Is the mental game overrated?

TeamOB

Professional
I hear very many people blame their failures in tennis on a poor mental game. But sometimes I feel that this goes a bit over the top. People think: "My physical game is absolutely topnotch! If I only had my head together I would be so darn good." But actually their main issues are physical. There are 2 kids at my club who embody this issue. They can both hit the ball very hard and hit spectacular shots, they both look incredibly good when doing drills or hitting fed balls, but they both do very poorly in matches and have losing tournament records. Whenever hitting an actual shot as opposed to a fed ball they overhit, lose control and make tons of errors. The conclusion of the coaches and other kids is: "It's a mental thing. They are not match tough, their shot selection sucks, they get tight in actual matches, etc." IMO it is a purely physical problem. These kids just hit too many fed balls. They can't handle the spin or pace of an actual rally shot. They can't play defence since all they do is hit soft fed balls in clinic. They don't load up and hit heavy. They aren't physical and athletic when pushed into a corner. All they can do is slap easy balls since that is all they ever learned. No amount of mental game is gonna help if all you can do is hit a slap off a sitter. These kids need to start playing matches and add actual skills to their one-dimentional ballbasher games instead of worrying about mental stuff. I see this problem in a lot of other people too. They blame all their struggles on their head and ignore huge flaws in their actual game. What do you think? Do you agree that people tend to blame their mental game a bit too much?
 

Bartelby

Bionic Poster
It's probably the same as with physical illness: you should first eliminate all organic bases before searching for mental causes, which may of course be intertwined with organic issues.
 

magnut

Hall of Fame
i would say physical skill and emotional control are more important. once a player get hold of those traits the tactics can come into play more. if you watch a lot of good juniors it becomes pretty obvious that the more maturity a player has the better he is. You also see a lot of great shot makers that take themselves out of matches because they have not figured out a way to stay balanced emotionally.

i will say that in my case the tactical side of tennis actually developed my emotional balance on court. when you are constantly studying your opponent and how the match is playing out you kind of forget about getting nervous, winning, losing etc. etc.
 

GuyClinch

Legend
It's overrated - but not unimportant.

Sometimes you could be having a match and you are simply playing poorly. You are missing shots your normally make - you feel tight and you play tight and when you try to compensate you are out of control. You go for big shots when you shouldn't and at the same time get tight when you need to add zip.

That's an example of poor mental game having a big effect.

However - and this is more common.. People often don't use their bodies properly, move properly, have good timing or have correct strokes. They don't have an ability to replicate their occasion 'good shots' on a regular basis. Because they successfully arm a few very hard forehands they think that they should always be able to do so. In reality they have glaring technical flaws that are holding them back.

Most people on this board have both problems. About the only player here with good technique is TonLars. But you can use a strong mental game to maximize what ball striking/movement ability you do have..

This means that the 3.5 guy will be able to beat another guy with similar strokes - because he might have a stronger mental game..

But if he really wanted to rise up the tennis ladder and reach up to the 4.5 - 5.0 levels he would need to clean up his technique..

FWIW - for most people its pretty easy to clean up their mental game. The 16 second cure is a great start for most rec players. OTOH its hella hard to fix ****** technique. Teaching pros don't always know what good technique looks like - never mind how to fix it..
 
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it is overrated. what happens is the Highlight reel Memory. Players will only remember the top10% of their strokes and then think this is their Level. you remember that blistering return or that running FH passing shot and then think "why can't I hit every shot like this".

if they don't hit any shot like that they call it a mental failure.

I think a more realistic Evaluation of your Level would be to not Count the top and bottom 20% of your best and worst hit balls and then look what is in between. those Quality of strokes is more likely your Level.
 

hawk eye

Hall of Fame
Some good points being made by OP and other posters. That said, I believe mental game and physical game are connected.
What sometimes happens to me in a match is that i look up to soon where the balls is going, thus lifting my body and head and losing control over the shot. This usually happens when I don't have a quiet mind for whatever reasons. During a match it can take time before I realize what's going and there were times that i didn't even notice until after the match this was the cause of my inconsistent hitting and making too many UE's.
in that case I tend to miss more shots which are relatively easy and have time to set up for, not so much shots on the run because there it's harder to make that mistake. It's a mental error, but a physical one as well.
 

