| By Rob Polishook
Photo courtesy of Mike Lawrence/USTA


In our previous articles in the Mastering the Mind: Stillness at 125 MPH series, we talked about the benefits of meditation, who does it, and why it’s important. We also outlined a concrete meditation practice that’s easy to start and will have a positive impact on and off the court. And then last month, we spoke about three key principles that can help players adapt to high-pressure situations: impermanence, equanimity and gratitude.

This issue, we are going to work on the three key principles that can help you keep focus during in competition and ultimately be your best. If you study all the top players, they have relied on these principles throughout their careers, including Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Dominic Thiem, Coco Gauff, etc. The list goes on.

Amongst many things, the main thing these principles do is to help you concentrate on what you can control, and let go of what you can't.


Intention has a tremendous amount to do with playing tennis and winning a match. At times, intention can come across as a “wishy-washy” concept, and it’s true that a goal with no clear plan has no teeth or power.

For instance, “to win” is too open-ended a goal. While intention isn’t black and white, it is specific, and it allows for you to adjust and improve your skills based on the present moment. For example, if your intention is to play more aggressively, then you have a clear goal. You may find yourself playing more aggressively 40 percent of the time. Pat yourself on the back and reset your intention of increasing those opportunities the next time you play.

Intention rewards you for you for what you did and encourages you to do more. It should have to do with something you can control, not the outcome. An intention is about focusing on what you can control and aligning your energy to be your best at that one aspect.

Next time you play, take a moment to set aside time and journal your intentions. Afterwards, evaluate how you did. Then reset the intention.


A former coach of Federer's once said that his strength lies in knowing what he needed because he “knows where he is”. That is awareness, and it allows you to move beyond frustration and accept where you are, so that you can think clearly about what you need to do next.

Think about the word “WIN” and imagine that it stands for “What’s Important Now?” In order to answer this question you need an awareness of where you are now, and that awareness is the first step to changing, for the better, what’s happening in the moment.

Being aware means that you are suspending judgment and comparison, and instead focusing on the present moment and strategies to help your game.

Imagine being down 1-4 in the third set and, rather than getting panicked or down on yourself, you ask yourself: “What’s important now?”, “What do I need right now?”

Maybe patience, maybe changing a strategy or maybe a technical switch; or possibly all three.

Without awareness it’s almost impossible to know where you are on the path to reaching your goal. Through awareness you always have a chance to make a change, and then adapt and adjust to the current situation. Awareness is the key to accomplishing any goal!

Recall times you were aware and subsequently made changes under pressure. How did you do that? Could you do that again next time you play?


A player who demonstrates respect for others and themselves has humility. They don’t waste time or energy trying to psych the other player out or get in their opponent’s head. They are focusing on being their best and the steps they need to take.

The humble player also doesn’t define themselves by the outcome, rather they know that the opponent is there to challenge them and ultimately make them better. Think of the great rivalries like Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, Federer and Rafael Nadal, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. The common thread in all these pairs is that they pushed each other to improve, not by being arrogant, but by respecting each other’s game and understanding what they needed to do to counteract it.

Humility is about focusing on the journey to be your personal best, not necessarily the best. If that results in being the best all the better! What were times where you displayed humility in competition? How did it impact your game?

Just as impermanence, equanimity and gratitude are helpful principals to bring to competition and life, intention, awareness and humility can keep you focused on the steps you need to take to make your game the best it can be.

Think of these six principles as tools in your mental tool box. Using them can be the difference between feeling stressed and playing relaxed, forcing versus allowing, and losing versus winning.


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.