| By Rob Polishook

Why is it that whenever a player in any sport wins a tournament, they are usually in a good place off the court? James Blake, in his book Breaking Back, said “My greatest professional successes occurred after I had faced my most personal challenges. I used to think this was ironic; now I realize that success flows directly from having cleared those hurdles.”

Fast-forward to the winners box. We have all watched a player win a big tournament and turn to their box and thank them. Have you ever wondered how the team is working together to help create an environment where a player is able to excel? This article will highlight six keys that a coach and team can use to help create a strong foundation built on trust and unconditional support when working with their players. Utilizing these techniques will create a stronger relationship between student, coach and the team.

1. Coach the person first and then the athlete

Take extra time to listen and understand your players off the court. Learn what other interests they have and the pressures they face. Begin each practice with the simple question “How was your day?” or “What’s something that happened today that you could share?” Often times, peak performance cannot happen until a player gets past the pressures they face off the court (i.e. school, tests, friends). By establishing a relationship and an outlet for them, your players will know you care about not only their game, but them as an individual as well. Your genuine interest and concern will go a long way in terms of your player’s dedication, loyalty, work ethic, and most importantly, trust. Remember, more often than not, poor performance comes from the player bringing something onto the court that’s distracting to them.

2. Coach “The Big Why,” the key to success

Take the time to explore and understand what drives and motivates your players. Ask them, “What do you love about the game?” or “What is one reason you play that has nothing to do with winning and losing?” All great champions have their own reason for competing. Pete Sampras said, “I just wanted to see how good I could be.” What a great reason to play! Others love the competition or being with friends. Once you understand what drives a player, you can figure out how to best motivate them. It is also helpful to remember: What’s your big why for coaching? This is the reason you come back to the court day after day. It can serve to drive your inner motivation.

3. Coach the process and the winning will take care of itself

Guide your players to become aware of and focused on the process while letting the outcome (results) take care of itself. This will keep them focused on what they can control. Ask any player what their goal is and they will all say, “To win!” The next question to ask is: “What will it take?” Often times, there is silence. The true champion focuses on what they need to do to make the result happen. An example might be to manage their emotions during adversity in a match, or play to their strengths and use their forehand to dictate points early in points. The key is to understand the steps. Often times, I say “Focus on the path, not the peak.” It’s the only way to get to the peak without tripping!

4. Coach “getting comfortable being uncomfortable”

Encourage the players to experiment, risk and explore the things that may be outside of their comfort zone. Ask them to identify one thing they are currently uncomfortable doing, but were they to develop, would benefit their game. When players understand that it is okay to explore the game and spend time on weaknesses, they may be surprised by the positive results. Furthermore, they will have more faith in your advice to attempt and stick with ideas or techniques that do not feel easy or natural to them right away. For example, this might include coming to the net to finish a volley when pulling the opponent across the court, or staying in the point an extra shot or two before they pull the trigger on a big shot.

5. Coach empowerment and self-responsibility by asking questions

Open-ended questions stimulate the mind and make a person think. These questions cannot be answered with a simple “Yes” or “No.” Additionally, they facilitate a conversation and eliminate a player from checking out mentally. For example, “What do you think we should work on today? How will that help you in match play?” Or, “What did you think of that drill? How could we make it better? What didn’t you like about it? What do you think that is telling you?” Players can even make self-discoveries about their effort level or stamina via questions such as “How was your energy level? What energy level do you need in a match? What’s stopping you from providing that energy today?”

6. Coach what can be controlled

Too often, players are focused on what they cannot control … things such as the opponent, conditions, and the most common, the outcome of the match. This thought process is the quickest path to failure. Focusing on what cannot be controlled creates anxiety. Why? Because the player has no control over it! However, dialing back and focusing on what they can control—such as staying patient in a point, staying true to their rituals, and managing adversity under pressure—will all lead to the best result. Focusing on what can be controlled doesn’t always guarantee a win, but it puts the player in the best position to win. It also empowers the player to establish a game plan and take the responsibility to follow it.

In summary, these six steps outlined above began with the individual person. All players are unique people who will have a unique process and a unique performance. There is no cookie-cutter way to develop players or even a one-size-fits-all program. Great players don’t try to hit the perfect shot, rather, they hit their shots. Developing a mutual trust between yourself and the player allows the player to grow with complete faith in their process. It allows and teaches the player to realize that if they lost it, it’s not because they are not good enough (as a person), but rather, their game was not good enough on that particular day. Big difference … person first, every time.

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.