Building Mental Toughness

Ryan Henry

Ryan won multiple Australian national singles and doubles titles as a junior and was a key member of Australian team that won the 16/U world junior championships held in Japan. By the age of 18, he had achieved rankings of World No. 1 in U/18 Doubles, World No. 16 in U/18 Singles, 271 in ATP Doubles and 424 in ATP Singles and competed in the Australian Open Mens Singles and Doubles main draw. Ryan retired early from the game at age 19 due to repetitive injuries and has since focused on developing a career as a tennis professional.


  • AICD Governance Foundations Directors Qualification
  • The EDG business essentials program graduate
  • Dent Business Accelerator Program graduate
  • Tennis Australia Master Club Professional and Diploma of Business
  • Tennis Australia Learning Facilitator certificate
  • Strength and Conditioning Level 1
  • Olympic Weight Lifting Level 1

Career history

  • 2004: Tennis NSW High Performance Coach
  • 2006: Tennis NSW Academy Head Coach
  • 2008: Head Performance Coach at Langley Tennis Club in London
  • 2011: Co-founded Voyager Tennis Academy
  • 2017: Joined the Tennis NSW board as a Director
  • 2019: Co-authored and published book ‘Winning on and off the court’

Ryan is responsible for the overall management and development of Voyager Tennis and is passionate about helping tennis thrive at all levels from grass roots right the way through to the professional level.

What I love about Tennis?
I loved the intensity of competing as a player and all the life opportunities that Tennis has provided such as character building, world travel and helping me to build a career. I’d like to share these opportunities and help as many players as possible to develop to their full potential as both players and as people.

There is a cliché that ‘sport is 90% mental, 10% physical’, and in tennis this cliché holds true. Tennis certainly has to be one of the most challenging sports when it comes to the psychological pressure of competing in one-on-one situations. In team sports, a player’s performance can often be hidden among their teammates or they make one particular contribution out of eleven, thirteen or fifteen players, while in tennis (singles) all the responsibility rests with the individual with no help from a coach (mid-match at least). With tennis players being 100% accountable for their results, it is not surprising they
display the full array of emotions, from elation and ecstasy when they’re winning to getting extremely upset, throwing their racquet and crying on court when things aren’t going their way.

Tennis has a way of intensifying and bringing emotions to the surface, and players need the understanding and coping strategies to deal with these situations. Loss of control in this way can make the difference between winning and losing. A lot of parents can see the importance of the mental side of tennis, yet the reality is few spend much time or many resources making sure their child is well equipped with the psychological foundations they need to be successful in elite tennis. It is hard to know where to start; it’s hard to evaluate progress compared to other attributes such as technical or physical development.

This blog post outlines four important factors in improving the mental side of the game as well as providing tools and strategies to deal with this area. The four factors for having mental strength are a strong body, the ability to concentrate over long periods, the ability to deal with negative emotions, and maintaining motivation.

A strong body leads to a strong mind

According to psychologists, physical pain and emotional pain are located in the same area of the brain. What this means is that when players experience physical discomfort through training, they are making their brains stronger at coping with this type of pain, and because this part of the brain is largely responsible for coping with emotional pain too, being fitter physically means they’re better equipped to cope with emotional discomfort. Physical training in many ways is mental training, and in most cases a player who is physically fitter than another will be mentally stronger in competition.

This comes about for two reasons. Players who are in great physical condition experience less physical discomfort on the court than those who are out of condition. When the players are in a long battle in a match, the fitter player will be more inclined to make smart decisions based on what will increase their chances of winning, while the unfit player will be likely to make their decisions based on how to reduce their physical pain. As a result, players who are experiencing physical discomfort tend to make a lot more unforced errors due to going for too much and trying to end the point too soon. The second reason is that players who have conditioned themselves physically are used to pushing through the pain barriers and as a result are much better equipped to handle emotional discomfort as well. The more effectively players handle all the emotional challenges such as nerves and frustration, the better they will compete in important match situations.

One of the best activities a player can do to increase their mental toughness in general is to work hard on improving their physical condition, pushing themselves through barriers as often as possible.

