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How to be mentally tough in your life: 4 lessons from sports psychologists

Talent and years of training get players like the Williams sisters to the top, but there's one other crucial ingredient: mental toughness.
/ Source: TODAY

It was a sister act to remember at the US Open in New York.

Serena Williams — on a quest to win the world’s four biggest tennis tournaments in a calendar year — versus her big sister Venus in a match Tuesday night that tested the stamina and emotions for both.

In the end, Serena Williams won in front of a huge crowd that included Oprah Winfrey and Donald Trump.

Raw talent and years of grueling training get players like the Williams sisters to the top, but they wouldn’t make it without one other crucial ingredient: mental toughness.

How do you keep your cool when the stakes are high? How do you stay positive when everything is going wrong? How do you face an intimidating opponent?

“Mental toughness is playing to the best of one’s ability in a pressure situation,” Joel Fish, director The Center for Sport Psychology in Philadelphia, told TODAY.

“In those moments, when the spotlight is really on you, the great players like Roger Federer or Serena Williams, are able to, in essence, give themselves the message, ‘Bring it on.’”

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The same techniques elite athletes use can apply outside the tennis court and help you at critical moments in your life, said John Murray, a sports psychologist based in Palm Beach, Florida.

“There’s a tremendous lesson to be learned from sports,” Murray said. “(Mental toughness) is absolutely a skill you can acquire.”

Here are four tips to keep in mind:

1. Learn how to deal with negative thoughts

It’s natural to have thoughts that bring your down, Fish said. Some people try to block them out, but it may be more helpful to be honest and tell yourself: “I’m feeling negative, my confidence is wavering, that’s OK, I know what to do,” he noted.

One strategy is to take a deep breath and redirect that thought to a more positive one — a skill you can practice beforehand.

Fish once worked with an athlete who came up with the phrase, “Give me the courage to do the best I can do.” Each time she was feeling negative, she directed her thoughts to that more positive affirmation, Fish recalled.

It’s crucial to monitor your self-talk — that little voice in your head, Murray added.

“I like to view self-talk as equipment. In the same way you bring your shoes to the court, you have to bring your positive self-talk,” Murray said. “People catastrophize (a setback), magnify the negativity of what happened. The mantra they have in their brain is not useful. It brings them down… it’s a distraction.”

First, be more aware of what you’re saying to yourself. Visualize the most negative situation possible in your head and replace thoughts like “I’m terrible” or “I can’t win,” with phrases such as “I love this challenge,” Murray advised. The goal is to keep you positive and focused on what’s next.

Serena Williams returns a shot to her sister Venus Williams during their Women's Singles Quarterfinals match at the 2015 US Open on Tuesday.Clive Brunskill / Getty Images

2. Don’t linger on either overly positive or negative outcomes

You’ll sometimes see tennis players pump their fists in triumph after a great point, or angrily shout “Come on!” if they make a mistake.

For some people, letting out that emotion can help their game, both Fish and Murray said. The important thing is to then get ready for the next challenge.

“Athletes can have difficulty letting go of a mistake and then not be in the moment for the next point -- they’re still thinking about that mistake,” Fish said. “When athletes do something really well… that can affect their focus (too.)”

Stop, focus and settle yourself for the next point.

3. Get a handle on your emotions

Hot tempers are as ubiquitous in tennis as strawberries and cream at Wimbledon. John McEnroe’s outbursts were legendary. Australian tennis player Nick Kyrgios was fined $10,000 last month for making a lewd remark during a match. Serena Williams was fined $82,500 for a tirade against a line judge at the 2009 U.S. Open.

It all adds up to a lot of fury. If anger starts to overtake you — inside or outside the stadium — there are lots of small strategies for the athlete and non-athlete to try, Murray advised. Stop and tie your shoe laces. Leave the room. Chew gum. Count to ten.

Murray’s goal for his clients is to train them to break the pattern of anger, so they act, rather than react.

“Be in control of your emotions rather than them controlling you,” Fisher added.

4. Visualize your performance beforehand

Imagery improves performance, so close your eyes and see yourself hitting the critical shots or achieving that big goal. By the time you start the game, you’ve already done it in your head many times, Murray said.

“It gives you an extra advantage. You still want to practice, but it’s kind of like the icing on the cake,” he added. “You’re ready like never before.”

This can also be an excellent technique for a non-sport challenge like a job interview, where you can think about how you want to act and what you want to say even before you step into the room.

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