Deuce or All-in?


Mental lessons tennis players can learn from poker and vice versa

The three key factors that shape an athlete in any sport are their physical attributes, skill level, and mental strength. Traditionally, a player’s potential has been mapped out in terms of their skill and physicality, their psychological abilities were far less tangible. However, with the changing landscape of competitive sports, mental conditioning is soon becoming a part of every athlete’s training routine.

Boris Becker recently named the players he thinks to have what it takes to become a legend on the courts. The nine-time Grand Slam winner, including his hat-tricks victories at Wimbledon and the French Open, Becker also dabbled with poker and has enjoyed prize money above $100,000 and competed in a string of major tournaments.

In a game of poker, mental strength is absolutely crucial. So, what are the similarities tennis Legend Becker took with him from the court to the felts? And more importantly, what is the lesson poker can teach modern tennis athletes?

Some of tennis’ biggest stars that have the will to win also have psychological resilience ingrained in their formative years. The discipline young tennis players develop comes from their early starts, late finishes and the sheer number of hours dedicated to mastering the skill on the court. When all you’ve known is the grind of intense training, mental toughness develops naturally and you have no choice but to remain mentally tough. Serena Williams credits her mental toughness as a major contributor to her success on the courts.

It’s true that the majority of players at the top of any sport would have experienced similar disciplined training that helped them develop their own mental toughness. Many have mastered the art of psychological resilience, but some have seen titles slip away due to a lack of composure and the inability to deliver on the courts during a pivotal moment of a match.

You’ll find that the psychological anatomy of a poker star isn’t too far away from that of many great tennis players. Poker is a game of the mind that anybody can master, but it’s far from easy and demands the same level of consistency in performance required by many of the world’s most physically-taxing sports, including tennis.

In fact, many experts believe that making the right decision in a game of poker is comparable to the physical technique of athletes in a range of sports. At match point, a trained mind that makes the right decisions is crucial and it’s the same in a game of poker, whether that’s calling, raising or folding. Be it tennis or poker, the decision-making skills are influenced by a range of factors including emotion, awareness, perception, planning, energy, focus and memory.

If an athlete is struggling to turn talent into triumph, here are a few factors that indicate a drop in poker performance that can be applied to the struggles any athlete faces on any field:

  • Sluggishness caused by fatigue
  • Inability to think deeply
  • Inability to apply lessons learned
  • Missing basic information
  • Distracted easily and often
  • Repetitive bad habits

When you consider these six habits in the context of a tennis player, it’s easy to spot the similarities and some of the lessons that stars of the court can learn from stars of the poker table. Many tennis players will tell you that their mental toughness is a byproduct of their physical fitness. And interestingly, many top poker players agree. It is crucially important to stay physically fit for poker because you perform better when you’re fit.

And while there’s strong evidence linking mental toughness with physical fitness, it’s fair to say that mental warfare is the predominant factor in poker. While in tennis, athletes need to understand the essential ingredients behind mental toughness in order to become a high-performance player.

So while it’s true that a great poker player won’t always make a great tennis player, Becker has proven that it’s possible to transcend the two disciplines. And perhaps the skills the stars of the two games share are more common than we think!