Lessons from Roger Federer on Emotional Intelligence and Mental Toughness

The Swiss Master’s journey is a master class in mental and emotional toughness.

Christopher D. Connors
Jan 17 · 10 min read

The greatest athletes and competitors always find a way to win because they have a tremendous will to win. That will is empowered by a clear and focused understanding of our emotions and backed with rock-solid mental toughness. It’s that willpower that is the secret to their success, and the motivational drive of every great athlete, entrepreneur, and businessperson.

As we’ve come to learn from remarkable legends like Roger Federer, this will to win is fueled by much more than just physical talents. As the great Roger has shown us, his mastery of mental toughness, and traits like adaptability, self-regulation, and self-motivation — key qualities of emotional intelligence — have made him one of the greatest athletes in sports history.

At the dawn of the 2020 Australian Open, it’s astonishing to think Federer is still competing — still one of the favorites to win yet another grand slam. And yet here he is, at age 38 — past his prime, yet still extraordinary — competing for one more chance at glory.

Federer is the definition of resilient. His willingness to accept the circumstances during a tennis match for what they are, then put them behind him and power forward by focusing on the next point — always the next point — is what separates him from every other great. The next point — next game, practice, a rep in the weight room, meal or snack — is all that should ever matter to an athlete.

This takes remarkable discipline and toughness.

Federer is class personified. His grace on the court is superseded only by his benevolence off of it. It’s how he treats fans, officials and fellow players. We know Federer as the epitome of poise, a player of elegant serves, groundstrokes and backhands, and incomparable competitive greatness. But he wasn’t always that way.

Federer was a hot-head in his early career. He would often break racquets, throw temper tantrums and take himself out of matches with his poor emotions and attitude. It wasn’t until his late teens, and even into his early 20s that he turned the corner and became resolute in his approach.

He stopped letting his emotions get the better of him. He fought back, and set an example for every athlete — but also every sports organization to observe and instill these lessons and coaching points into their players.

By steeling his mind with positive psychology and understanding his emotions, Federer matured into a calm and smooth champion — qualities that are his trademark today. He so far outgrew his previous troubles with lack of composure and grace under fire, we hardly even remember them today.

He benefited during his teen years from a sports psychologist that helped him overcome the mental and emotional rigors of the unforgiving tennis circuit. He learned to put the past behind and focus on the next point. As a 2009 story from The New York Times illustrates, Federer confronted and overcame his mental and emotional challenges at a seminal moment in his development.

20 Grand Slam titles and a plethora of mind-blowing statistical achievements later, Federer’s cemented his place in the pantheon of all-time great athletes. But perhaps we shouldn’t get so lost in his remarkable dominance over a prolonged period of time. It’s time to use Federer’s example to focus more on the How than on the What.


Love the Game

“When you do something best in life, you don’t really want to give it up.” — Roger Federer

I define high moral character as adhering to a system of carefully selected beliefs and values and never wavering, despite the temptations and changing winds around us. We’ve all watched for nearly 20 years as Federer has maintained his standing as one of the best players in the world, largely because he loves what he does.

This powerful emotion of how he feels about his work is apparent to anyone who watches or competes against him. His motivation is derived from his love of the game — as well as a burning desire to always get better. Even at age 38, he’s never willing to settle on anything less than a championship. Even if he falls short, he’s even more motivated for the next tournament.

Simply being present in the moment, doing the thing that he was born to do, and performing to the absolute best of his abilities is why Federer shows up. He truly loves the game of tennis. It oozes out of him in the words he speaks and in his performance on the court. He blends talent with hard work, competitive greatness and enthusiasm as well as any athlete who’s ever lived.

He relishes showing up at tennis tournaments and competing fiercely against anyone that challenges him. While Federer has lost ground in his later years to Novak Djokovic, he is still one of the best players in the world. His competitive greatness is legendary. His passion for the game and dedication to his craft power his drive to stay at the top.

Because of those qualities, it is Federer’s consistency that has defined him.

Molded by Adversity

The one constant in sports, like in life, is change. Great athletes are eventually surpassed by their younger, hungrier contemporaries. Roger Federer remains the gold standard, despite struggles, injuries and father time catching up with him. His ability to integrate the mental, emotional, physical and spiritual aspects of his makeup into the product we see on the court are what separate him from every player in history.

Just three-and-a-half years ago, he had to recover from a torn meniscus in his knee during the 2016 season. At nearly 35, many wondered whether his playing career was over. Most figured he’d never again recapture his greatness.

He took 6 months off from playing, and immediately came back in Melbourne to capture the Australian Open title in 2017. He went for the repeat in 2018 and won again.

Stunning.

It’s also worthy to point out that while Federer has won many times, he’s also lost in the Finals of a Grand Slam 11 times.

A lesser athlete would struggle to regain his or her footing after just one championship loss. Federer has not only recovered from crushing defeats, they’ve made him the player he is. By learning to adapt, improve and advance he’s continued to stay atop a sport that isn’t often kind to players in their late 20s, much less their late 30s.


Record of Achievement

“He’s a good person, a fantastic player, and a great man on the court.” — Rafael Nadal

You want jaw-dropping stats?

Federer has remarkably won three Grand Slam titles within three separate calendar years, three times, pulling off the feat in 2004, 2006 and 2007. In addition to his eight titles in London (at Wimbledon) and five US Open titles, Federer owns six Australian Open titles and the one French Open in 2009.