0d1n

Hall of Fame
Interesting topic.
I do think that "mental game" and "confidence" are closely related, and confidence DOES improve with practice, and trusting your shots because you know you've worked on them lately.
However, there's something else to it as well, personality, the way one thinks and approaches problems in real life...etc.
One can work on "mental game" outside of the tennis court IMO...a good place to start would be behind the wheel of a car while driving to work in really busy traffic ;). That will teach you some mental toughness !

I do feel there are some sweeping generalizations being made in this thread though...and those are interesting to me as well, from a different angle (GuyClinch one regarding the "only guy with good technique on the boards" is one that comes to mind...because on a board where players in the top 500 have posted at certain points that kind of exaggeration is not only slightly insulting, but also clearly false).
 

anubis

Hall of Fame
I hear very many people blame their failures in tennis on a poor mental game. But sometimes I feel that this goes a bit over the top. People think: "My physical game is absolutely topnotch! If I only had my head together I would be so darn good." But actually their main issues are physical. There are 2 kids at my club who embody this issue. They can both hit the ball very hard and hit spectacular shots, they both look incredibly good when doing drills or hitting fed balls, but they both do very poorly in matches and have losing tournament records. Whenever hitting an actual shot as opposed to a fed ball they overhit, lose control and make tons of errors. The conclusion of the coaches and other kids is: "It's a mental thing. They are not match tough, their shot selection sucks, they get tight in actual matches, etc." IMO it is a purely physical problem. These kids just hit too many fed balls. They can't handle the spin or pace of an actual rally shot. They can't play defence since all they do is hit soft fed balls in clinic. They don't load up and hit heavy. They aren't physical and athletic when pushed into a corner. All they can do is slap easy balls since that is all they ever learned. No amount of mental game is gonna help if all you can do is hit a slap off a sitter. These kids need to start playing matches and add actual skills to their one-dimentional ballbasher games instead of worrying about mental stuff. I see this problem in a lot of other people too. They blame all their struggles on their head and ignore huge flaws in their actual game. What do you think? Do you agree that people tend to blame their mental game a bit too much?
No, the mental aspect of tennis is under rated if anything else. We strive so hard to have the best technique, but tennis is very psychological.

I've got a scenario for you. This will illustrate to yourself how good your mental game is. What do you tell yourself when you're in the following situation:

It's the end of the first set. You and your opponent have been holding serve, usually at 40-love or 40-15. You both have a strong serve and have been getting a lot of free points. Not a lot of rallies. You haven't had a break opportunity yet, and his ground strokes often over power yours. He served first in the match, and now it's your service game and the score is 5-4, him. You're at 30-30 and you're about to hit your first serve.

How do you handle it?

IMO, good technique isn't enough to get you out of that bind. Unless you've got confidence in yourself, then you're at best 50/50 in that situation. A good player who believes in his own abilities can shift that to 70/30: 70% of the time he'll come out on top. That's the definition of consistency.

But most average players would crumble under that pressure.
 

shindemac

Hall of Fame
No, the mental aspect of tennis is under rated if anything else. We strive so hard to have the best technique, but tennis is very psychological.

I've got a scenario for you. This will illustrate to yourself how good your mental game is. What do you tell yourself when you're in the following situation:

It's the end of the first set. You and your opponent have been holding serve, usually at 40-love or 40-15. You both have a strong serve and have been getting a lot of free points. Not a lot of rallies. You haven't had a break opportunity yet, and his ground strokes often over power yours. He served first in the match, and now it's your service game and the score is 5-4, him. You're at 30-30 and you're about to hit your first serve.

How do you handle it?

IMO, good technique isn't enough to get you out of that bind. Unless you've got confidence in yourself, then you're at best 50/50 in that situation. A good player who believes in his own abilities can shift that to 70/30: 70% of the time he'll come out on top. That's the definition of consistency.

But most average players would crumble under that pressure.
Underrated, but it depends on the player. Some have stronger mental games, some crumble under certain conditions, have confidence in certain strokes more, etc.

I think that's an extreme example and most people would feel some pressure. How about you just missed your forehand, and it was an easy shot that you could make 9/10 times. When you have to hit it again, how do you respond? If for the rest of the match, you can only make 3/10, then you've succumbed to the pressure.

