JTCC Senior Coach Taka Bertrand explains the importance of mental conditioning:
After a poor team performance at a fall tournament during my sophomore year at Vanderbilt, our coach made it mandatory for each member of the team to see a psychologist at the university’s counseling center. The suggestion surprised all of us. At nineteen years old, I had never considered the possibility of therapy, and was skeptical, but my trips to the counseling center soon became a big part of my undergraduate experience. Although we might not have realized it, our coach was ahead of the curve in understanding the importance of mental conditioning for athletes.
In my first meeting, I was ambivalent and wondered if I actually needed any ‘help’. Luckily, my psychologist had been a former wrestler at Stanford and had a great appreciation of sports and athletes. After the introductory meeting, we made a commitment to meet once every two weeks for an hour, and gradually, I became more comfortable discussing my experiences as a competitive tennis player as well as other aspects of my life.
We talked about a variety of things, but mainly the different forms of pressure that affected my tennis game and life as a student-athlete. I had been able to conceal much of the stress I felt as an adolescent because I won more than lost, and the wins carried over into my freshman year of college, even earning me the ‘SEC Freshman of the Year’ award. But internally, I struggled to overcome my nerves and worried if I could continue producing results while keeping up with my academic schedule.
Under his guidance, we worked on limiting negative thoughts by thinking of one thought that would make me happy—and recognizing when to employ this mindset in a competitive setting. My perception of competing even evolved. I began to view tennis more as a performance, like an actor preparing to take the stage, than as the foundation of my identity. From the moment I tied my shoelaces to my walk to the court, I began thinking about the art of performing instead of worrying about potential stumbling blocks. The mental training did not make me immune to defeat, but I felt more equipped going into practices and matches.
Now, as a coach, I see an even greater need for mental conditioning for high performance junior athletes. With the game becoming more global and competitive, players are devoting huge amounts of time and resources to developing their games. This combined with the powerful presence of social media makes them more exposed to scrutiny, facilitating feelings of pressure and anxiety. At JTCC, we are fortunate to have a mental conditioning coach on staff to help our players navigate these challenges, at an earlier stage in their development. I strongly encourage our JTCC players and families to incorporate this resource as a consistent part of their training plan.
I built an amazing and trusting relationship with my psychologist, but it did not make winning any easier or the feelings of losing less unpleasant. However, it gave me more hope in my ability to overcome challenges in various situations. It was also reassuring to have a professional in my corner, outside of my personal network, to provide a different perspective. In my opinion, training hard on the court is a big piece of the puzzle, but there is additional, and significant, value in working on the mental conditioning component.