Roger Federer is first on the list of playing in consecutive grand slam finals. He played in 10 straight. But he’s also second on the list at eight in a row! He has won 77 more matches at Grand Slam events (and counting!) than any other men’s player in history. Truly staggering. And of course, he has won the most Grand Slam events (20)of any men’s player ever.

Lessons from a Legend

The pressure that athletes put on themselves is tremendous. Roger Federer gave this advice to one of his competitors, fellow tennis pro Sascha Zverev, after his exit from last year’s Australian Open in the third round. It was especially poignant, given that most players would never want to concede any kind of informational edge to their competitors.

For Federer, it was the chance to impart some wisdom and help a friend:

“I just think it’s important to sometimes take a step back and actually see the good things you’ve done, give yourself time, maybe set the bar a bit lower. First, let’s maybe try to look for a quarters or a semifinals, not just right away think, coming to the Australian Open, U.S. Open, ‘I have to win this thing’….

I know people talk, but for the player, it’s not easy if you’ve never been there. I remember I had a hurdle to pass the quarters. I only did that back in 2003 for the first time. I was 22. Either I played quarters or I lost first round…. That’s what I told Sascha. I said, ‘Be patient about it. Don’t put yourself under unnecessary pressure. Learn from these mistakes. Whatever happened, happened.’ Source: Inc.com

Every athlete, every leader of a sports franchise is always under some kind of real — or imagined — pressure. Win or walk the plank, so to speak. Lose and tarnish your reputation — or worse yet, your legacy. Wins and Losses. It’s always the case, right? Sometimes it seems that way in the short-term.

Until you take Federer’s aggregate, big-picture approach of learning from the losses and the adversity. Recognizing the priceless fruits of emotional intelligence that are ripe for the picking. So, how can athletes and organizations emulate Federer’s model of behavior and performance to their own benefit?

Here are some fine places to start:

Overcoming pressure with a proven game plan to face, address and conquer the negative energy and thoughts

Setting realistic expectations that provide clarity, focus and direction

Bonding with teammates and personnel through team-building exercises

Showing — not just telling — the leadership qualities that you expect from every member of your organization

Heart and soul pieces that are pivotal to building a winner.

Class and Grace

“Ask anyone who’s crossed paths with Federer and they’ll gush about his wit, generosity, and warmth.” — Tim Struby Source: Maxim

Federer has proven that you can be the most competitive person you desire to be while still acting with grace, and treating others with class, kindness and courtesy. Roger Federer, similar to icons like Mariano Rivera, Tim Duncan and in his own sport, Serena Williams, has long demonstrated his dominance by practicing constant commitment, renewing his focus and reinventing himself over time.

As Federer has gotten older, he has changed his tennis racquet to remain competitive and to adjust with the game. Others may have held pat and figured that being the greatest would suffice, but Federer was humble enough to evolve with the times and change course — for the better. Like the great Rivera toward the end of his career, he’s not as quick as he once was, but he’s become wiser and more nuanced in his approach to ball striking.

And yeah, he’s still got quite a bit of velocity on that serve.

Surely, Federer’s talent has helped him, but he’s not the most athletic player to ever play the game. His work ethic, passion for the game, resilience and dedication to being the best separate him from other all-timers. You can aspire to greatness without cutting corners or hurting others along the way. He’s proven that you can embrace competition and maintain self-respect and integrity while finding the drive to inspire yourself.

While coming back from arthroscopic knee surgery that forced him to miss the final six months of the 2016 season, he actually apologized to fans on Facebook for having to miss a few events because of the injury!

Federer is truly world-class in his performance, as well as in his preparation, as he gives his very best not just in competition but in how he treats others. When he learned that a young girl with cancer wanted to meet him, as part of the Make-A-Wish foundation, he flew her out to London and asked her to join him at Wimbledon. He brought her joy, love and a renewed enthusiasm to help her in her fight against cancer.

Model Your Organization’s Behavior After the Greats

I’m a very positive thinker, and I think that is what helps me the most in difficult moments. — Roger Federer

Federer’s example of how he treats others, how he dedicates himself to his craft and the respect he has for the game are otherworldly. He stays positive during moments of adversity and never lets his emotions take him out of contending or competing. This is something that every athlete — every organization can embrace and put into practice.

Owners, management and coaches should use models like Federer as the prototype and standard for how they want their players to behave and carry themselves. Winning begets winning. How you train, think and behave has a transformative impact on the way you compete when the bright lights come on.

It is through modeling our behavior, in replication of transcendent people of high achievement that practice and preach time-tested values, that motivates us to high-levels of accomplishment.

It’s rare to see a champion so gracious toward his fans and opponents and so reverent toward his sport and mankind. Great athletes, while rare, come and go. Immortal athletes? We only see a few of these in our lifetimes. Savor watching each moment of the Swiss star’s career.

Recognize that your organization needs athletes and personnel with high emotional intelligence that embody so many of his qualities. These integral cultural components can be cultivated, developed and learned. The power is real. The impact on a team’s bottom line can be astronomical.

Roger Federer has demonstrated that mental toughness and embracing our emotional side in sports means everything . Even if it doesn’t explicitly show up on the stat sheet or scoreboard, the results surely speak for themselves.


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Thanks to Michael Thompson

Christopher D. Connors

Written by

Keynote Speaker on Emotional Intelligence http://chrisdconnors.com. Featured- CNBC, Virgin, Quartz, Thrive Global. My book: http://amzn.to/2gPBvEz.

Mind Cafe

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

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