| By Rob Polishook

The tennis player is a person first and a performer second. This idea may seem obvious, since we are all born without a racket in our hands, and when we first walked onto the court to play, we didn’t miraculously change identities—we were the same person. Rafael Nadal, in his book Rafa, says, “Tennis is what I do; it is not who I am.” Yet years later, when we hold that racket in our hands and demonstrate ability in the sport, the way others view us often begins to change the identity from person to player. Simply put, when you walk onto the court, the insecurities, experiences and traumas which you hold as a person do not go away. You carry them onto the court wherever you go. For this reason, it’s imperative to get your personal life in order whenever you hope to play peak performance tennis.

It can be helpful to think of your development in sports and life as a tree. A tree starts from a seed where the roots create a foundation, an anchor of sorts. The roots can be thought of as the person’s values, belief system, cultural orientation, work ethic and soul. Influential people in our lives, like our parents, coaches, friends and extended family, play a role in how our roots grow. For example, by encouraging such traits as moral values, personal confidence, self-belief, personal resiliency and self-empowerment, a person will be better suited to face obstacles, setbacks, and life’s challenges. Jose Higueras stated, in the USTA High Performance Newsletter (Vol. 10, No. 1), “I’m a big fan of trying to make the player as independent as possible.” So remember, junior players … the stronger the root system, the stronger the physical trunk and branches become.

The fruits are always a result of the roots. However, these fruits (outcome) often garner more attention than the roots (process). The allure of the fruits often shift the focus away from development and the process. They shift the focus to the outcome and away from how and what needs to happen to achieve the outcome. Yet make no mistake, development all starts from the seed and the root system. Dr. David Grand, a psychologist and co-author of This is Your Brain on Sports, noted for his work in the field of sports and performance, says, “The foundation is the person—how you play is often a manifestation of yourself, including your weakest and strongest points.”

Now, think back to the time you were having a bad practice or match, exhibiting bad body language, or were just not yourself. How much of this could have been a result of a rough day at school, an argument with a friend, parental expectations, or even anxiety about an upcoming tournament? Oftentimes, it is off-court issues or unrelated stresses that affect performance on the court. Awareness of the complexity of the person-player relationship will help you realize that you’re not a robot! And those off-the-court stresses, experiences, and emotional and physical traumas oftentimes get suppressed in the mind, but the body remembers at the conscious or unconscious level.

Another scenario is walking off the court after a heartbreaking loss, dejected and rattled. A match where you really felt you should have won, but lost your focus and missed a huge overhead in the third set tie-breaker. You could hear the crowd gasp, as your stomach clutched with embarrassment. Certainly, the next time a big overhead comes up in a match, it’s likely the missed overhead will flash before you like a shooting star. The mind and body remember trauma.
Lastly, imagine this: The serve is a huge part of your game; in competition, you tear your rotator cuff, undergo surgery, and have to be sidelined from the game for four months. When you return, people ask how the shoulder is. You reply like a warrior, “It feels great. Never felt better.” However, in practice, you’re afraid to go all out and hit your bombs due to some lingering pain. Then, you change your motion to alleviate the pain. After that you go through a period of excessive double faults. What’s important to understand is that the body remembers any kind of physical trauma, especially injuries and surgeries. The body will try to protect itself from further injury recurrence. Most athletes recover from injuries on a physical level, however healing the mental scars is much more difficult.

Carlos Rodriguez, coach of Justine Henin, said it best in The New York Times, “The tennis player is still first a human being. If the human being is going good, feeling good, so will the tennis player.”

James Blake, in his book Breaking Back, said, “My greatest professional successes occurred after I faced my most personal challenges … I used to think that was ironic; now I realize that success flows directly from having cleared those hurdles.”

In summary, when an athlete crosses the lines, they are still the person and carry issues, experiences and traumas with them. The fruits are a result of the roots.

Rob Polishook

Rob Polishook, MA, CPC is the founder of Inside the Zone Sports Performance Group. As a mental training coach, he works with athletes helping them to unleash their mental edge through mindfulness, somatic psychology  and mental training skills. Rob is author of 2 best selling books: Tennis Inside the Zone and Baseball Inside the Zone: Mental Training Workouts for Champions. He can be reached by phone at (973) 723-0314, by e-mail rob@insidethezone.com, by visiting insidethezone.com, or following on Instagram @insidethezone.