On the same token, if you can't volley to save your life, then no amount of mental game is going to save you and suddenly make it better.
 

AHJS

Professional
Well these kids sound like they definitely have more than a mental issue. However, I don't think the mental game is overrated whatsoever
 
It's funny that tennis talks about the mental game more than any other sport by far. In baseball the announcers love to talk about starting pitchers who "proven closers" because supposedly they handle pressure better, but the sabermetric community hates it when that happens because they don't believe that has any effect. I tend to side with the sabermetric belief that in baseball the pressure has only a small effect. When looking at all the numbers there aren't any players in baseball who are "clutch" for a sustained period of time. However, the mind obviously does have an effect, and I think this effect is much more apparent in recreational players. The professional athletes have played so many games their entire lives and the theory by sabermetricians is that if you aren't mentally strong enough you are weeded out by the time you reach the big leagues. However, when looking at the pro tennis players people seem to have concluded as fact that some of them are more mentally tough than others. I haven't read any research studying the numbers yet, but I definitely will soon. Can you guys show me some papers that quantify the mental game (prove that some pro players do better under pressure)?
 

PoisonSky

New User
it is overrated. what happens is the Highlight reel Memory. Players will only remember the top10% of their strokes and then think this is their Level. you remember that blistering return or that running FH passing shot and then think "why can't I hit every shot like this".

if they don't hit any shot like that they call it a mental failure.

I think a more realistic Evaluation of your Level would be to not Count the top and bottom 20% of your best and worst hit balls and then look what is in between. those Quality of strokes is more likely your Level.
+1 on this, this is absolutely exactly what happens with most people
 
Underrated, but it depends on the player. Some have stronger mental games, some crumble under certain conditions, have confidence in certain strokes more, etc.

I think that's an extreme example and most people would feel some pressure. How about you just missed your forehand, and it was an easy shot that you could make 9/10 times. When you have to hit it again, how do you respond? If for the rest of the match, you can only make 3/10, then you've succumbed to the pressure.

On the same token, if you can't volley to save your life, then no amount of mental game is going to save you and suddenly make it better.
In this situation, I would hit my best first serve against that particular opponent. One that goes in a high percentage of the time and gives me the advantage over him, maybe a slow spinny slice out wide. This only works though if there's a serve I can execute that's good enough for the task, so it isn't just mental.
 

Ash_Smith

Legend
Mental skills are vastly misunderstood, mis-coached, and most likely missed all together by a lot of players.

At the highest level, mental skills (especially in relation to decision making) are most often the difference between victory and defeat.

At a recreational level, technical or tactical skill may have a bigger bearing on victory, but as the overall level rises the importance of having sound mental skills rises exponentially.
 

hawk eye

Hall of Fame
Mental skills are vastly misunderstood, mis-coached, and most likely missed all together by a lot of players.

At the highest level, mental skills (especially in relation to decision making) are most often the difference between victory and defeat.

At a recreational level, technical or tactical skill may have a bigger bearing on victory, but as the overall level rises the importance of having sound mental skills rises exponentially.
I agree that the difference in mental skills is more decisive the higher the level is, because having obvious technical or conditional flaws is getting less likeliy.
Still, also at the highest levels mental pressure is always gonna affect someone's execution when he/she can't deal with it anymore. In the more extreme cases I guess that's what is being called 'choking'.
 

LeeD

Bionic Poster
Under rated.
Mental game can maximise the physical game.
Physical game with no mental is minimal at best.
 

RetroSpin

Hall of Fame
Mental skills are vastly misunderstood, mis-coached, and most likely missed all together by a lot of players.

At the highest level, mental skills (especially in relation to decision making) are most often the difference between victory and defeat.

At a recreational level, technical or tactical skill may have a bigger bearing on victory, but as the overall level rises the importance of having sound mental skills rises exponentially.
Interesting. I had some exposure to WTA players years ago, and I would have said that issues of confidence, self-worth or self-esteem and the strength to withstand psychological bullying were crucial.
 

mightyrick

Legend
OP, if "mental game" includes the ability for a player to adjust their strategy/approach in a match to fit an opponent, then I'd say it is actually underrated.

If there's one thing I see over and over again (even in myself sometimes), it is the insistence of players to continually go to their opponent's strength when it clearly isn't working.
 

