| By Rob Polishook
Many people think that if a player works harder, push’s stronger, and focuses on the prize with more intensity that that will be enough. Certainly, these elements are important even vital. However, this doesn’t take into account the whole picture.
Photo courtesy of USTA/Brad Penner


What’s the secret to being your best? How do the top pros sustain their performance tournament after tournament? Clearly, this is an important question, one worth exploring and trying to understand. With this knowledge, we could greatly improve our individual performance, coaches could better guide their students, and parents could help their kids.

As a mental training coach, I have front row seats to the challenges, adversity and obstacles that tennis players face at all levels from juniors to professionals. Many people think that if a player works harder, push’s stronger, and focuses on the prize with more intensity that that will be enough. Certainly, these elements are important, even vital. However, this doesn’t take into account the whole picture.

The mental side must be part of the equation, without it, there is an imbalance. For peak, sustained and repeatable performance, an athlete must commit to their game, focus on what they can control and bring who they are to what they do, among other things. From this place they can approach a tournament from a grounded, centered and balanced place. They can bring their personal heart, energy and spirit to the competition. Only from this place will they have the capacity to manage challenges, obstacles, adversity, pressure and the natural ups and downs in a match.

Remember a time when you watched a player who got nervous, tight, or seemingly just froze during competition. You know that “deer in the headlights” look? We wonder how this can happen especially when the athlete has been in this situation before or performed the shot hundreds of times in practice? In fact, if we are honest with ourselves, many of us have been in that situation one time or another.

What is usually holding an athlete back is not what’s on the outside. It’s not the part that everyone can see: the athletic talents, skills and technique. Certainly, these skills can always be improved upon. However, the key is to look at the whole person, the whole human athlete. We always need to look at what’s on the inside, what’s happening below the surface of the player. Competitors are not robots, what’s on the inside affects how we play on the outside- it’s one and the same.

Sometimes issues that get in the way of performance might be: confidence, focusing on the result, worrying about what others think, or ranking pressures. Other times it might be something that is not tennis related but the player carries onto the court such as a bad test result in school, an argument with a friend, family problems, fear of a reoccurring injury, or a combination of some of these stressors. No matter what the issues, carrying this weight on your shoulders will negatively impact performance every time!

When an athlete, coach or parent doesn’t understand the synergy between the person and the athlete? There is a disconnect; they are not taking into account the multifaceted whole human athlete. Usually, it’s a fast track to performance blocks, anxiety and burnout. The player becomes unable to get the most of themselves because they are pushing and pulling so hard that they never step back to be patient, piece things together, and reset to allow their skills to show through.

As players, coaches, and parents we must look at the whole human athlete, not solely the performer or performance in front of us. We must refocus through the lens of the athlete within the person. From this lens, we immediately see a wider perspective to what’s happening and also additional attributes which make the player unique. We see their all-important heart energy and spirit. This expanded visibility allows the athlete to utilize more tools during their performance, and for coaches, parents and fans to see the whole picture, what the player is experiencing on the inside and outside both on and off the court.

When an athlete competes, they are more than just a tennis player. Their unique energy, distinctive spirit and authentic heart are what make them the player they are. This is the foundation of any athlete’s greatness. We all have our own DNA and wiring. The key is tapping into this uniqueness, not assimilating to a one-size-fits-all mentality.

Rafael Nadal said “tennis isn’t who I am, it’s what I do.” His greatness starts with the person (heart, energy and spirit) and then transcends to the player (talent, skills, technique) and then the performance. The next time you compete or watch the greats remember you are a whole human athlete. Your success lies in not only bringing your talent, technique and skills but also your heart, energy and spirit. Play your game, be yourself, it’s what makes you, you!


Rob Polishook

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 rob@insidethezone.com, by visiting insidethezone.com, or following on Instagram @insidethezone.