Midway through Wimbledon 2017 and Britain’s Joannah Konta is looking assured and focused. It was not always the case – indeed far from it. Back in 2015, Judy Murray (mother of Andy and the then captain of the GB Federation Cup Team), talked of Konta as having ‘really bad performance anxiety’. In a similar vein, a former British women’s number one commented, ‘Konta used to be someone who would fret a lot, whether it was on the practice court, or on the match court. If things weren’t perfect, it used to really get to her’. Two years on from Judy Murray’s comments, Konta’s ability to handle pressure at the sharp end of competitive tennis is now seen as one of her greatest assets.
Undoubtedly Konta has put in the technical and physical groundwork to achieve her success. And yet, for top players, this may not be enough. As Novak Djokovic has said, ‘Tennis is a mental game’, and that taking this cerebral aspect of the game seriously is crucial in the top flight of tennis, where the starting point is that everyone is fit, and everyone hits great forehands and backhands.
What is striking for both Djokovic and Konta, is that success has come when they have stopped striving, and let go of too much thinking about their play and their rankings. Djokovik has described how he ‘stopped thinking too much about what could happen’ on court, and instead trusted his conditioning and decision-making. Similarly Konta has recently reflected, ‘Rankings come and go, so do results. I have taken the expectation away from myself of actually getting results, and put it heavily on how I want to be living my life. The only thing that I have the ability to control is the effort that I put in.’
During last year’s Wimbledon, the BBC tennis correspondent, Piers Newbery, reflected on Konta’s transition;
That magical ability to block out the peripheral and concentrate purely on the next point, the next ball, is something Konta has managed to acquire over the past 18 months.
The performance psychologist Juan Coto, who sadly died in 2016, has been credited by Konta as key to this shift in her outlook and resilience. For Coto, putting work and effort into the psychological side of performance was, if you excuse the pun, a no-brainer, given its importance on a player’s overall performance. Coto emphasised the importance of players addressing the issue of mental interference, through what he called ‘states of performance’. These included being energised (through nutrition and sleep), committed (clarity of purpose), confidence (though cultivating a Growth Mindset) and through being focused and present so as to be able to manage energy, thoughts and emotions as they arise in demanding environments.
It’s no coincidence that both Konta and Djokovik practice meditation, a key aspect of mindfulness training, as a means of maintaining their focus and attention on what’s actually happening in the present moment.
Coto’s gift to Konta was to show her that mental training is not solely the preserve of people with ‘issues’. It can also unlock potential in elite athletes. Focus and presence are qualities that can be practiced, with just as much care and attention as, for example, perfecting a serve or a volley.