| By Rob Polishook
Photo courtesy of USTA


Many in the tennis community know that Roger Federer has won 20 Grand slams, Rafael Nadal also has won 20, and Novak Djokovic is close on the trail with 19 slams. Similarly, on the woman’s side, Serena Williams has won 23 Grand slams and is on the heels of Margaret Court who has won 24 Grand slams. Behind Serena and Court are Steffi Graf, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, who have won 18 slams.

Now, maybe you’re thinking this article is going to be a greatest of all time (G.O.A.T) debate. Actually, no, I’ll leave that for others. You may also be thinking that these slam titles are what make the players great and puts them in consideration to be the G.O.A.T? Well, yes and... no. It’s just not that simple, there is another dimension that I believe must be considered. This dimension is equally, if not more, important than winning Grand Slam titles. It is often forgotten or overlooked because we tend to only look at the finals. Our focus inevitably shifts to the end result, the trophies, the awards and the records, but not the journey and how the player progressed to the finals.

The dimension I’m talking about is being able to win the early round matches when players are heavily favored. While some may think this is easy, most players know the extra weight of expectations they must shoulder when favored.

From my experience as a mental training coach, I see how the junior players and weekend warriors struggle with playing in the moment. They usually get caught up in the end result; the win; the expectations. They get caught up in what their friends are saying. Things such as “you got this; you’ll beat this player easily.” Or, “you beat them last time; it should be a lay-up to win this time.” Or simply, “you’re better; you’re going to crush them.” However, the G.O.AT’s know better, and we can learn from them. They know it’s sometimes harder to play an opponent when you are supposed to win! Inevitably, in this situation, the favored player often feels more vulnerable, threatened and distracted because of these expectations.

The G.O.A.T’s do what I call “Settling into the Match”. This can be broken down into getting into a set, a game, a point or even a changeover. It means to stay present in the moment and don’t get ahead of yourself. Don’t try to rush and speed things up. In truth, the only way to win a match is one shot, one point, one game, and one set at a time. The G.OA.T’s brace themselves for a competitive situation no matter the opponent and understand the match will take time and their task is to play their game, breathe, and adapt to the current situation. Their mindset is on the challenge, competing and what they can control. This shifts the focus off the vulnerability, expectations and outcome.

Now you may not be a G.O.A.T at this moment. However, the next time you are favored in a match. I suggest thinking about how you can settle into the match. Here are five ideas which may help you.

1. Feel: notice your feet on the ground and the sensation of stability, balance, and rhythm as you walk to the court and even between points.

2. Breathe: take a few breaths and embrace the challenge rather than looking at it as a threat

3. See: Allow your eyes to take in the surrounding. Take a moment to just be aware. Feel, breathe, and see is a great way to help the nervous system slow down and settle into the moment.

4. Treat opponent with respect: they are someone trying to improve themselves just like yourself.

5. W.I.N.: you might still be focusing on the “WIN” rushing, trying to get off the court in a single shot or a game. Try reframing WIN to W.I.N (What’s. Important. Now.) This will help shift your mindset into the present moment and allow you to separate from the outcome.

Next time you are heavily favored, make it your intention to settle into the match.


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.