Concentration – the ability to sustain constant pressure on opponents

The ability to concentrate over a long period of time is a vital skill for elite tennis players and it can often be the difference between a good and great player. In 2001, Lleyton Hewitt became the youngest ever player to achieve a world number one ranking on the men’s ATP tour. Although Hewitt didn’t have the typical weapons that his opponents had, he dominated the game when it came to sustaining constant point by point pressure over the duration of three- or five-set matches. There are a number of key things that players can do to improve their point by point concentration and maintain a high level of play throughout an entire match:

Fitness allows a player to put in 100% of their efforts for the full duration of a potentially long match. Players who are not in great physical condition may have good concentration skills, but will not be able to sustain their level of play for long periods when physical pain due to lack of endurance sets in.

Strategy focus.
Players who are implementing a match strategy spend their time in between points reflecting on how the points are being won and lost and what to do next. A match strategy keeps players focused on the important detail in every point.

In-between-point routines. 
An effective in-between-point routine focuses on breathing, reflection and planning, and this will set the concentration tone for the point ahead. Players with poor routines in this area are often the ones to lose concentration. The next section outlines some steps your child can take in between points.

Work on concentration.
Novak Djokovic is one of the professional players who practises working on his concentration every day. Concentration exercises using a meditation app can develop the skills to sustain concentration over long periods of time. Having the ability to concentrate point by point over long periods of time requires a lot of practice, but it will make a huge difference to a player’s progress over the long term.

Dealing with adversity and negative emotions

Finding ways to deal with pressure and the resulting adversity is critical in a tennis player’s development. There is a common pattern in a lot of junior tennis matches:

Stage 1: a player starts a match with a neutral mindset

Stage 2: a player experiences adversity or a challenge of some kind

Stage 3: the player experiences negative and difficult thoughts and emotions as a response to the adversity

Stage 4: due to the discomfort of what the player is experiencing internally, their level of play drops off significantly Tennis players at all levels of the game experience adversity of some sort when they are competing. Some common examples are:

  • Opponent is cheating (or a player thinks he/she is cheating)
  • Umpire has made a bad line call
  • Fatigue and physical pain
  • Not playing as well as expected
  • Opponent is playing incredible tennis and is winning

Even top professional players are human and can experience strong negative thoughts and emotions when faced with challenges. The biggest difference between professionals and most junior players is they continue to take positive actions, regardless of what is going on internally. Most professionals know how to deal with their difficult emotions and have learned how to play well, however they are feeling. The pro player’s approach is:

Stage 1: the professional player experiences adversity or a challenge of some kind

Stage 2: they experience negative and difficult thoughts and emotions as a response to the adversity

Stage 3: despite the discomfort of what they are experiencing internally, they continue to compete as hard as they possibly can to give themselves the best chance of winning and their level of play remains high Negative emotions can be almost impossible to control at times and it’s a lot easier to try and change them. Mentally tough players learn how to take positive actions despite the emotions that they are experiencing, accepting that they are part of being human. When your child is facing these challenges, here are some things they can do:

Be alert and mindful. 
Facing difficult challenges often brings up powerful emotions and feelings that can lead to a spiral of negative thinking. Once a player is in this downward spiral, it’s difficult to break out of it. One of the keys to avoiding this is being mindful and alert when difficult thoughts and feelings arise and seeing them for what they are.

Take slow, deep breaths. 
Studies have shown that the way we breathe can have a big effect on our mindset. Short, shallow breaths tend to create panic, while slow, deep breathing creates calmness and clarity. A few deep breaths will go a long way to creating the clarity your child needs before taking the next crucial step.

Create an action plan and make decisions. 
If your child has followed steps 1 and 2, they should be ready to make a decision with clarity. Without calmness and clarity, decision making will usually be poor and lead to more adversity and problems.

Take action. 
After your child has made the decisions, they need to take action. Difficult thoughts and feelings may still be arising in their mind, but they need to learn to take positive action regardless. Top professional players also experience difficult thoughts and feelings, but they have trained themselves to take positive actions whatever they’re feeling.

A quality in-between-point routine can help your child deal with negative emotions. A simple one that has worked for a lot of players is ReCAP:

Response. Did your child win or lose the point? In either case, they will have an instinctive response. Here are the best actions for them to take: Experiencing positive emotions: fist pump, shouting ‘C’mon’ when they’ve hit a great shot or won a long, critical point, or just look at their opponent to see how it affects them.

