Think back to the last Grand Slam final you saw … the winner and runner-up always raise the microphone and shout out to their team, thanking them for their unwavering support. In order for any athlete to reach the highest level of performance, there are underlying principals which can serve as a guide to the team (athletes, parents and coaches) during the journey.
I’d like to share with you key mindsets for the player, parent and coach to embrace during the process. These mindsets are imperative to developing a player who embraces competition, thrives under adversity, and ultimately, puts themself in a position to rise to the higher rankings and reach their personal peak potential in their sport.
Players: Focus on competing vs. winning
Junior players are too caught up in winning. Yes, I understand this is the goal! However, it should be noted that winning is a consequence of taking disciplined purposeful action over time. Winning is not something which a player can directly control, but they can control how they compete. The key question that must be asked is “What would it mean to compete well?” This question empowers the player to identify actions, attributes and characteristics which they can control which would put themselves in the best position to be ready to play. When the focus is on the present and the “art of competing,” the player that competes better usually wins. Attributes of competing include: Maintaining high energy, having a positive attitude, bouncing back from adversity, adjusting and adapting to match situations, staying present in the moment, taking nothing for granted, beginning each point in a centered and calm place, employing rituals, accepting yourself and your process, and giving an all-out effort.
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 mindset places the focus away from the step-by-step progression and inevitably takes the child’s mindset away from the present and focuses them on the future. Additionally, and more destructive, the focus becomes the parental expectations. 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 the athlete’s mind should be during the match. 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 developing and managing adversity and challenges, knowing that 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, how they are letting go of the past, how they are refocusing, and how they are competing to the best of their ability. When these things are happening, improvement and rewards will follow.
Coaches: Focus on the person, not the athlete
Many coaches and academies often have pre-conceived notions of what a player should act, look, even play like. Development in anything, including tennis, is not a “one-size-fits-all” proposition. Each person and player is individual in their own way and the focus must start from the person’s unique qualities. For example, let’s look at Rafael Nadal who grinds, follows rituals and fights. On the other hand, you have Roger Federer who is stylistic, calm and collected. You could say Federer is more creative, while Rafa relies on his patterns. The key is identifying that each players’ style and journey will be unique. In my private practice, athletes often express to me that they wish people would understand “what they are going through” and to appreciate what they are experiencing as a person, not just a player. As a coach, a key facet towards helping players reach their personal peak performance is understanding how to tap into their players’ unique personal skills, attributes and motivations. Understanding the person, their story and the story behind the story will lead to increased trust and loyalty.
All teams (athletes, parents and coaches) should know players’ “Big Why,” their reason for playing. What motivates them? What are their goals? What did it take to get to this point (obstacles and success)? What is something about them that doesn’t make them better or worse than others, but makes them who they are? Understanding these answers will better enable the team to move forward in unison. The team must recognize that 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 competing, not winning. The job of a parent is to support their process, not the outcome, where setbacks, failure and even success can be viewed as part of the journey and something to learn from. The job of a coach is to recognize their player as a “person first,” and strive to bring out their unique qualities, which make them and their game different. Not comparing them to what they think a champion is. Champions come in all shapes and sizes, just look at John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Boris Becker, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova. Who’s to say who will be next?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, by visiting insidethezone.com, or following on Instagram @insidethezone.