesitation, that “the Olympics are basically a mental game. The important thing for the athletes is how mentally strong they are”.

That this is wrong, and very much so, is something that any further observation seems to confirm. It is borderline ridiculous. To begin with, Olympic athletes are, almost by definition, physical freaks of nature. In the most possible positive way, all athletes that reach the Olympics are people with the most incredible physical gifts, people that have emerged victorious from a selection process that is truly Darwinian. The physical skills that Olympic athletes must have are so profound that by now, some obvious forms of dysmorphia are evident in the athletes: in track and field, the bodies of sprinters are very different from those of decathletes. If one is to expect to see an athlete of certain voluminosity, one has to look at hammer throwers or shut putters; no slightly built athlete is going to compete in those events.

Take, for example, Michael Phelps. He looks “normal” but a tale of the tape says something else. Phelps has the legs of a man much shorter than him, and the upper body of a man much larger. The competitive advantages of this unusual morphism was documented via 23 Olympic medals, so to believe that Phelps’ medals were won due to his “mental strength” is ignoring the obvious. Elaine Thompson Herah, the current standard bearer for sprinters, is a woman of a specific physique that allows her to gain that speed, for which she needs little mental strength because the rules of her sport of choice are the simplest of them all: first one to the finish line, wins. Last, in perhaps a bit of a bothersome observation, female swimmers lack certain endowments in their upper bodies that would work against their expected goal of maximum speed through water. If there are a group of people that are not separated from the “common humans” by mental strength, it has got to be Olympic athletes.

The concept is currently very much in vogue in tennis. The great current champions, and those of the past, are simply so because of their “mental strength”. Never mind their athleticism, their preternatural eye-hand coordination, or their ability to hit that ball. No. The current narrative is that they are great because of their mental strength, psychological powers that separate them from the rest. But, as is the case with the Olympics, this is not supported by evidence. Look at some examples and you will see.

Who can question David Ferrer’s mental strength? The man was a verifiable combatant, a player that never gave up on a single point on court. Yet, Ferrer was never able to beat Roger Federer: 0 – 17 is their record. Certainly, Federer is also considered mentally strong, but are we going to say he was so much mentally stronger than Ferrer than the later could never beat him? Not once? No, the reality is that Federer was better, PHYSICALLY. He was a little taller, a bit faster, a bit stronger. Ferrer competed at his 100% best against Federer, yet never beat him, but it was not because of his mind, it was because of the strokes. A similar case can be said about Tim Henman, another superior competitor that seldom beat Sampras or Agassi, the giants of his era. It was, again, not because of Henman’s fragile psyche, it was the strokes.

How about when players are balanced? Look at Nadal Vs Djokovic. Two men with unquestioned mental strength and that, currently, stand almost tied in their Head to Head. Proof of equal mental strength? Maybe. But if so, then why is the record so skewed? Nadal has beaten Djokovic 28 times, but of those, 19 have been on clay. Djokovic has accrued most of his victories on other surfaces, which makes you ask: if they are equal mental giants, why would the change of surface affect the outcomes so clearly? Chicken or Egg reasoning does not solve it: if you claim that Nadal wins more on clay because he feels better on clay, you are simply stating the obvious. No, the real reason is that Nadal’s strokes are more efficient on clay, Djokovic’s are better in faster surfaces. It has nothing to do with their equally impressive “mental strength”, it has got to do with the strokes.

Notice another interesting thing about mental strength: its propensity to dilute with age. Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl are two other mental giants, with Lendl having a 22-14 edge in their H2H. But there is a clue: Lendl beat Connors 17 straight times to end their meetings, but Connors is 8 years his senior. Is it a coincidence that when athletes become older, their mental strength also vanishes? Why would this be? Connors, fed up with Lendl’s beatings, once hinted about it: “give me back my legs and the guy is toast” (the substrate of his statement). He did not say “give me back my frontal lobes, give me back my intensity, and I win again”. It is very peculiar that mental strength vanishes with age, IN ALL SPORTS, when in theory you should have more. It would add to that  other vernacular cliché: you have now “experience”, which should add to the mental strength, but it doesn’t. You grow old, you are wiser, smarter and mentally strong, yet you must yield to that 18-year-old that simply runs faster than you, for a longer period. If sports are really about “mental strength”, Borg would have made his comeback with ease, McEnroe would still be terrorizing line judges, and there would be no questions that Roger Federer and Serena Williams will win more slams, in the near future and beyond. It is the reason why golfers, who play a game with limited physical demands, play professionally well into their 50’s, and chess masters retire at 60, in a “sport” in which your most developed muscles are your gluteus maximus.