LeeD

Bionic Poster
WTA and ATP mental psychie is totally different.
I had practice partners who WON WTA tournies, who had confidence issues.
RosieCasal's and IllanaKloss worked upstairs from me in the mid 80's, we'd hit once a week, usually mid week, and both had confidence issues.
Most good male tennis players inflate their game to build up their confidence before match play. The opposite with the other gender.
 

GuyClinch

Legend
I think that's an extreme example and most people would feel some pressure. How about you just missed your forehand, and it was an easy shot that you could make 9/10 times. When you have to hit it again, how do you respond? If for the rest of the match, you can only make 3/10, then you've succumbed to the pressure.
See this is where the 'its all mental' BS starts to creep in. How do you KNOW you would hit that shot 9/10 times. You are probably not charting your matches - or even your practice so you have no idea..

People just imagine this high skill level - and then feel that they 'miss' because of the 'mental' game - when in reality they have actual TECHNICAL flaws.

They are in the proper position to hit the ball, they have bad timing or their stroke has a technical mistake. Did that player miss the serve because he had a 'mental' problem or because he hit the ball when it was tossed too low.

Almost every single time if you look at tape you can spot the technical flaws the player is making..

And despite what Ash claims there is no real evidence that pros only lose because of the mental game. Maybe Federer hits a better ball then his opponents. Maybe he is faster and moves better. Maybe he has better timing to hit the ball at the right time more often.. etc etc.

You can have mental problems - but its just vastly overrated on this board. Most people have technical problems or athletic issues - and that's why they lose. Remember a lot of 'mental strength' comes from the knowledge that you can do it. And that knowledge comes from having good technique, timing, athleticism etc.

Unless your name is TonLars you have some technical issues.. For example my serve is my best shot. Why do I think I can hit them - because I have better technique on that shot - they say my forehand. I believe I can get them in - or hit them harder when needed. I don't have mental strength in one circumstance - and weakness in another. I just have a dodgy forehand.

Its too bad tennis is not just mental because we could all get great just by posting about it..
 
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mawashi

Hall of Fame
Totally disagree, the mental element is as if not more important then the physical game.

The the pro level they pretty much all have great strokes, footwork, fitness etc, its the mental ability that mostly differentiates who gets to the top.

Just look at Safin, Monfils, Gulbis, Verdasco etc etc.
 

TeamOB

Professional
Totally disagree, the mental element is as if not more important then the physical game.

The the pro level they pretty much all have great strokes, footwork, fitness etc, its the mental ability that mostly differentiates who gets to the top.

Just look at Safin, Monfils, Gulbis, Verdasco etc etc.
Yeah, I agree. At the pro level it's a whole different story. I was talking more about the club level. A lot of club players blame their mental game for their inability to perform at their supposed "peak level". In reality they simply do not have the physical skills to play at that level except when they are hitting lucky winners or zoning. I guess "overrated" might have been the wrong word. It is actually closer to "misunderstood" or "incorrectly blamed".
 

mawashi

Hall of Fame
Yeah, I agree. At the pro level it's a whole different story. I was talking more about the club level. A lot of club players blame their mental game for their inability to perform at their supposed "peak level". In reality they simply do not have the physical skills to play at that level except when they are hitting lucky winners or zoning. I guess "overrated" might have been the wrong word. It is actually closer to "misunderstood" or "incorrectly blamed".
Agree and at the same time slightly disagree... For myself I know that the mental aspect is one of the keys to my weakness, I blame the sun, weather, dead balls, too fast court, no feel on the strings etc etc etc.

If I just focused on the point I'll be an easy 4.5 at least. Guys like me are overly focused on equipment and when I'm on, my game is totally different.

A lot of rec guys too are just plain lazy, yes some don't have the physical component but it's mostly their mental weakness that hinders them improving. There are tons of fat kids/adults who have worked hard to get their fitness together. Those that can focus well and have the drive will improve, those who don't, won't.
 

