The battle between your ears: Emotional resilience and performance

Wimbledon - Emotional Resilience to win

Disclaimer: I am not connected to either Venus Williams or Marin Cilic and have no first hand information on what happened to either of them in their respective Wimbledon finals this weekend. What I’m sharing here is my personal view on what I think happened and how it relates to all of us.

Not to take anything away from their opponents but in my view, Venus and Marin were beaten as much by their own response to things not going their way as they were by the physicality and technique of their opponents Garbine Muguruza and Roger Federer. Of the four finalists, I believe two of them lost the battle between their ears. This is a battle that everyone faces and experiences, but which very few understand how to address: A battle to stay emotionally resilient – to continue to absorb important information, think creatively and function effectively when pressured, criticised or challenged. Irrespective of whether you’re in tennis, management or sales, winning this battle is critical to your success.

In Venus’s match, she was up 5-4 and at 15-40 on Garbine’s serve and was on the verge of breaking Garbine and winning the first set. Instead what happened was that Garbine pulled the points back and won that game. That marked the beginning of a 9 game losing streak for Venus which cost her the match. My belief is that this wasn’t because Garbine suddenly became more physical or improved her technique, but because Venus lost her emotional resilience which eroded her focus on what had to be done and her belief that she could do it – she lost the battle in her own head and transitioned from effective to ineffective.

In Marin’s match, he went from almost breaking Roger in the fourth game of the first set to being broken himself in the very next game. His response was pure emotion, hammering his racquet onto his chair followed by tears at the end of the third game of the second set. Whilst I’m aware there was a foot injury, for me these displays were an indicator that he had become overwhelmed and no longer had the emotional resilience to stay functional under the pressure. He found it increasingly difficult to execute shots that he would normally execute perfectly, to think creatively or to learn from and adapt to Roger’s gameplay in order to challenge Roger more effectively.

I’m not saying that had Marin or Venus won that battle in their head then they would definitely have defeated their opponents – Roger, for example, is regarded as possibly the greatest men’s tennis player of all time and had not dropped a set all championship – what I’m highlighting is that in my view, as soon as they lost that battle, they sealed their fate, because at that point they both ceased to function effectively in challenging their opponents as they had done in the previous games and lost any opportunity to fight back.

I’m also not saying that I don’t believe either of them possesses any emotional resilience whatsoever – I watched Marin fight back against Sam Querrey in the semi-final come from 1 set down to win 3 sets to 1 and Venus made it to the final despite the stress and trauma that preceded her tournament. What I am saying is that in my view, on the day of their respective finals, they weren’t able to retain that resilience which led both of them to react emotionally to the situation in a way which did not benefit them.

These are the best tennis players in the world, the elites in their field with huge financial rewards at stake, yet what I witnessed was that for all the work being put into developing the physical side of their game, whatever work was being done on developing their emotional resilience was not paying off. This isn’t something which is specific to tennis or even sport, this is something which affects everyone across all industries and roles. Whether you’re looking at momentum shifts during a football match, a sales pitch or a financial quarter, the impact of emotional resilience on people’s performance is paramount.

To develop emotional resilience, the individual needs professional support to enable them to alter how they respond to stimuli. This is achieved by shifting their worldview and embedding new patterns of behaviour. The process starts with developing the individual’s insight into why they behave the way they behave – the drivers of their behaviour, what learned behaviours they are automatically carrying out, what ego state they are in and the impact that has on how they view the world and how they communicate with themselves and others. Once that insight is in place, the next step is to build on that insight to create personalised strategies to change how the individual thinks about an event, evaluates it and responds to it.

Very little time is invested generally in ensuring people are emotionally resilient, but it is the bedrock of performance. If you want to be the best in your field, developing your emotional resilience is fundamental.

By the way, Venus and Marin, in case you’re reading this, we’re always happy to chat.


Achieve Positive People Solutions is a performance consultancy which enables your people to create, capture and realise more value for your organisation. We have provided solutions to organisations across sectors including staffing and recruitment, technology, engineering, media, manufacturing, healthcare, insurance, logistics, retail, construction, real estate, the public sector and professional sports clubs. For more information on how we can support your organisation, please contact Robert Sherry or Mary Sherry.

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