Last, notice how mental strength is tied to “winning”. For strokes, there are seldom ambiguities. Whatever your opinion is of Richard Gasquet’s mental strength, you cannot deny that his backhand is a majestic stroke. Fernando Gonzalez’ forehand is never suspect, and that is because we could see these strokes in action. But the mentally strong label goes to winners, and winners only. Notice how nobody considers Henri Leconte a “mental giant”, despite the fact that the man went for his shots again and again. No, the label usually associated with Leconte is “reckless”, when in reality, the sole difference was that on a few more occasions than for his fellow great players, Leconte’s forcefully delivered strokes landed out, by an inch. To claim that a man that reached #5 in the world was “an idiot” (Ion Tiriac’s assessment) and not mentally strong is simply not wanting to see how persistent the man had to be to keep delivering his strokes, despite some of them going out. If that is not mental strength, what is?

Nobody is saying that the mental aspects are not important. But in sports, the Darwinian process is brutal and starts to work from the very beginning. The kid that can’t hit that wide open passing shot down the line gets weeded out by 12. The one that cannot NOT double fault when facing break point is out by 13. The one that cannot serve for the match is out a little later. That is the reason there are little leagues, why people that reach the pinnacle of their sport start so early. The mental aspects are taken care early on and then, by the time you get to the pros, you are facing people and adversaries that are very similar to you: they can hit the passing shot too, they do not double fault, they can serve out the match. The difference, now, is that she is almost as good as you (or even better), and the margins are super thin. Now, the strokes really matter. In all sports. But every single player that made it to the pros comes already with a winning personality, which includes mental strength. Don’t tell the player that reached #50 and just got creamed by Djokovic that the difference was his mental powers.

So, if this premise is correct, why is it that mental strength is spoken about so often? Why does every single broadcaster and analyst bring it up? Because it is mysterious. It is esoteric. It is the “imponderable”, the “miscellaneous”, the “extra factors”. The analysts sounds deep, he sounds wise (they have egos too) because, as opposed to explaining that in any encounter between two evenly matched players, somebody has to win and very often it is a statistical result, the analyst can say “player A was mentally stronger than player B”. As good a non-explanation as any, tautological in nature. The sport is laced with these instances: you hit a 100 MPH forehand one inch into the corner? Brave, daring, forceful. It landed out? Reckless, impatient, not mentally strong enough. Lebron James knows he can beat 99.9999% of everybody one on one, but on top, he wants to believe there is “something else”. That he is better than the other player even to the point of believing his brain, his will is better. It is, in a sense, the way the superb athletes tell us, the ones that didn’t make it, that we did not work hard enough. We did not put the effort, we did not want it bad enough. If we had hit those 10,000 strokes (which an easy calculation lets you know you probably did after a few years of picking up the sport), we could be as great as they are, never mind your height, weight, skills and coordination.

Take the day off. Go to a sports complex. Try to hit an NBA three pointer, under no pressure. Run the 100 Mts and clock your time. Get a speed gun and blast your serve as hard as you can (don’t even bother to get it in). Get a set of golf clubs and go the 18 holes, and keep your score. When you check your results, the sole conclusion must be that you are a mental weakling.

Heck, nobody ever threw a 99 MPH fastball because of mental strength. It takes a God Given Arm and years of practicing, not 10 years of transcendental meditation and a moment of focus. Athletes are indeed great at what they do, and that is the reason they hold that trophy (and the check). But it would be nice if they ever admitted that they just won some celestial jackpot, at birth, as opposed to telling everybody else: “hey, I won because I worked hard, and you didn’t”. Let’s place mental strength where it belongs: it is very important, but it is more a personality trait than a trainable skill, and it gets taken care of very early on in the development of an athlete which, without the rest of the package, would count for nothing. For the very best, they were born with that. It would even be more honest if they would one day say “somebody up there loves me”.