How to build mental toughness. Lessons from Novak Djokovic

Novak, Blog


Newly crowned Australian Open Champion Novak Djokovic applauded the crowd in Melbourne as he took his tally of titles down under to six and also won his eleventh major title in tennis. A man who started out his career as a frail and mentally weak kid has now cemented his place in the history of the game. But just how did the Djoker elevate himself to the top of the sport in five short years? He built the mental toughness required by the top athletes to succeed.

Often times at the beginning of his career, it was difficult to fathom Djokovic in the trenches, fighting for every point, keeping his nerve when it mattered most and simply draining his opponents with his never-say-die attitude. He was a stand out junior but on the big stage certain changes needed to be made. He worked on his fitness and his game which got him into the top three in the world rankings behind legends Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. The only thing missing from his arsenal was the mental edge.

For so long Nadal and Federer were seen as the premier athletes with the mental acumen to their games. A brute force of wind who never gave up and chased every ball down was Nadal while Federer was the skilled Ferrari with guile and poise like no other. Djokovic was missing, his game was standard but anytime he came up against the top 2 he mostly came up short.

Fast forward four or so years, he now holds a winning advantage over Nadal, Federer and this years Australian Open finalist Andy Murray. How was he able to achieve such a feat? He hired Boris Becker to tweak a few things in his game but most importantly to work on his mind. It all came down to his mental toughness and i’ll share with you how you can build that too. Basically when the going got tough, Djokovic got going. Mental toughness is the ability to consistently perform toward the upper range of your talent and skill regardless of competitive circumstances.


For so long Djokovic felt inferior to Nadal and Federer. He struggled with nerves against them and it proved his undoing. With Becker in his corner his performances improved. He started seeing himself as a contender, as the next great thing in tennis and it worked. He has now been to over 15 consecutive finals and won four of the last five majors.

When you believe you are the best it does something to your game because you see yourself at the top. You are not worried about anyone ahead of you even if in reality the stats say otherwise. The way to achieve this is to tap into the power of positive self talk. Consistently tell yourself great things. Don’t say things like “I might lose today”, instead say things like “I can’t see myself losing”, “he’s not better than me” etc. The best do not doubt their abilities, they revel in it. Floyd Mayweather NEVER believed anyone was better than him and he carried that into every fight.

If you want to build mental toughness, see yourself as the best and back it up with positive self talk. When Tom Brady was drafted by the New England Patriots, he called his Real Estate agent to make a down payment on a house. The agent says to him “why don’t you make the team first”. His response was epic. He tells the agent not to worry that making the team was just a formality, it was already guaranteed. This is a newly drafted player with no experience or games but he already sees himself on the roster. Well he did make the team and is now a legend in his own right.

Djokovic has been able to do this to perfection especially over the last 18 months. In contrast Nadal now struggles because his mental edge is waning, he is not confident, he is doubting himself more and he realizes it.


One of the things that defined Rafael Nadal early on in his career was that he would always make you play one more shot. He chased everything down, even when down two sets he found ways to come back to win. Now Djokovic has added that to his game. He never gives up. Even when he looks down and out he suddenly emerges from nowhere to snatch the mantle again. This was one thing early on in his career other players took advantage of. Get him in the trenches and he would collapse.

It is important to know as an athlete you must have a “never give up”attitude. I’m sure you have heard the phrase “its never over until the fat lady sings”. Your body would give up long before your mind ever will. If you have the mental toughness of the top athletes, you would push your body to do more, to give more and to want more. It is not when your body gives up that you have lost, you have lost when you give your mind the permission to even think it’s the end.

Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson played until the very end, until the last minutes, often scoring goals deep into stoppage time when the opposition thought the tie was over. Jose Mourinho famously gave a speech to his Chelsea players when they were preparing for an important game and he said “I am not saying we have to win this game. I don’t want to put that kind of pressure on you. But we cannot lose this game. We cannot”. In one breath his message to his players is do not give up, we must get something from this.

If you have the mental toughness to always believe you are the best, then your mind would never relinquish a chance to prove it. So when you are losing your mind tells you “i am the best at this how can i possibly be losing”. In this moment you find renewed energy to give it one last push and claim victory.

Djokovic has mastered this and it has changed his game. Michael Jordan never gave up, Brett Favre, Tiger Woods (at his best), Lionel Messi, Kobe Bryant etc.

I tell and teach my athletes this very important part of sports but the truth is you can implement it. No one is there with you in the heat of battle or in the warmth of your bed at night when all sorts of thought permeating your brain. It is in these moments that the battle is either won or lost.

Master the art of building your mental toughness so that you have the ability to consistently perform toward the upper range of your talent and skill regardless of competitive circumstances, regardless of anything put in front of you.


Tola Ogunlewe

Tola Ogunlewe is CEO of Depase Sports. He is a sports lawyer, an avid football (soccer) player, radio sports analyst and a lover of everything sports. His goal in life is to see more athletes succeed in their chosen field


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