I remember it like it was yesterday, coaching the Zonals for the 16 & Under age group. The competition was fierce with top kids from the country. Inevitably, various issues came up before matches. For example, I received a late-night text from my number two player saying her friend, our number three player, was really nervous about tomorrow’s match. She asked, “What should I do? How can I help her?” Or the other scenario, where my number four player was sitting at the changeover telling me how many lines his opponent had hit in the previous two games.
So, what’s a player to do? Conventional sports psychology might tell you to ignore your feelings and just play, or even to forget about the score—get back out there and compete. Both ideas sound good, but in fact, they really don’t address the reality of the situation. What is the player experiencing at this exact moment, and what’s the starting point to moving forward?
I’d like to introduce what I call the “A, B, C’s” to regaining your focus when a distraction occurs. Well, wait you say … “sounds kind of gimmicky.” Call it what you want, but this simple acronym is your roadmap to getting back on track once your concentration has wavered, or you have full blown lost it. The key to the “A, B, C’s” is to be aware that you have lost your concentration. From this point, they can be exercised to help you regain your composure, focus and game.
Let me explain what each letter stands for and provide a description and how to use it given the previous examples:
“A” stands for Accept: Using the example of my number two player who was nervous, accept the means to simply accept that you are nervous. Being nervous isn’t bad or good. In fact, I would say that it means that there is a match you care about and feel challenged. If you didn’t attach emotion to it and simply accepted it, you might say “Okay, I’m nervous” and just let it be. By fighting the nerves, you only make things worse and create an internal dialogue of what will happen next with the nerves. It’s okay to be nervous. Furthermore, if you are nervous, guess who else is likely to be nervous? Yes, that’s right … your opponent! Lastly, your name isn’t nervous, a part of you is nervous. Who wouldn’t be? You are getting ready to put yourself on the line.
“B” stands for Breathe: Yes, breathe! Using the example of my number four player who was complaining that his opponent was painting the lines. We discussed the simple truth that yes, he painted lines during the last six points, unheard of, but true. No need to fight it, it happened. Then, the work became to shift my player’s focus away from the past to the present. He brought his attention to his natural anchor—his breath. Little known fact, breath is always in the present. In order to connect to the present, you can simply just observe it, notice the sound, feel or rhythm for a few seconds. Or you can breathe in to a count of three, hold it for two counts, and breathe out to a count of three … you choose the pattern. Or simply breathe in and out. Not only does this shift of focus connect you to the present moment, it will help you relax, stay calm and slow down.
“C” stands for Concentrate: Specifically, we are talking about making the choice to focus on what you can control and let go of what you cannot. In the case of my number three player, instead of concentrating on her nervousness, she could concentrate on what she needs to do to prepare for her match the evening before, and then how she wants to play. What is her game plan going to be? In the situation of my number four player, he can concentrate on playing his game, maybe keeping the ball away from his opponent’s forehand where most of the winners came from. And most importantly, know that he cannot control his opponent’s shots. He can only control his shot selection, his effort and how he competes. Concentrating on what you can control doesn’t guarantee winning, however, it’s your best path.
The “A, B, C’s” are a surefire way to get your game back on track when you lose your focus. Watch any of the top players and you can see when they move through these steps. Make no mistake, the “A, B, C’s” are simple, but are not easy.
Rob Polishook, MA, CPC is the founder and director of Inside the Zone Sports Performance Group. As a mental training coach, he works with athletes and teams at the middle school, high school, national, collegiate and professional levels. His work focuses on helping athletes and teams gain the mental edge, often the difference between winning and losing. Rob has spoken to athletes, coaches, parents both nationally at USTA, USPTA, ITA conferences, and has conducted international workshops and has worked with top-ranked juniors in India, Israel, Switzerland and the Czech Republic. He was awarded the 2008 USPTA-Eastern Division High School Coach of the Year Award. He may be reached by phone at (973) 723-0314, e-mail email@example.com, or visit www.insidethezone.com.