Think back to the last Grand Slam final you saw … Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray raise the microphone and always shout out to their team thanking them for their support, patience and direction. In order for any athlete to reach the highest level of performance, there are a set of underlying principles which must serve as a guide for the team—athletes, parents and coach—during the journey. Metaphorically, these principles act as the rudder that helps the player and team stay on course, achieve goals, and play with purpose and intention.
We all know that hard work is imperative for success. Many of us are familiar with the adage that in order to achieve mastery you must put 10,000 hours into a task. While this idea has been debated by many, one thing has not—the training needs to be directed and purposeful. In fact, we can think of things this way: Building technical, strategic and physical skill sets is much like building a sturdy foundation of a house, one floor at a time, each new skill resting on the previous.
In order to understand the mental component, let’s use a sailboat as an analogy. It is obvious that everyone sees the sail of the boat when it is gracefully gliding on the water. Similarly, we see the graceful physicality of a player. However, far less obvious, yet more important, is the rudder. This determines what direction the boat travels. If it is not pointing in the right direction, the boat will veer off course. Because the rudder is below the surface, it’s unknown to most. However, this all-important rudder is the metaphorical equivalent of the mindset, beliefs and assumptions of the player, coaches and parents. Without the proper mental mindset, the player and team cannot steadily travel in the proper direction, and the boat goes adrift.
So what’s a key mindset for the player, parent and coach to embrace in order to create a champion? The remainder of this article will identify the key mindset which I believe is imperative in developing a player that embraces competition, thrives under adversity and ultimately puts themselves in a position to rise to the highest levels in their sport.
Players: Focus on competing vs. winning
Junior players are too caught up in winning! Yes, I understand this is the goal, but it should be known that winning is a consequence of taking disciplined, purposeful action over time. The key question which must be asked is, “What does it take to win?” This question presupposes that there is a process to winning and encourages the player to identify these actions and attributes, such as preparation, discipline, effort, focus on things within the players control, etc. Winning is not something that a player can directly control, but they can control their process towards this outcome.
Juniors need to change their singular focus to the process and get comfortable with the word “competeology,” that is, “The art of competing.” We all know that the player who competes better is usually the player that wins. Attributes of what it means to compete include: Maintaining high energy, a positive attitude, bouncing back from adversity, adjusting and adapting to match situations, staying in the present moment, taking nothing for granted, beginning each point in a centered, calm place, accepting yourself and your process, and giving an all-out effort. All of these attributes are within the control of any player at any level and are necessary steps to win on the court, and succeed in life.
Parents: Focus on the process vs. the outcome
Parents are often caught up in the outcome, worrying about what a loss means to their child’s ability to play at a high level years down the road. This thinking places the focus away from the step-by-step process and progression. Additionally, this focus inevitably takes the child’s mindset away from the present and focuses them on the future. Yet more destructive, it places thoughts on parental expectations rather than the moment in front of them. One of my clients once said to me, “When I’m on the court, I think about what my dad is thinking.” Clearly this is not where child or parent wants the athlete’s mind to be during the match, yet a focus on the expectations of victory leads to such results.
Parents need to be patient with the process, and understand there are no such things as bad losses—unless no one learns from it. All competitive experiences are learning opportunities and practice for the next match. The goal of any junior player is to continue making progress, and losses hold answers for improvement that lead to future victories. A keen eye must be focused on how a player is using their strategy, how they are making adjustments to obstacles, and how they are letting go of the past, and competing to the best of their ability. When these things are happening, improvement, rankings and rewards will follow as a result.
Coaches: Focus on the person, not the athlete
Many coaches and academies often have pre-conceived notions of what a player should look and play like as they progress to certain stages. This takes the emphasis off the person and their unique qualities (i.e., Rafael Nadal’s fire, Roger Federer’s calm, David Ferrer’s patience, Fabrice Santoro’s creativity). The key is non-judgmentally recognizing these intangibles, while identifying and building on them as a strength, knowing that each player’s journey is going to be unique to the person. Athletes want people to “get them,” to understand “what they are going through” and to appreciate and respect their journey as a person and not just a player. Embracing this mindset is a far quicker launching pad to success than trying to mold a player towards some sort of prototype which you expected them to fit into but does not necessarily work with the innate strengths they already possess.
As a coach, a key facet toward reaching peak performance is realizing how to tap into a person’s unique skills, personal attributes and motivations. Truly understanding the person and their story, and the story behind the story, will lead to increased trust and loyalty, and ultimately serve as a launching pad to unleashing the player within. Preliminary questions to ask your player may include: What’s your “big why” for playing? What motivates you? What do you like and dislike about the game? What are your goals? What did it take to get to this point (obstacles and successes)? How do you deal with adversity? What’s something about yourself that doesn’t necessarily make you better or worse than others, but makes you individually who you are? Understanding these answers will better enable you to understand where your player is now, and how to motivate them. Additionally, they will feel you understand them and give a full effort from the inside out.
In summary, in all performance-related endeavors, we need to understand that the performer starts off as a person. When a player walks through the court gates, they bring the same strengths, weaknesses, confidence and insecurities that they feel off the court. The job of the player is to focus on what they can control, that is to focus on competing, not winning. Paradoxically, this focus will provide the best chance to win. The job of a parent is to support their child’s process, and understand to reach the goal they need to take different steps, much like climbing a mountain, some up, some across and even some down to reset for more climbing ahead. Obstacles, setbacks and failure must be viewed as part of the process, and something to learn from. The job of a coach is to recognize their player is a person first, and strive to bring out their individual qualities which make them and their game unique as opposed to making the student fit into a preconceived model of what they think is a champion. In fact, champions come in all shapes and sizes. Just look at John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Boris Becker, Nadal and Federer. Some of those personalities could not be more different from one another, yet each has been able to feed off unique personality traits to create their own winning brand.
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 email@example.com, by visiting insidethezone.com, or following on Instagram @insidethezone.