Unlock the mystery of the mental game …
  | By Rob Polishook

Ask any athlete how important the mental game is and most would say it’s between 50 percent and 99 percent of competition. In individual sports like golf, running, swimming and tennis, the value always pushes the higher limits. In team sports like baseball, basketball, lacrosse and football, it has great relevance as well. Remember Yogi Berra’s famous quote, “Half of this game is 90 percent mental.” Many athletes don’t understand how to unlock the mystery of the mental game. The first secret begins by asking the right questions.

Who has the mental edge?
Two modern-day tennis players come to mind. These icons are Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. These two players have been atop the men’s game for the previous seven and five years, respectively, and have accounted for 22 of the past 27 Grand Slam titles. Most importantly, they both have demonstrated their will to compete, their respect for sportsmanship, opponents, and the game, and their ability to adjust to adversity.

Similarly, the great NFL quarterback Tom Brady also comes to mind. Brady can often be observed inspiring teammates on the field, and appears generally unflappable after his own mistakes. He never seems concerned with the referee’s decisions, a raucous environment in a rival stadium, or a particularly aggressive defense. He simply controls what he can, raises his intensity level when he senses his teammates need it, and works with purpose and consistency during and after practice.

What is the mental edge?
Athletes with the mental edge rise under adversity and adapt to what’s happening in the present moment. Other characteristics include patience, focus, calmness under pressure, focusing on what you can control, and getting comfortable being uncomfortable. These players also have the ability to raise their level when it’s needed most. Think about Pete Sampras serving his way out of a 0-40 hole. Or consider Michael Phelps, the great Olympic swimmer, before each race listening to his iPod, letting go of anxiety. At race time his mind was clear, and he performed with complete attention to the moment.

When do you need the mental edge?
Performing under adversity is truly the mark of a champion. This is the time the mental edge is imperative. Most players can win when they are playing well—they have the momentum and their confidence. However, the true champions are the ones who find a way to win when they are not playing their best. Athletes with the mental edge take little for granted, give a full effort, and trust their process no matter the score or situation.

Where does the mental edge come from?
The mental edge lies within each of us. It starts on the inside and can be cultivated on the outside by people and experiences. The key is to trust the process, do your best and learn from mistakes, setbacks, and obstacles. Refer to Michelangelo: He knew when he bought a block of marble that the David was inside, and chip-by-chip his masterpiece appeared for the world to see. The masterpiece already lay within the block of stone, but his genius rested in figuring how to uncover it!

Why is the mental edge important?
It’s the glue that holds everything together. When you have it, you exhibit flexibility in situations, accept imperfection, and work with what you have on that given day. This creates an ability to stay calm and centered under pressure. It is rare a winning performance is perfect; more often it is the “perfectly imperfect” shots and plays which change the course of a competition. A great mental approach is the most surefire way to walk into competition with an advantage.

How do I get the mental edge?
This is the million-dollar question. We know that having the mental edge is a crucial component of any elite athlete’s game. What many of us don’t understand is that, similar to confidence and winning, the mental edge is a consequence of actions, behaviors, commitment, experience, and discipline, to name a few. Great players are very aware and trusting of themselves, their sport, and their personal process. Much like practicing your technical skill set, commit yourself to entering each practice and competition with purpose, intention, and a focus on what you can control—and allow the results to follow.

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.