We have all seen Rafael Nadal’s incredible focus during a match. He never gives up and plays each point like it’s his last. Tennis provides us an opportunity to mentally be like Nadal; maybe not at his professional skill level, but certainly in terms of his mental game. Rafa’s on court demeanor is mindful, purposeful and resilient. Clearly, he keeps his focus on what he can control, and he lets go of the rest.
Off the court, before or after a match, we can hone our mental game to be like Nadal by using the skills that many other sports’ professionals benefit from, like meditation. In the previous three articles of my “Mastering the Mind” series, I wrote about how top athletes like Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Derek Jeter, Novak Djokovic and Bianca Andreescu meditate, the benefits they derive from it, and how you can create a personal meditation practice to help you relax, reflect, and get yourself ready to play.
In this article, Part Four of my series, I will highlight three key principles in addition to meditation that, if cultivated, will help athletes and individuals manage inevitable ups and downs of competition and life. These key principles can provide the emotional resilience for athletes to accept and manage adversity.
We all know the story about how the slow caterpillar breaks through its cocoon and transforms into a graceful butterfly. Similarly, autumn turns to winter turns to spring then summer, and back again. This cycle of constant change is ever present in life, nature and in sports. Recently, a client of mine had a string of great matches, only to reach the finals where she did not play well. She was angry with the loss, but then we talked about how the matchup had been more difficult than her other opponents, and she’d lost some of the focus she had earlier. She understood that her resistance to these shifts had made her more anxious and tight.
After accepting impermanence was part of the nature of the game, she has relaxed, stopped forcing points, and is now playing better than ever. Accepting impermanence allows us to gain perspective and clarity. Optimum performance is less about controlling outcomes than it is about shifting focus to managing momentum, injuries, matchups, and training cycles. Progress is rarely linear. Even the greats like Federer, Nadal and Williams experience impermanence in their careers. Being able to face that impermanence and flow with it is how they became Roger, Rafa and Serena.
Equanimity means maintaining calm, composure and clarity of mind through adversity or pressure. Especially when things are seemingly spiraling out of control. Staying balanced when you are down a set or your opponent makes a bad call, rather than losing control and being emotionally reactive is the foundation of equanimity. One of my first memories of seeing equanimity at play was during Wimbledon in 1975, when Arthur Ashe placed a towel over his head on changeovers to collect himself. He was calm, respectful and seemingly floated on the court, no matter what was happening. That equanimity was most likely a big factor in his victory over Jimmy Connors.
How can we play with equanimity? If we truly listen, our bodies will naturally clue us in when we are moving toward the brink, the point where we might lose our calm. We start rushing, our breathing becomes shallow and we get tight. This is our clue to step back, take a deep breath, and shift the focus to what you can control. Come back into equanimity by just trying to play your best, not necessarily be the best.
What does gratitude have to do with tennis? Everything! The process of being grateful encourages and empowers you to reflect, be present, and stay in the moment. While grateful, our nervous system tends to settle, and we can enter the next moment from a place of calm. The more gratitude we have, the more moments of calm we will experience. Then, when adversity rears its head (as it always does), we will be able to deal with it from a place of clarity.
Nadal always shares his sense of gratitude towards the game and his opponents by being humble, never taking anyone for granted and never giving up. He knows this doesn’t take anything away from his game, but rather allows him to focus on his game.
Going forward I suggest keeping a journal of all three principles, then reflecting on these questions:
►Jot down the times you remember experiencing impermanence in your development as a person and an athlete.
►Journal about a time that you played with equanimity.
►Lastly, what are you grateful for? List three-to-five things each day that you are grateful for.
Reflect on how the experiences above made you feel. Answering these questions will help you become aware of patterns whenever you lose your way. Playing your sport is an ongoing journey to being your best, and it includes practice, drills, fitness, tournaments and more. Certainly, we seem to understand the “doing” part of sport, but the mental part of the game, where we set the conditions of calm, clarity and concentration, sometimes gets lost.
Impermanence, equanimity, and gratitude are three great principles to bring to competition and life. Applying them can mean the difference between playing loose rather than tight, staying calm rather than getting anxious, and winning rather than losing. Don’t leave home without them!
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.