Every year I receive numerous calls from college freshmen who seemingly out of the blue have lost their feel, instincts and confidence. Their mental game used to be reliable but now they are experiencing anxiousness, anger and an unstable attitude playing for their new team. They can’t believe what they are experiencing: some describe it as becoming mechanical and tight. Others describe it as overthinking and over trying.
After listening to their experiences, I usually ask them, “what has changed?” and, “when was the last time you had that feel of playing loose, relaxed and with ease?” Then I’ll dig a bit further and ask “what was happening during the last time they were playing relaxed both on and off the court?”
In the case of one of my players, we’ll call them “Ari”, he told me that he was coming off a great summer of training and was really looking forward to his upcoming freshman year at college. He was eager to play in a new environment and crack the lineup as a freshman. He also shared with me how his support system on the court was rock-solid and off the court, he felt very connected to friends that always went out together. He also shared how his tournament results were more about the process and focusing on little goals. His youth coaches not only knew about his tennis game, but they knew what motivated him, and what drove him to grind and never give up.
Then he shared what he was experiencing currently, as a new college freshman in the fall season. He said, “I’m constantly worried about how I’m playing, what a missed shot means for my position on the team, what the coach thinks of me, and whether I’m doing what the coach wants.” He mentioned that his ankle is a bit sore but doesn’t want to say anything to his coach or teammates for fear of being seen as weak. Further, he said, “practice and challenge matches feel all about the outcome. If I win, I’m happy, if I lose, I’m depressed. I’ve lost my balance.”
Lastly, he shared, “off the court, I don’t have non-tennis friends that I can decompress with, my girlfriends at another school and classes are way more challenging than I thought.”
Teddy Roosevelt once said, “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” Why is this important from a coach’s perspective? Simply put, it can help put the new recruit at ease. When the coach has the best interests of their players in mind (as a person, not just an athlete) then the relationship will not be all about the results. If the coach doesn’t, then the relationship will be unstable, unpredictable and have no foundation of belief, trust and support.
It’s imperative for the coach to recognize that the athlete they recruited is the same kid they spoke to, saw play, and tracked their results. The only changes, and they are huge, are the new stakes, new teammates, and new coaches. Add to this the new environment, school challenges, new friends, living alone and there is a lot going on below the surface in the mind of this player.
This article will discuss three ways in which coaches, in this specific instance, college coaches, can support to their players during a challenging transition: not just as a tennis player but as whole human beings.
Connection: This may sound so basic, in fact because it is, it’s often overlooked. Val Kondos, the infamous UCLA gymnastics coach, shared in her TED talk how she thought she could connect to her kids through knowledge of the sport, until they asked for a team meeting to tell her that she didn’t “get them.” Certainly, this is every coach’s nightmare.
So, how can you create connections? A great place to start is discussing with your individual players exactly what motivates them? That intrinsic reason of “why” they play the game that has nothing to do with winning and losing. I call this their Big Y (see chapter 2 of Tennis Inside the Zone). Often times, players don’t even know their Big Y. They allow their wins and losses to dictate their mood and daily activities. I have had clients tell me their Big Y is: love the competition, love the problem- solving, love the fitness, and for others it is the camaraderie. A solid Big Y should have nothing to do with the outcome, but solely the process. A player’s Big Y will remain constant, despite the instability of wins or a tough loss. Discussing a Big Y allows a coach to connect with their players and will help them remember why they are playing the game, beyond the outcomes.
Understand: So often we label people like jars, and more often, do the same for athletes! It’s so important to know that tennis isn’t who the player is, but rather what they do. Often times, the players themselves lose sight of this! When a coach understands and reminds their players about this their focus is on more than tennis but on caring, developing and empowering the whole human athlete: person first. It encourages the player and the coach to not only recognize a player’s talent, technique and skills but equally uncover their intangible values, attributes and characteristics (V.A.C’s) that they bring to life both on and off the court. V.A.C’s don’t make someone better or worse than others, but rather make them who they are. These intangible things are prevalent in a player’s performance. Think Rafa and his heart, energy and spirit. Similarly, I would also encourage any players to reflect on how they could bring their heart, energy and spirit to competition.
Balance: Just because something is hard to explain, doesn’t mean it is less important. In fact, in the instance of staying balanced regarding one’s mental health, well-being, and resiliency both on and off the court, I would say it’s of paramount importance. As coaches it’s imperative to recognize players (especially freshman) are balancing many off and on court issues. Off court it may be living alone for first time, new academic requirements, new friends and relationships, and family. On court it may be working with a new coach, navigating new tennis friendships, being part of a team, and playing the game style which helped them gain the coaches attention. Add all these elements together and there is a lot for the freshman to balance. Key for the coach is to support their players so they can help them navigate these new demands. Equally, for the players to remember what got them there in the first place, that is focusing on what they can control, focusing on what’s important now, bringing their personal talents to the court and playing their game.
In summary, tennis doesn’t define who a person is, tennis is what they do. Apolo Ohno, the famous Olympic speed skater in his recent book Hard Pivot said “success and failures come and go and they never define who you are.
Tennis players are whole human athletes: person first. They are not only bringing tennis talent but also their personal talents. It’s key for a coach to connect to their players by identifying their Big Y for playing. Understanding them and encouraging them to bring their values, attributes and characteristics to competition.
Lastly, helping them to find balance both on and off the court. Not only will this strategy contribute to their mental well-being but also as a natural consequence it will help motivate them to bring their best self to challenges both on and off the court.
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.