| By Rob Polishook
Photo courtesy of iStock


We have all experienced it…that time when our game was just not clicking and you felt a little off. Maybe it was your serve? Maybe it was the forehand or volley?

So what did you do?

If you’re like most players, you went out to the courts with a hopper of balls and drilled serves until your arm felt like falling off. Unbeknownst to you, each serve you hit, your muscles were getting tighter and tighter, mentally you were getting more frustrated, and your serve was getting worse! Consequently, you leave the court in unhappy wondering if your serve will ever get better? Then the next day, with a sore arm, you run back the same scenario, except this time with more frustration and a higher risk of injury.

How can this be happening? We wonder and more so what can I do to improve this blasphemous serve? If you asked me, my first recommendation would be to start by letting go of the age old myth which in actuality is propelling things and making them worse in the first place.

The myth is: “If we try more or play harder, we will get more out of the activity, and achieve better results.”

Societal norms help create this myth. It sounds like the truth but it’s simply not. For most of us, our common default mode is over trying, beating ourselves up and grinding. We wonder, but isn’t this the way to winning, fame and fortune? We hear it all the time, in phrases like, “no pain no gain” or even “suffer”. You, your coach or your parents might not want to hear this. For sure everyone has bought into the “more is better” myth, or when in doubt work harder, grind more, struggle till it hurts.”

What if that’s not exactly true? In fact, maybe over-trying can be counterproductive, hurt your game and lead to burnout.

Now, I am not suggesting to not try, not work, or not to care. However, more times than not, when an athlete over-tries in competition or practice, they physically rush, get tense, and lose their focus. Essentially, they lose sight of the little things that are necessary to put them in the best situation to compete. Mentally, they mind travel back to the past or forward to the future and focus on what they cannot control, things like the outcome, expectations and what’s important now (W.I.N.). Physiologically, they lose their feel, rhythm, and timing; essentially, not trusting themselves, their process, and their plan. Given these characteristics, it’s not a surprise less actually happens and frustration, anger and anxiety escalate.

The path isn’t about over-trying. Rather the path is about slowing down, breathing, and pausing to evaluate what’s happening in the moment. It is not about grinding, trying to do more, but rather maybe doing what you have been doing, but better or with more intention. For example, taking a step back and simplifying things to one common denominator such as sticking to the fundamentals of a shot (good split step), playing your patterns better (higher net clearance), or simply not overcooking and trying to be perfect by letting go of imperfection. Maybe playing smarter and eliminating low percentage choice, essentially staying within your game, not frantically trying to change something which you can’t do.

We all have the skills for this; however, it requires awareness, observation, and being open. It would require the player to trust their instincts, intuition and process.  No longer forcing, rather approaching competition not as a threat but as a challenge from a calmer, clearer and more grounded place. Essentially doing less, but being more; basically, doing the basics better.

This track recognizes that we are good enough and our charge actually lies in getting out of our way, letting our light shine, and maximizing not just the physical tools but, also the mental. If we are honest with ourselves, we all can benefit one way or another by slowing down and taking the time to accept, breathe, and be curious. This momentary pause will create clarity in the face challenges. It will help to be more resilient and allow you to respond to situations with choice.

You are first and foremost a whole human; sport is what you do, not who you are. What I call a Whole Human Athletes. The charge is to bring your heart, energy, and spirit to what you do. The journey is not about perfection, it’s not personal, there’s nothing to prove. Just play.

Next time you notice yourself over-trying; take a step back, pause, to take a breath. Feel your feet connecting to the ground. You can even ask yourself… What would it feel like if my jaw was loose? Notice how you loosen up. Then bring your attention to a calming image or sight in your visual field (i.e. a tree beyond the court). 

Recognize, there is no need to over try and do more, rather just do what you’re doing a bit better. Trust yourself, your game, and give your best. Just play.


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.