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Mental Toughness

Mental Toughness in Tennis and Poker

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I’ve been playing a “little” tennis lately. (Editor’s Note: Steve is obsessed with tennis. He plays seven days a week. It’s all he ever talks about.  He never shuts up.)

I’m amazed how two seemingly unrelated sports (tennis and poker) have so much in common. I’ve been annihilating tennis opponents left and right lately. And no, it isn’t because I’m strictly better than them.  I’ve only been playing a little over a year, and some of them have been playing for decades. I win because I’m mentally tougher than they are.   

Tennis, like poker, is all about staying in control of your emotions. It’s about entertaining nothing but positive thoughts while waiting for your opponent to crack under the pressure. This mental toughness is what will take you to the win.

I had a tennis match yesterday. Here in Florida it was over 90 degrees outside, with nearly 100% humidity. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and the sun was beating down on us. It would have been easy to start thinking negative thoughts about the miserable playing conditions. Instead, I looked at the positive.  I’m a native Floridian, I can handle the heat. I had brought a gallon of Gatorade. My opponent was originally from Michigan. The sweat was pouring off him in buckets.  I knew he would crack eventually. About an hour into the match, he started slowing down. By hour two he looked ready to dial 9-1-1. I won easily in straight sets. It wasn’t my superior tennis skills that got me there, it was my mental toughness.

Poker is the same way. It’s so easy to let negative thoughts creep in. One thing that works for me is to be conscious of the negative thoughts and take steps to eliminate them. Has anyone reading this ever caught themselves thinking things like these?

1.      “Oh no, I can’t believe that annoying guy is at my table. I always lose when he’s at my table.”

2.      “I forgot to (wear my lucky shirt, bring my lucky card protector, etc).  I know I’m going to lose.”

3.      “Oh no, not today, this is a big tournament, I can’t believe I drew the 1 seat.  I hate being next to the dealer, I can never see, and I’m always worried they’ll muck my hand by accident. I’m going to lose for sure today.”

Whenever I catch a thought like these pass through my mind, I’m determined to prove it wrong. I’ll try extra hard to win that day, to teach my subconscious mind to stop harboring bad thoughts. I’ll even purposefully NOT wear my lucky shirt, just to prove to myself that I don’t need it to win. 

In some ways tennis players are even WORSE than poker players with their negative thinking. Often I show up to a tennis match, and before the match even starts, my opponent says something like, “Just to let you know, my knee is kind of bothering me, it might be a factor today” or “I’m trying out a new racquet today; not sure yet how well it will work out”.  How about that – the match hasn’t even STARTED YET and they are already making excuses!

It’s great to know about pot odds, blockers, hand ranges, and squeeze plays.  It’s really important you know these things, and to implement your knowledge when you play. And yet, I can’t stress enough that your attitude is going to determine whether you win or lose at poker. So make sure to bring your mental toughness to the table and keep your mind focused on playing to win.

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Steve Blay

Steve Blay is a poker author, inventor, and the founder of Advanced Poker Training.

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