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What you can learn from Leylah Fernandez' Mental Toughness


Leylah Fernandez continues to make a huge impact on the WTA tour.

She just had another two really good wins in Indian Wells, including a come from behind win after a set down and a break down against Anastasiya Pavlyuchenkova. Yes, she did lose to Shelby Rogers in a third set tiebreaker in the next round. Despite the loss, I think you can clearly see what this woman is capable of mentally. I’m identifying three areas and I’ll also discuss how YOU can work in those three areas.


Expect and embrace adversity


I’ll start with a statement from one of Leylah’s press conferences in Indian Wells. It speaks to two of the things that I think she's doing really, really well.


“Tonight wasn't the best feeling ball wise, she was hitting her targets. Well, I was missing them by maybe an inch or two. That definitely made a difference in the first set. I'm not going to be playing my best tennis all the time. I know where my level is at during training. I know what I can produce on court. I'm learning to kind of accept the good and the bad and seeing what I can improve on”.


The first thing that I think that makes her so strong is that she expects and embraces adversity. If you read her score lines from the US Open you see the ups and downs, all the momentum changes. She knows that she will hit some lows and that's ok. It's her resiliency, her ability to bounce back when she gets into one of those lows that I think is so stunning for somebody that young. Leylah accepts that some days you will just not play your best. You will not feel one of your strokes. Mats Wilander once said that however many matches he played, he's only remembering three matches where everything felt great. And the other times he needed to figure out a way to compensate for the shots that he wasn't feeling as confident with.


Some things will be against you. It could be that your opponent is just crushing you. What are you going to do? Are you just going to go away? Or are you hanging around? Leylah Fernandez clearly knows how to hang around. Just consider her statement after she beat Naomi Osaka at the US Open. She said that the first set was over way too fast. She just wanted to hang out on court longer. So what did she do? She made more shots. She just ran every single ball down, even the seemingly impossible ones...and made them.

With the tennis scoring system, you're never out of the running. Nobody can run the clock down on you and just sit there and know that the match is going to finish itself. No, in tennis matches need to be finished actively.


And in world class tennis, it can be one or two points that change the momentum. Leylah was ready for that to happen. She didn’t sabotage herself by getting down on herself, by being negative, and didn't miss the opportunity to come back into the match. That is resiliency.

It's really all about knowing that you will have those ups and downs in a match, and most certainly in a career. And it's all about accepting that this is going to happen, and then have a game plan for that. For Leylah Fernandez, the fallback plan is really simple, she’s going to run every single ball down. And if it means that she’s running up and down the stadium stairs, she doesn’t care, she will do just that. And she’s going to keep her composure. So next time you watch a match of hers, look at her body language, her facial expression doesn’t change at all. Whether she's winning or losing, you can't tell at what stage of the match she is.

The other thing that she does is when she's winning points, she's very verbal and very, very actively pumps herself up. Even after she's lost points, when she's going back to the back fence, you can see a little slap on the thigh, a little fist pump just to get back up before the next point.


What can we take away from this?

#1: Always, always, always expect adversity. This is not a negative outlook on anything. That's just reality. It could be anything from your opponent making funky calls to it eing really windy outside or rainy, maybe you haven't slept great etc. Whatever it is, expect that there's something that could go wrong. And ideally, before this actually happens, formulate a backup plan and practice implementing that backup plan. Visualization is a fantastic tool for that. If you do it often enough, your brain treats whatever you’re visualizing as if it had really happened. That way, through repetition, you build a habit that you call on when needed. You can visualize going back to the back fence and taking a couple of calming deep breaths when you’re nervous or frustrated. You can visualize adjusting your targets if your opponent calls close balls out. You're not going to rise to the other team when they cheer for their player. Instead, you're going back to the back fence, take calming breaths, play with the strings, keep your eyes very contained and then get ready for the next ball.


That is one of the ways world class athletes deal with adversity. They expect that it's going to happen, and then they have a backup plan. Take a minute and just write down what you want to do when you hit a rough spot.


Growth mindset


The second part of Leylah’s statement speaks to the fact that she has growth mindset.

“I know where my level is, after training, I know what I can produce on court. I'm learning to kind of accept the good and the bad, seeing what I can improve on”.

