Thank You for the Pressure

How training your mental reflexes in intense, low-risk environments can build resilience in other areas of life

I threw my racquet across the court in a fit of rage.

My scream echoed off the outer brick wall of my high school as the hot, August, Indiana sun beat down on me.

I had just lost a set at a critical juncture in a match. I needed to pull myself together and close out this next set to win it for my team.

My coach called me over to the fence to talk. He said, "Grant, I know it's hot, I know you're tired. But as long as you're focused and mentally resilient, the human body is capable of incredible feats. You can do this." I walked back to my bench, and considered these words. I wouldn't understand their implications for my everyday life until several years later.

It turned out, my mental toughness was failing me up to that point in the match. I didn’t encourage myself as well I could have under pressure, and as a result found myself in a difficult spot.

Mental toughness is something that can affect every area of our lives. Training your immediate response—your mental reflexes—in a high-intensity, low-risk environment (such as sports) enhances your ability to handle whatever life throws at you when you’re in an intense, higher-risk environment like an interview for your dream job or a high-stakes presentation at work.

Physical reflexes vs mental reflexes

Consider first our physical reflexes. When someone throws a ball at you from close range, you don't have time to think about where it's going, calculate it's likely final position and move your hand there to catch it. You just react. Your body's reflexes act before you can think and your hand suddenly moves to try and grab the ball mid-air. These physical reflexes can be trained and improved over time. You can practice to get better at catching point-blank pitches.

Your mental reflexes work the same way. When something happens to you—your buttons are pushed—you have a knee-jerk mental response. In those moments, do you beat yourself up? Or do you encourage yourself? You would never (I hope!) call it acceptable to verbally kick someone else while they're down, so why is it acceptable to do that to yourself?

My time with tennis

My 18-year journey playing and watching tennis has taught me the importance of developing these mental reflexes.

I began playing tennis when I was in third grade. I practiced diligently, playing weekly into my middle school years, with tournaments on the weekends. I went on to play on my high school team, with daily practices and frequent matches in the fall semester.

Through this practice, I developed the physical skill necessary to compete at a high level, but hadn't quite cultivated the mental skill that was the hallmark of the best players in high school tennis. I was easily upset during matches and would sometimes let those minor mess-ups derail the rest of my match. Some of my opponents even knew this about me and would use it against me.

The match was no longer me against them. It became me against me. I began battling myself.

If exploited in a match-up with even physical skill, I would often lose. When I lost a critical point in the match, you wouldn't just see it in my face, you would hear it 50 yards away. Eventually, I figured out (a little late according to my coach) that this habit of mentally derailing was holding me back from reaching my potential. I just needed to learn from someone better than me. And why not learn from the best? I soon realized a certain Swiss tennis player was a shining example of peak mental skill.

"Golf is a game of inches. The most important are the six inches between your ears." - Arnold Palmer

As a kid, I would start playing a sport for a variety of reasons. My siblings may have played it, I may have thought it looked fun, or I may have admired the professionals in the game. In tennis, Roger Federer is fun to watch because he puts together combinations of shots that mock the laws of physics. He is the Michelangelo of the court, and his racquet is his paint brush. He floats around the court during points and after them rarely seems to need to catch his breath. In spite of the spectacle of his game, it's what you don't see that stands out most—his mental skill.

Federer remains in complete control of his emotions and attitude throughout 5-set marathon matches, even under the dazzling lights of a grand-slam final. He can lose a critical point in the match and by the look on his face, you'd guess he was casually thinking about what to order for dinner later that night. Zoom out, however, and consider his current context—defending a major grand-slam title—and you realize the enormity of what's on the line for him. All-time records, millions of dollars, the expectations of his family, friends, fans and the piercing scrutiny of the media.

It's a huge weight to manage. But he does it with grace, and I believe it's a key reason for his long-term success.

