Every year for the past 10 years, I teach a workshop at the Omega Institute in upstate New York called “Tennis Inside the Zone: Becoming More Than an Athlete.” The workshop is targeted toward adult tennis players. We spend the week reconnecting to those unique attributes, characteristics and skills that make us uniquely ourselves. And we learn how to bring these to the court and to competition.
The logic behind this is pretty simple: When we stop focusing on what we can’t control, we let go of stress, tension and playing tight. When we stop over-trying, playing to others’ expectations and focusing on outcome, we are able to bring more of who we are to what we do and become better, balanced players.
At the workshop, we do something called the “Intention Exercise.” First, we identify our intentions, then we list three attributes we can use to accomplish this intention. Finally, we presuppose a greater outcome. For example, an intention might be to stay focused on what you can control. The attributes to accomplish this might be patience, awareness and curiosity. The greater outcome might be that you are better able to manage adversity when it comes up in a match.
While going around the circle, one of the students innocently said, “I have been playing for years and no one told me this game is supposed to be fun!” The air was sucked out of the room. The pink elephant appeared. Everyone looked at each other in disbelief. It reminded me of when Andre Agassi penned, “I hate this game” in his book Open. It’s the kind of thing we think but never say.
Whether you are a recreational player, weekend warrior, competitive junior or professional, it’s of utmost importance to keep the fun in the game. Without fun, the journey will be a fast track to disappointment, frustration and burnout. We all can envision that player who just doesn’t want to be on the court. Maybe they are talking to themselves, screaming at others, and seeming as though they want to be anywhere else than on the tennis court.
So, what’s a player to do?
1. Your big “Why:” I suggest connecting to the reason that has nothing to do with winning or losing, but will always be there no matter the outcome. Maybe it’s your love of competition, a camaraderie with friends, trying to be the best you can, or challenging yourself to improve. Maybe you have identified those you hope to inspire when you play. Often, a client of mine will want to inspire their siblings or the group of players they are part of. This helps to recognize there is a greater reason for playing. It isn’t just about you. Lastly, give some thought to what you get back from playing. What lessons does the game teach you? This might be staying calm under pressure, fitness or remembering that the game is supposed to be fun!
2. “Play the game:” Let’s break up the phrase and think about what “Play” means. The online dictionary states: “An activity engaged in for enjoyment and recreation, especially by children.” This brings up memories of playing as a kid, where the only focus was unconditionally trying to be and do my best. Also adapting and adjusting to whatever was happening without fear of the outcome. Imagine if we let go of the outcome? How loose, free and relaxed would you be when you played? In defining “game,” the online dictionary states: “A complete episode or period of play, ending in a definite result.” Think back to your childhood … playing a game wasn’t do or die. We weren’t pressed or forced. We didn’t over-try. Not a chance! It was a game. As soon as we start to put too much importance on the game, we compromise our ability to “play the game!” The author of this article experienced this lesson in his last tournament. I had lost the first set 5-7, and I was in a second set tie-breaker, with the score 5-6. I served and volleyed, trying to hit a cross-court volley winner which I inexplicably missed and lost the match. I couldn’t figure out how I could miss what I considered such an easy shot? After careful reflection, I realized that I stopped playing the game. I was over-trying and forced things. Simply, at that point, I stopped playing the game, rather, pressured the game.
So, the next time you walk on the court, don’t fall into the trap that so many others including two-time Grand Slam winner Naomi Osaka did. She recently shared on her Instagram, “I can honestly reflect and say I probably haven’t had fun playing tennis since Australia and I’m finally coming to terms with that while relearning that fun feeling …”
So what’s a player to do? Remember your “Big Why” and “Play the Game.” After all … it’s supposed to be fun!
Rob Polishook, MA, CPC is the founder and director of Inside the Zone Sports Performance Group. As a mental training coach, his focus is on the athlete as a person first and recognizes the strength of being “More” than an Athlete. Through this lens, he is able to help athletes be their best version of themselves both on and off the field. His best selling book Tennis Inside the Zone- 32 mental training workouts for champions is sold nationally and internationally. He has spoken at USTA, USPTA, ITA conferences, and has conducted workshops India, Israel and the Omega Institute. His work has been highlighted in ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, Sports Illustrated , NY Times and other media. Additionally Polishook is an adjunct Professor at Seton Hall University. He may be reached by phone at (973) 723-0314, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.insidethezone.com.