Coaching The Millennial Player

by Rob Polishook, MA, CPC

The Athlete is a Person First and Player Second

There are three core mental-based principles of Inside the Zone Sport Performance Group which coaches can employ to help their players achieve peak performance.

The principles are:
! 1. The athlete is a person first and player second.
! 2. The big “why” is a key factor to success.
! 3. Focus on the process, not the outcome.

This article will focus on the athlete as a person first and a player second. This concept may seem obvious, since we are all born without a racket, hockey stick or bat in our hands!  (Since I’m largely a tennis guy, we’ll use the racket analogy for my purposes.)  The point is, years later, once the young athlete has held that racket in their hands and demonstrated ability in the sport…..the way others view the person often begins to change their identity from person to player.  Many times the child’s maturity level, self-esteem, and fears are overlooked because their talent transcends their age.

Wayne Bryan, father of Mike and Bob Bryan, talks about the importance of ensuring that tennis remains fun during the entire developmental process, and reminds us not to lose sight of the fact that tennis is part of the person’s life, not their entire life.

It can be helpful to think of your player’s development as a tree.  A tree starts from the roots. The roots can be thought of as the person’s values, belief system, cultural orientation, work ethic, and soul.  As an influential person in the young player’s life, the coach plays a role in how this person’s roots grow, by encouraging such traits as moral values, personal confidence, self-belief, personal resiliency and self empowerment that will carry the person through life’s challenges.  Jose Higueras stated in the USTA High Performance Newsletter (vol 10, No 1) “I’m a big fan of trying to make the player as independent as possible.”  The stronger the root system, the stronger the physical trunk and branches become. These symbolize how the player grows and develops on the court. Then the fruits come, representing results, trophies, and various rewards.
These fruits of the process garner attention from others and shift the focus from development to results. Yet make no mistake, the development all started from the root system.  Dr. David Grand, a psychologist noted for his work in the field of sports and performance, says “The foundation is the person – how you play is often a manifestation of yourself, including your weakest and strongest points.”

Now think back to a time when your student was having a bad practice, showed poor body language, or was just not him or herself;  how much of this could have been a result of a rough day in school, an argument with a friend, parental expectations, or even anxiety about an upcoming tournament?  Often times, it is off court issues or unrelated stresses that affect performance on the court.  Awareness to the complexity of the person player relationship can help you work with your student.  Make sure to ask questions and listen to the person you are coaching.  Ask yourself: “What does this young person need from me right now?   How can I best help?”  Simply asking a few questions about the person, and listening to the answers, may clear their path and help open the door to improved performance.

Another scenario is a player walking off the court after a heartbreaking loss, dejected and rattled.  Rarely is the player recognized for managing their emotions, challenging themselves, taking risks, competing under pressure, and lastly putting themselves on the line.  These are precisely the skills necessary to succeed in life, and isn’t that the main reason we encourage kids to take up a sport in the first place?   Paradoxically, when their coach has validated these attributes, players will recognize that you “get it.”  You understand where they are mentally and emotionally, and identify with their on-court struggle.  Having a shared foundation of understanding, your students are likely to become more open to any feedback you can give them regarding the strategic and tactical parts of the match.
From a coaching perspective, working with athletes ‘as persons first and players second’ will create a greater connection to your players on many levels. They will know that you’re interested in their well being and overall development.  It goes deeper than just helping them improve on the court. When players know you care about them, they will feel less threatened, more open to change, and more relaxed in pressure situations, thus freeing the path for reaching their potential – optimal potential both as a person and an athlete.

Furthermore, with awareness of how on and off the court stresses can directly impact a struggling or high achieving athlete, you will be better equipped to coach and maximize the performance and results of the holistic athlete.

Rob Polishook, MA, CPC

Mental Training Coach

Inside the Zone Sports Performance Group, LLC


[email protected]

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