Determination, Perseverance and Mental Strength

I dropped my head in shame, having double-faulted yet again. I’d been the high flyer for much of the season and had let my team down in the semi-finals. 

I’m describing a match I played in a local junior tennis tournament when I was 15. For a couple of seasons, I’d been one of the players to beat in my division, having beaten every player I’d come across and winning almost every match. But again, it was the playoff stages that got to me. 

It’s moments like these that give me immense respect for athletes, particularly in individual sports. I played competitive tennis and ran track (and cross-country) competitively throughout high school, both of which require tremendous mental strength to push through when the chips are down. They taught me a lot, and I credit my experiences through both of them as an essential component to the resilience I have today. 

Out of the many sports I follow, none captivate me more than tennis and Formula 1. There’s strategy, there’s adrenaline, there’s passion; but most of all, they’re largely individual.

Jolyon Palmer in his Renault R.S.17 at Albert Park – Free Practice 2 at the 2017 Australian Grand Prix, picture my own

When competing, there’s no room to hide – it’s you against your opponent(s). You have to execute your game plan and deal with problems alone, and the responsibility for results largely falls on your shoulders. There’s no room to hide. 

Roger Federer hits a backhand during his 4th Round win over Marton Fucsovics at the 2018 Australian Open – picture my own

The nature of both sports means that mental strength is of utmost importance, and more so when things aren’t necessarily turning up roses. Take the example of 16-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic, who noted in 2018 that after almost two seasons with poor results on the tennis court:

“I also said that I would no longer play tennis; people were shocked.”

Novak Djokovic on physical and mental struggles from late 2016 until early 2018

Consider Formula 1 driver Daniel Ricciardo, one of the most highly regarded drivers on the current grid, who after a streak of race retirements at the back end of 2018, said:

“Where I am, I don’t see the point of coming on Sunday.”

Daniel Ricciardo, lamenting the futility of attending races after a string of retirements in late 2018

Yet neither gave up, and both are still enjoying themselves and competing at the highest level today.

Djokovic in particular has enjoyed somewhat of a career revival since those darker times, having won 4 of 7 Grand Slams since his contemplation of retirement while jumping to 3rd all time on both the list of Grand Slams won and the list of longest serving No. 1 ranked players in the world. Determination, perseverance and mental strength are key, and I think there are plenty of examples of athletes who exemplify the importance of these traits in achieving success, no matter what field you’re in (sports, business, academia, etc.).

The first is 2016 Formula One world champion Nico Rosberg. The son of 1982 F1 champion Keke Rosberg, he started his F1 career in 2006 but didn’t end up winning a race until 2012. However, his career is marked by a four-year period he spent racing alongside now six-time world champion Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes.

After being beaten to the 2014 world championship by Hamilton, the 2015 US Grand Prix is widely considered to have been the tipping point that fuelled Rosberg’s fire for the season to come. Rosberg suffered the disappointment of surrendering his lead in the late stages of the race, subsequently giving Hamilton an unassailable lead in the championship. In a 2017 interview with Graham Bensinger, he said:

“It was fuel for me. Rather than pulling me down and holding me down, I was always able to come out even stronger, with more motivation, and that’s what happened again in the US, and it’s a big part of why I’m sitting here now as a world champion.”

Nico Rosberg in 2017, reflecting on the aftermath of the 2015 US Grand Prix – a moment he recognises as pivotal to his 2016 title charge

It’s determination like this that allowed Rosberg to rise above his disappointments and use them as a stepping stone for future success. In a 2018 Beyond the Grid podcast, he further notes:

“It’s total life dedication.”

Nico Rosberg in 2018, describing what he believes what his secret to success was in his 2016 campaign

In the same podcast, he describes stopping cycling to lose weight and maximise his ability to extract the most out of his car, as well as cutting the seams off his gloves to ensure he could shift gears as efficiently as possible. While these measures may seem extreme, I’m highlighting them because of the mental fortitude he required to persevere and never lose sight of his dream. Regardless of what you do in life, Rosberg’s experience is a fantastic example of putting your entire motivation into achieving the goals you set for yourself.

In tennis, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are widely recognised as two of the greatest warriors the sport has ever seen, but both have had their struggles. Upon winning Wimbledon in 2018, his first Grand Slam title in more than two years, Djokovic remarked:

“There is a part of me that always believes…that whenever I come to a tournament, I can have a good opportunity to fight for the trophy.”

Novak Djokovic after winning Wimbledon in 2018, reflecting on a barren two years

This ability to push through the hardships of life is fundamental to finding success even in the battle. Indeed, after winning Wimbledon 2019 against Roger Federer despite facing two championship points deep in the fifth set, Djokovic noted:

“First of all self-belief, and being…calm and composed in that moment, and only focusing on where the next serve is going to go…”

Novak Djokovic on facing championship points at Wimbledon 2019

Rafael Nadal is widely recognised for his fighting qualities on the tennis court. After a win over Daniil Medvedev at the ATP Finals, in which Medvedev led 5-1 in the 5th set with a match point, Nadal noted:

“The example in my opinion is not to break a racquet when you are 5-1 down in the third, or not to be out of your self-control (sic) when things are not going the right way, staying positive…”

Rafael Nadal on winning from losing positions

I don’t bring these examples up just to admire these particular athletes – although there’s plenty to admire here – these examples are here to learn from. When it seems like things are hopeless, there is always a way out, with positive outcomes not too far away. As these examples illustrate, it’s about staying focused in the moment, understanding your abilities and honing in on your strengths. I like the quote that says our entire lives are essentially preparation for our most testing moments.

Determination, perseverance and mental strength are key to what it means to be steadfast. It’s about endurance, courage and resilience. And above all, remember God:

“The steadfast of mind You will keep in perfect peace, because he trusts in You.”

Isaiah 26:3 (NASB)

Djokovic pondering retirement:

Ricciardo disenchanted:

Rosberg Beyond the Grid:

Rosberg Bensinger interview:

Djokovic press conference after Wimbledon 2018 final:

Djokovic interview after Wimbledon 2019 final:

Nadal press conference after Medvedev win:

Featured photo on homepage by Jake Hills on Unsplash

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