Learning and improving are the keywords here. Growth mindset versus fixed mindset is the belief that talents and attributes you have can be improved and can be developed. Fixed mindset is the belief that you’re born with certain characteristics and there’s nothing you can do about it. In growth mindset, you're always, always looking for ways to improve, to get better.

Most all major athletes have growth mindset. I'm thinking about the greats like Megan Rapinoe, Simone Biles, Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan. For sure, the best tennis players have growth mindset. Take Roger Federer, for instance. He was number one in the world, dominating, when he hired Stefan Edberg. At that point in his career, Federer realized that he's not going to get younger. There was this crazy dude, Rafa Nadal, who wanted to play rallies with 20, 30,40 shots and Federer couldn’t hang with that anymore. So he sought out the expertise of possibly the best serve and volleyer of all times and added serve and volley to his game to keep points shorter. That is growth mindset. Back to Leylah Fernandez’ example. She's not the tallest and the strongest of all players but that never limited her belief that she can still make it in the pros. She might have said something like this to herself: “I'm only 5’6. But I am going to be the toughest, the strongest, the quickest, the fittest, the most agile 5’6 player out there, period. And I'm going to outwork you”. That's what she did at the US Open; she mentally and physically outworked the # 2, 3,5 and 17 in the world, all players that have way more experience. Leylah saw that as a challenge and got to work. I'm pretty sure that she is not going to stick her head in the sand after the loss t o Shelby Rogers, I'm pretty sure they're going to go back to the drawing board. Okay, what can I learn from this?


What can we learn from Leylah Fernandez?

# 2 How can we use more growth mindset for our own tennis?

Are you a player who in drills wants to work on all the things that you already know? Then it's time to challenge yourself a little bit. Growth mindset implies that it's okay to fail, that we use that as research data, basically, to figure out what we can do better. So choose the drill, choose the stroke that you have issues with, where you have room to grow, and work on that, because it's going to make you better, it's going to make you a more rounded player. If you lose, that is part of the game. Super cliché, I know. People with growth mindset are more interested and focused on the process of reaching a goal rather than just focusing on the outcome.

Seek out a player that you don't match up well with, who you’ve lost to before. How can I find a way to beat this player, even if it means that I'm losing?


Don’t compare yourself to others


Leylah Fernandez doesn’t compare herself to others. And that is a skill. When you're on Tour, you're constantly compared to others. Every single point that you play is a direct comparison. It goes right at your ego because, yes, you're either going to win or you're going to lose it. Every week, the rankings come out and you are compared to others. If you are a world class player, you have been in that environment since you were 9, 10, 11, 12 years old. When she was cut from the Canadian Tennis Federation support system for being too little, Leylah didn’t compare herself to others. A lot of times coaches have to make decisions and often, they're made based on who is at the top of the game at that moment, and who in those groups of kids resemble those players the most. The physicality and the game style of those that are at the top are the measuring stick. Unfortunately, late bloomers, smaller kids - a lot of times kids born in the last months of a year - will get cut because physically, emotionally and mentally others have developed faster and have the upper edge. I was actually one of those kids. I’m born late in November. I played kids a year and a half older than me when I aged up into a new age group. And that can, of course, absolutely discourage you. It could force you to look around and compare yourself to the other kids who are taller and stronger. However, Leylah didn’t compare herself to all the others. She didn’t see herself resembling the top players at the time, the Williams sisters, Azarenka, Clijsters etc, all big hitters. Leylah picked another 5’6 player as her role model: Justine Henin. When you compare them in matches there's that same grit there, the same determination to work harder, more versatile and to be tougher because they just can’t hit that hard. You know who you are because you're a unique person. You find a way to uniquely work with your talents.


What can we take away from that?

#3 Know what you can control and what you cannot control, stop looking around you.

You can’t control that somebody else might have more court time, that somebody else has more money than you to take more lessons, you cannot control that. What you can control is to sit down and list your strengths and your weaknesses and find ways to improve both. It might mean that you have to find creative ways to get better. Maybe you find extra time to go out and work on your serve. When you don’t have enough court time you can work on tennis specific fitness. There are always workarounds when you are faced with adversity. By not looking at what the Joneses do, I think is the impression, it's a lot easier to focus on what you can control and how you can get better.


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