HughJars

Banned
It's funny that tennis talks about the mental game more than any other sport by far. In baseball the announcers love to talk about starting pitchers who "proven closers" because supposedly they handle pressure better, but the sabermetric community hates it when that happens because they don't believe that has any effect. I tend to side with the sabermetric belief that in baseball the pressure has only a small effect. When looking at all the numbers there aren't any players in baseball who are "clutch" for a sustained period of time. However, the mind obviously does have an effect, and I think this effect is much more apparent in recreational players. The professional athletes have played so many games their entire lives and the theory by sabermetricians is that if you aren't mentally strong enough you are weeded out by the time you reach the big leagues. However, when looking at the pro tennis players people seem to have concluded as fact that some of them are more mentally tough than others. I haven't read any research studying the numbers yet, but I definitely will soon. Can you guys show me some papers that quantify the mental game (prove that some pro players do better under pressure)?
Nadal: a career match win percentage of 84%, a points won percentage of 52%

Bang.
 
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And when presenting quantified information, statistics is what is commonly referred to, Einstein..
Sorry, let me phrase it this way. Statistically speaking, winning 52% of total points translates to winning about 84% of total matches for anybody.
 

TomT

Hall of Fame
I don't know if the mental aspect of tennis is necessarily over or under rated. Depends on who you're asking, I suppose. My two cents is that they're both important. It might be argued that for players who have marked deficiencies in technique, characteristic of under 4.5 players, then they need to deal with those deficiencies before even beginning to think about tidying up the mental aspects of their game. Then again, it might be argued that while they are developing the physical technique side of their games, that they should also be paying attention to the mental aspects as well. I suppose that the latter is the better approach.

Being a player who is deficient both physically technically and mentally, I suppose I should have elected to not contribute to this thread, but I had nothing else to do at the time -- and anyway, who out there can say that they've solved every technical and mental problem that they've ever identified about their game?
 

shindemac

Hall of Fame
Yeah, I agree. At the pro level it's a whole different story. I was talking more about the club level. A lot of club players blame their mental game for their inability to perform at their supposed "peak level". In reality they simply do not have the physical skills to play at that level except when they are hitting lucky winners or zoning. I guess "overrated" might have been the wrong word. It is actually closer to "misunderstood" or "incorrectly blamed".
If they don't have game, then that's true. If you can't play at the same level when there's no pressure, then it's mental game. That's how I define the mental game.
 

anubis

Hall of Fame
Most coaches focus on mechanics. I'm lucky enough to have a coach that focuses on both. I've had long phone conversations with him about how I handle high pressure situations. Things like: how do I deal with my weaknesses? If I know that my backhand is a liability, and I can't "fix it" before a big match, how do I compensate? Because you know, if you don't come to terms with and compensate for a weakness, it will definitely be a contributing factor to your demise.

Often times, talking "strategy" with your coach is all about mitigating your own weaknesses, and learning how to spot the weaknesses of your opponent and then apply pressure there.
 

Ash_Smith

Legend
Have just spent the whole day running a training camp with a theme based around concentration/attention and how distractions can impede performance and effective decision making.

For me mental skills should be built into every practice in one way, shape or form. Insufficient mental skills can cause a massive barrier to obtaining peak performance, whatever the level - a 3.5 level player (whatever that means) may not play to that level due to internal or external distractions and if they don't have a system of mental skills to change that thought process they not play to their abilities.
 

BMC9670

Hall of Fame
I'll add that the mental game has several facets, just like the physical game. Many are inter-related and any one of them can be a potential pothole:

1. Nerves
2. Confidence
3. Shot Selection
4. Focus
5. Intensity
6. Emotions
7. Motivation
8. Apathy
9. Adaptability
10. Creativity
11. (this list is likely much longer…)

Overrated? Not when you consider how deep the mental game goes.
 

BMC9670

Hall of Fame
Sorry, let me phrase it this way. Statistically speaking, winning 52% of total points translates to winning about 84% of total matches for anybody.
Well, not exactly. It depends on how you win or lose matches. Generally, yes, win more points, won more matches, but not always as tennis isn't linear that way. You can lose more points/games in a match and still win or win more points/games and still lose.
 
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Well, not exactly. It depends on how you win or lose matches. Generally, yes, win more points, won more matches, but not always as tennis isn't linear that way. You can lose more points/games in a match and still win or win more points/games and still lose.
You're right. These were career statistics though, not individual match statistics. The point is that winning just a few more points per match on average translates to winning a lot more matches on average.
 

HughJars

Banned
Any mathematicians out there - if a player has a 52% probability of winning a point, what is the probability of them winning a 3 set match? And a 5 set match? Based purely on probability.