Fast-forward 5 years in my (amateur) tennis career, when I began playing recreational tennis after college. I decided to play it not just because I enjoyed the game (I did), but also to sharpen habits of mind that I realized had significant implications for other areas of my life.

Hopefully, most of the time life isn't intensely stressful. But there are times when something comes up out of nowhere and pointedly presses a button you didn't want pressed. Your reflex here, what happens the instant after this button is mashed, can have a direct impact on your success going forward. And that reflex can be nurtured in sports or other activities that simulate an intense environment without the risk many real-life situations carry.

In order to stop reacting as I did in high school and before (loud as I was!), I needed to sharpen my mental reflexes.

It can be easy to get derailed into a spiral of distracting, negative thoughts. If you can sidestep those periods of unproductive thoughts, you can get back to contribution and happiness more quickly. And it isn't just naively telling yourself everything is going to be sunshine and roses. It's you telling yourself: "you can do this. It may be tough. You may have to change directions. But you will figure it out and make it through." Exactly what you would tell a close friend.

Just like my high school tennis match, you can begin to battle yourself in these situations. However, this is where you most need to call a truce and default to kindness.

So be kind to yourself. You will make mistakes. Everyone does, and it does no good to spend energy lingering on them. If you can learn from it, do so quickly, incorporate the lesson into your habits, and move on.

It's inevitable that something will go against you in a tennis match, so I began using tennis to sharpen my mental reflexes. There can be over 200 points played in a close, 3-set match. There will be times when a break doesn't go your way. I decided that my goal for the match would not necessarily be to win, but to win as long as I kept my cool even in the points that I lost from purely bad luck. Winning with negative self-talk or while making a fool of myself would not count on my personal scorecard.

So what did I do to improve? I cultivated my awareness of how I felt after a bad point. I would notice the feeling, try and delay a response, and gradually get better at responding to myself with encouragement.

It started out not working very well. I would still get upset and lose focus for several points. But over time, I noticed improvement in my ability to respond positively to setbacks right away. Another example is when I'm exhausted at the end of a long run and want to slow down. That's when my mental reflexes matter to help me encourage myself and push through. When it becomes second nature to respond with encouragement, you've created a massive advantage for yourself.

Josh Waitzkin, a chess GrandMaster and World Champion martial artist, discusses this in his book, The Art of Learning:

In every discipline, the ability to be clear headed, present, cool under fire is much of what separates the best from the mediocre. In competition, the dynamic is often painfully transparent. If one player is serenely present while the other is being ripped apart by internal issues, the outcome is already clear. The prey is no longer objective, makes compounding mistakes, and the predator moves in for the kill. (Waitzkin 172)

It has reached the point that I now look forward to playing any sport not just for the fun and exercise it provides, but for the opportunity to strengthen my mental reflexes. I'm now grateful for the opportunity to practice extreme patience and mental toughness in an environment with nothing critical at stake (I know, I know, bragging rights are nice sometimes).

Whatever your field of endeavor (non-sport included), train yourself to notice what feelings come up the instant after you realize you’ve made a mistake. Are they feelings of shame and disgust? Or of acceptance, compassion for yourself and determination to improve next time? Practice delaying or eliminating your negative reactions and accelerating the encouraging ones.

This strengthened mental reflex can spill over into every area of your life that has a potential source of stress. We use mental reflexes far more than our physical ones, so why don't we give them more attention? When something goes wrong at work or an endeavor you care about, you can immediately pivot to focus on what's within your control instead of worrying about what's not.

Don’t work out just to train your body. Use it as an opportunity to train your mental reflexes. Once you break through mental barriers in sport, you start to question yourself: in what other realms of life do I have imaginary mental barriers that are keeping me from my potential?

I ended up narrowly losing that match back in high school, but what I learned from it has helped me ever since.

Thanks to Compound Writing members David Burt and Steven Ovadia for reading drafts of this.

What's an area of your life where your mental reflexes serve you well? Where do they get in the way? How else do you think we can practice improving our mental reflexes? Let me know in the comments below!