Mindfulness and sports go hand in hand. Look no further than George Mumford’s classic book, The Mindful Athlete, and Jerry Lynch’s newest book, Win the Day. Both authors speak to how mindfulness is helpful. If you think about it, beyond the score, the game is all about adversity management, emotional energy management and managing what you can control. Meditation is a great tool for all of this.
In his book, 8 Minute Meditation, Victor Davich simply answers the oft asked question: “Why should I meditate?” Davich says, “It’s common sense, when you are relaxed and in an allowing state, you are less mentally agitated.” This is certainly a good thing for tennis players and all athletes in competition. Maybe this is why players such as Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Bianca Andreescu, and others use some type of meditation practices.
So what happens if you don’t incorporate some type of meditation into your training? In my experience working with tennis players of all ages and levels, it’s a definite disadvantage, like trying to take a tree down without a saw! In a recent New York Times article about Sofia Kenin, the 2020 Australian Open Winner, Rick Macci, one of her childhood coaches, emphasized the importance of the mental game: “It’s not always about how big, strong and super fast you are, it’s what’s under the hood.”
The following are three match situations that actual clients of mine have approached me with, and by incorporating a meditation practice, they were able to improve, get less agitated and ultimately see their way through the challenge.
The first client was always screaming at herself, “OMG, I can’t believe this!?” or worse, “I suck, how can I be so bad?” Clearly, both of these forms of negative self-talk are not helpful and usually lead to a downward spiral. Meditation taught her to be more patient and kind to herself.
The second client shared with me that he loses focus on things he cannot control, ie. weather, line calls, the opponent, or thinking about the result. Meditation helped him to recognize these thoughts as a loss of focus. Through this awareness, he was able to refocus on what he could control.
The third client would lose matches which she was capable of winning. She would come off the court and have no idea what happened other than knowing the score. Through conversation, we recognized that she allowed her opponents to dictate the match and use their style of play. For example, if an opponent didn’t hit with any pace, she stopped playing her normally assertive/aggressive game style. If an opponent hit a lot of loopy shots, she allowed herself to get pushed back beyond the baseline. Meditation helped her become better aware of her strengths and individual game style, and then how to bring this style to the court. Through the practice, she became more comfortable playing her game and not playing tentative or defaulting to her opponent’s style.
If we are honest with ourselves, most of us can relate to these three situations. In the heat of the moment things seem to speed up. What’s key is that we need to take a step back and not get caught up in what we cannot control. The good news is that meditation is a useful tool to circumvent challenges like the three mentioned. It’s free and not hard, but requires dedicated and consistent practice, five to ten minutes a day. It’s a great way to relax, release and reset.
In next month’s article, I will outline the key steps for an athlete to begin a meditation practice. But for now, try this: Find a comfortable spot where you are comfortable and won’t be distracted. With your eyes half-open, gaze forward. Bring your attention to your breath as your mind wanders (it will!), label it thinking and bring it back to attention on your breath. Do this for five minutes a day.
Until next month, breathe on!
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.