Experiencing negative emotions: turn their back and walk away. The racquet is the barometer – your child always wants to keep their racquet head pointing up.

Compose. Take four or five deep breaths to calm down and avoid making potentially poor decisions in emotional state.

Assess. Your child needs to use their analytical skills to work out who is doing what to whom and how the points are being won and lost.

Plan and prepare. Your child needs to: Plan their upcoming point and what strategy they will be implementing based on the observations they have made in the previous step Prepare themselves physically and mentally by saying positive words to themselves such as target, compete or whatever inspires them, and moving their body (eg bouncing on their toes) to ensure they are ready for the upcoming point. Learning how to deal with adversity is one of life’s core skills and tennis can be a great way to develop in this area.

Maintaining motivation

The elite tennis journey can span several decades so it’s critical for a player to maintain motivation over the long term. Below are some tips that will help players sustain and increase their motivation.

Set goals. It’s important to have a written list of short-, medium- and long-term goals (see Chapter 4 for more details). Goal setting provides a compass for what to prioritise as well as seeing how your child is tracking, so include performance goals such as ranking/UTR while focusing on development areas such as technical, tactical, physiological and physical goals.

Measure progress. Personal growth is an important motivation factor, so periodically checking in to see how your child is tracking with their progress can help enormously. We’ve developed a series of graphs using the UTR where your child can see what level of tennis they are tracking for now and in the future (see Chapter 4).

Celebrate milestones. Celebrating all the wins, no matter how small, whether it be achieving a particular ranking or rating or developing a certain aspect of the game, is vital to keep your child motivated in the long term. Tracking achievements helps to boost their confidence by activating the reward circuitry within their brain. This releases invigorating ‘feel-good’ chemicals like dopamine which fill them with a sense of accomplishment and pride.

Establish a positive peer group. Motivational speaker Jim Rohn says that we become the average of the five people we spend the most time with, and it’s definitely true for tennis players. The reality is that high performers have different habits to low performers. High performers are generally more professional; work harder; have more attention to detail; are more committed; are more disciplined; have better nutrition; are goal oriented; are self-confident; think bigger thoughts. The advantage of spending time with high performers is that these positive habits will rub off after a period of time. One of the best ways for your child to increase motivation and improve their tennis in the long run is for them to become friends with players at a higher level and spend time in an environment where they all train together.

Visual exposure to a high level of tennis. The first section of Daniel Coyle’s book The Talent Code talks about the positive effect on our brains and motivation when we watch high performers. Intensely watching a top-ranked junior or professional player train and compete can have a significant impact on short- and long-term motivation, and the more frequently your child is exposed to this, the greater effect it will have.

Some suggestions for your child are:

  • At least once per year, go to professional ATP/WTA events to watch the pros train and play live matches. The closer you and your child can get to the court,
  • the better.
  • Watch the finals of nationals or big junior or open events that your child has competed in.
  • Watch pro tennis on TV. Make sure your child regularly trains at a club or in an environment where there are likeminded elite players.
  • Seek doubles partners for your child who play at a higher level.
  • Subscribe to tennis magazines/YouTube channels.

Winning matches. Parents need to watch out for extended periods where their child is losing a high percentage of matches as this can have a negative effect on self- confidence and motivation. Typically this occurs when players are entered in tournaments of a higher level than they are ready for. Make sure your child has a competition schedule that has them winning at least 50% of matches. If they lose in the early rounds for a couple of tournaments in a row, make sure they enter some events where they are likely to get wins on the board.


There are four key factors to consider when building mental toughness in tennis. a strong body, the ability to concentrate over long periods, the ability to deal with negative emotions, and maintaining motivation. Your child can develop all these areas through deliberate practice and adopting routines both before and during matches.

Actions to consider:

  • Provide your child with the opportunity to build their fitness (strong body =
  • strong mind).
  • Develop their concentration by implementing structured routines.
  • Provide them with the opportunity to learn coping strategies for dealing with
  • adversity.
  • Engage an expert who has experience in helping students with their psychology on the tennis court. An example is Mentally Tough Tennis, a company with a successful track record of working with elite players, including professionals.
  • Take action to make sure your child’s motivation is maintained.

By Ryan Henry, Managing Director of Voyager Tennis and Ex-Pro Tennis Player

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