The Mental Game

Emotional Balance: The Key to the Mental Game

Today’s Guest Post was written by Rob Polishook and is reprinted here with his permission.

It’s Monday morning, and my inbox is filled with e-mails from parents whose child has just played in a tournament over the weekend. Most e-mails lament about how the results could have gone better, including what could be done to change what appears to be this “monster inside” of their usually mild-mannered child.

“You don’t know me, but I wanted to share something that happened this last weekend. I’d love to get your insight … My daughter, Jane Doe just finished a USTA L1 tournament. She started off well in her match, but then was cheated, unable to deal with the situation, she spiraled out of control until she lost the set. Fortunately, she was able to regroup and then won the second set. However, in the tie-breaker she got down 1-4, then missed an easy volley, and the tears started flowing, her shoulders slumped, and body looked deflated. Why does she get so upset? It never helps her. How can I help?”

From the child’s perspective, a few days later, I might hear something like this:

“Before the match, I was so nervous, then when I stepped on the court, it only got worse, I know I should beat this girl. Everyone expected me to beat her! When the score got tight I got scared, then … I was cheated. I can’t believe she called that ball out! Then I missed an easy shot in the tie-breaker, OMG! I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I just wanted to get off the court. I totally sped up, forgot about any rituals, I just lost it.”

As a mental training coach, you can imagine, I encounter this type of scenario often, especially in the younger age groups. What’s imperative to know is that before a parent or a coach can figure out how to help their child, they must first try to understand what’s going on in their head, what they are experiencing, and feeling.

Think of your child’s emotional state like a see-saw. On one side, you have “Emotional Balance” and the other side, “Emotional Imbalance.” Emotional Balance implies the degree that a player is to be able to stay calm and deal with adversity, challenges and setbacks. The greater their Emotional Balance, the greater their resilience and ability to deal with events they cannot control.

Conversely, “Emotional Imbalance” means they get caught up in what they cannot control, they react quickly and negatively to adversity, challenges or momentum shifts. They act out, and go faster when an opponent mounts a challenge. This is usually followed by a fast downward spiral, followed by that “deer in a headlights” look. Overall, there is a lot of drama and ups and downs. It seems the only way this cycle stops is by crashing.

When we look at the performance through the lens of Emotional Balance or Imbalance, we stop passing judgment, take our emotions out of it, and also let go of the score. In reality, we recognize that no amount of mental or technical skill corrections are going to hold up when a player is emotionally imbalanced and overwhelmed. They are essentially in a frozen state!

Of course, the behavior—crying, tantrums, racket throwing—is brutal to watch. In fact, it may even trigger things about how you parent. However, if you can step back, you can see that the behavior is not the problem, rather, it’s a window into the fears and insecurities that your child is experiencing. This will allow you to think more about what they need and how you can give it to them. Our work as parents and coach is to help them deal with what’s really triggering them, what’s behind the behavior. If we can get to the root of the behavior, your child will unwind, let go of things, and get back to a place of emotional balance next time. From this place, your child will be calmer and certainly the parent/coach watching will be, too!

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, by visiting, or following on Instagram @insidethezone

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