I think the tennis scoring system screws everything up, so it could be a pretty difficult equation.
 
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HughJars

Banned
I think the mental side of things in tennis is perhaps are bigger factor than most other sports, particularly team sports. You can have great athleticism and technical ability, but given that
- you can win more points and still lose a tennis match
- the outcome of a match lies with the individual only (no team mates, lack of on court coaching for the men's game anyway)

the influence of an individual's mental toughness on the outcome of a match is huge, and I think this is still overlooked considerably in tennis instruction. In ALL tennis lessons I have received, not once has there been any mention of any mental aspects. Ever.

Even in golf you can talk to your caddy for suggestions. And boxing you go to your corner at the end of a round.

So, is the mental game under rated? I think absolutely.
 
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BMC9670

Hall of Fame
Any mathematicians out there - if a player has a 52% probability of winning a point, what is the probability of them winning a 3 set match? And a 5 set match? Based purely on probability.

I think the tennis scoring system screws everything up, so it could be a pretty difficult equation.
Yeah, not many sports where you can win more points/games than the opponent and still lose the match. That's why pros are always talking about "playing the big points well" or "he played better in the important moments". This game can really mess with your head!
 
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HughJars

Banned
Yeah, not many sports where you can win more points/games that the opponent and still lose the match. That's why pros are always talking about "playing the big points well" or "he played better in the important moments". This game can really mess with your head!
Tell me about it. Theoretically over the course of a 3 set match you can win about 32% of points played and still win a match. However, of course the probability of this is outcome is extremely small.

Playing the crucial points well is so important in tennis. And surely mental strength is the most predominant factor in winning these points.
 

GuyClinch

Legend
If we really want to get into this - we have to define the mental game..

For me mental game is emotional control, strategy and tactics.
Technique is - footwork, timing, coordination, use of kinetic chain, stroke shape - basically the rest of tennis.

Occasionally players use very poor tactics, strategy or have emotional issues. But its been rare in my experience and usually influences a players performance at his or her level.

Its the other stuff that really makes the big difference. But if you are the type that considers footwork 'mental' then sure the mental game matters..
 

HughJars

Banned
If we really want to get into this - we have to define the mental game..

For me mental game is emotional control, strategy and tactics.
Technique is - footwork, timing, coordination, use of kinetic chain, stroke shape - basically the rest of tennis.

Occasionally players use very poor tactics, strategy or have emotional issues. But its been rare in my experience and usually influences a players performance at his or her level.

Its the other stuff that really makes the big difference. But if you are the type that considers footwork 'mental' then sure the mental game matters..
Come again?
 

Ash_Smith

Legend
Occasionally players use very poor tactics, strategy or have emotional issues. But its been rare in my experience and usually influences a players performance at his or her level.
Have you never had a negative thought then GuyClinch? Or experienced yourself or another player losing concentration or focus, getting tight at certain times in a match, displaying negative body language etc?
 

mawashi

Hall of Fame
If we really want to get into this - we have to define the mental game..

For me mental game is emotional control, strategy and tactics.
Technique is - footwork, timing, coordination, use of kinetic chain, stroke shape - basically the rest of tennis.

Occasionally players use very poor tactics, strategy or have emotional issues. But its been rare in my experience and usually influences a players performance at his or her level.

Its the other stuff that really makes the big difference. But if you are the type that considers footwork 'mental' then sure the mental game matters..
If there are pros like Vadesco, Gulbis, Hass, Pavlyuchenkova, Ana, Zvonareva etc, who are known for cracking I have no idea what "level" you are referring to.

Btw, "occasionally" and rare are very far apart.
 

shindemac

Hall of Fame
If there are pros like Vadesco, Gulbis, Hass, Pavlyuchenkova, Ana, Zvonareva etc, who are known for cracking I have no idea what "level" you are referring to.

Btw, "occasionally" and rare are very far apart.
Half the fun is watching the mental chess match between the pros.
 

5263

G.O.A.T.
Even just knowing how to keep the mental game in perspective is part of the mental game. It's huge and can't be overrated, but thankfully for the most part, players do ok for 80% of it.

Knowing how to own your strokes is mental, as is learning the strokes, shot tolerance, not losing hope and even knowing when to not think and just play.
It's nearly all mental imo.
 
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