It was a hot day in mid-August when Joanne walked into my office exasperated, reeling from the last two months of training and stressed because school was starting in just two weeks. She was overwhelmed; thinking about challenging matches, her coach’s judgment about her performance and her own concerns about whether she could live up to her success in previous years and expectations for the current year.
Right away, I knew this wasn’t going to be a regular session where Joanne and I discussed how she could improve her mental game. Rather, it was apparent she was burnt out and disconnected from her whole self.
As a mental training coach, I work one-on-one with individuals in all sports and age groups, and athletes like Joanne present a variety of issues including: Inability to maintain focus, excessive nervousness, self-esteem challenges, stress from past trauma on or off the field, injuries and trying to live up to a certain image that either the athlete has of themselves or others project onto the athlete. These are just a few of the issues.
Sometimes an athlete like Joanne is experiencing multiple challenges which creates a perfect storm. This imbalance isn't hard to spot and shows in the clients eyes; they are exhausted, exasperated, frustrated and have little energy.
Unfortunately, common sports wisdom is to try to find balance by trying harder, playing more matches, striving for better fitness, and forcing more technique drills. But any athlete who has tried this knows it backfires. It's like stripping the threads on a screw, or trying to swim against a riptide toward shore. You can't get out of the cycle by using the same methods that got you into the cycle. That just leads to more burnout and more exhaustion. It makes things worse.
Finally, the athlete may decide to meet with a mental training coach, and hopefully he or she—in this case me—will identify that they are burned out and the answer isn’t doing more of the same, but rather, stepping away and reconnecting to those activities that make them who they are. Certainly tennis is one, but not the only thing.
With Joanne, it was clear our work was not to push forward, but to step back and reset. We needed to get her back to balance, and this wasn’t going to be accomplished by more to-do’s, rather more to-be’s.
First, we took a walk. We didn’t talk about tennis, we spent most of the session in silence connecting to nature and allowing her to simply settle down.
Later in the session, we spoke about the need for her to explore the off-court experiences that could bring her back to balance, including getting together with friends, hobbies that allowed her to be most like herself, and quiet time just being away from the intensity of sports. Most importantly, we reconnected her to her heart, energy and spirit, things that are already inside her and make her more than an athlete.
While this experience of burnout was painful, it was essentially a good thing to happen. Joanne recognized that burnout is a sign she'd misread. She had thought the sign meant to grind harder, but it was actually a sign to take her foot off the gas, re-center, come back to balance, and reconnect with herself and all the things which make her unique and whole. Further, to understand that the score of past and upcoming matches would not define her, as a person, rather they are just what happened on that day as a tennis player.
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.