Rob Polishook, MA., CPC is the founder of Inside the Zone Sports Performance Group. His work has been featured in Sports Illustrated, the New York Times, TennisChannel.com and ESPN. He has a Master’s degree from Seton Hall University in Psychological Studies with a concentration in Sport and Exercise Psychology. He is also a certified professional life coach, an author, an adjunct professor at Seton Hall and a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner. As a mental training coach, he works with hundreds of athletes and teams worldwide from junior players to professionals. (Polishook, 2015)
Rob, discusses his approach to Sport Psychology and describes the paradox of accepting the notion “More than an athlete, person first every time!” in order to achieve peak performance.
Q. How would you explain what Sport Psychology is to the general public?
A. Sport Psychology is the mental side of sports. It can be thought of sort of like hardware and software. The hardware is the talent, skills, and technique. The software is the mental game.
No matter what level athlete you are, we’re all trying to get to another level. We all have something that kind of gets in our way, whether it’s nerves, fears or any number of on or off field issues that can get in the way. So sport psychology, to me, addresses those things; Essentially helping the athlete free themselves from whatever may be holding them back. What’s key to sport psychology is recognizing that there’s a person behind the athlete.
Even if it’s a team, the team is comprised of individuals. And the key is taking the best attributes and melding those together. It’s an alchemy. A lot of times a coach will say, “This is what we’re doing and this is how we’re doing it.” But even Phil Jackson understood that Rodman was different from Jordan, who was different from Pippen, who was different from Kerr. He built his team from the individual skills and attributes of the players.
Q. Describe exactly what you do.
A. I work with athletes in all sports and levels one on one. One of the first things I do is get to know them as a person. I want to know what drives them, what influences them, what inspires them. This is their “more.” This is their X-factor. And then we look to amplify these attributes; How can they bring them to the field/court?
Another big thing is their “Big Why” (why they’re actually playing) and how they can use their Big Why as inspiration. If a player’s Big Why is only to win, then their motivation is going to go up and down because you win and you lose. What we look to identify are the reasons they play that don’t involve the outcome.
Things such as: love of competition, being the best they can be, inspiring others, being part of something greater than themselves and things like that. If they’re connected to non-outcome related Big Why’s, no matter what the outcome is they will want to continue to compete and progress.
“You’re not broken.
And I’m not going to fix you.”
A lot of times I tell my clients, “You’re not broken. And I’m not going to fix you.” And sometimes they look at me like, “OK, why am I seeing you?” I say, “What I’m going to do is help you bring the best parts of yourself to the field/court, help you focus on what you can control, and help you dial things back so you can play within yourself.”
If you focus on what you can control, good things are going to happen. Often times an athlete’s focus is only on winning, we all want to win, but winning is a consequence of actions which happen first. The key is what you need to do to win and to focus on these process-oriented actions. I often say, “Focus on the path not the peak.”
Q. Explain your phrase, “More than an athlete. Person first, every time!”
A. “More than an athlete” is a holistic approach to the athlete. It’s an understanding that when you were born you weren’t born an athlete. You were born a person. Only when you reached a certain level in your sport did people start looking at you as this “athlete.” But what gets lost is that the drive has always come from the personal attributes. The drive comes from your personal story, your spirit, your personal style and individual self.
In today’s society we’re so quick to label people, “He’s a basketball player. Or she’s a tennis player.” No, he/she is SO much more than that. There are many players that have the talent, technique and skill, but how do you get to that next level?
It’s a paradox. The way to get the best results from a player is from the inside out. It’s by connecting to their Big Why and helping them bring their authentic self to the performance. However, as a mental training coach it’s important to understand that you can’t motivate them until you know who they are. The athlete has to feel like you “get them.” If you don’t understand the person behind the athlete, you can only get them so far. Like Rafael Nadal says, “Tennis is not who I am. It’s what I do.”
I always say, “What is it about you that doesn’t make you better or worse than someone, but makes you who you are?” When you’re most like yourself on the court, what’s happening? When you’re most like yourself off the court, what are the things you’re doing? It’s about bringing that person to the court and not being afraid to be that.
Usually an athlete performs well when things are going well in their life. When things aren’t going well, they’re coming to the court/field tight and tense. We like to think we can compartmentalize things, but when you step over the line it’s not like you’re a new person. You’re still bringing those things. You can look at many athletes where off-field issues derailed their performance.
I like to say: Everyone is a unique person with a unique process and therefore, a unique performance. When you understand that, performance is limitless.
Q. How did you become interested in sport psychology?
A. I’ve always loved athletics. I’ve always loved figuring out what makes people better. And I’ve always loved working with kids. So to me it was like the royal trilogy. This just seemed like a natural fit and I love it.
It’s imperative that they know I’m unconditionally supporting them [clients]. I never view whether or not I’m a success based on their performance. I view my success on whether they’ve tried and had the courage to do something. If you tie yourself to the result as a mental training coach or sport psychologist, you’re coming in with an agenda. Whenever I’m successful the common thread is that I’ve connected with them as a person and helped them to authentically bring their best to the competition. It has nothing to do with the sport.
Q. What does it mean to be “inside the zone?”
A. I think we’re born inside the zone. We’re focused on what we’re doing. We’re not focused on what we can’t control. We’re in the present. Certainly, everyone has different experiences of playing inside the zone. I sometimes call it “coming home,” “being grounded,” or a “calm awareness.”
When you’re inside the zone you’re playing from your instinct, you’re not analytical. There’s a time for analytics, but when you’re playing you should be feeling. Going with the flow.
It’s an intuitive state that we all have and it’s not something we get to by trying. It’s something we get to by, again, bringing who you are to what you do. When you think about it, the great athletes can all can shoot, score, serve and tackle, but it’s their individual style of resilience, perseverance, and character which sets them apart.
Q. How did it feel to be featured on media outlets such as ESPN?
A. ESPN was really cool. It was like the equivalent of playing basketball in Madison Square Garden. To have a 30 for 30 documentary on the work you’ve done…it was exciting because I knew it would impact other athletes.
We worked with a professional baseball player, Mackey Sasser. Mackey had met with about 50 sport psychologists that tried to “fix” him because he had the throwing “yips.” But of those people, no one asked him about himself or his background or his injury history or his family or the pressures he faced and what they felt like.
The way we were able to help Mackey was through the lens of “more than an athlete,” by understanding that the throwing problem wasn’t the problem. It was a symptom of other things below the surface.
Mackey had a whole bunch of different overwhelms and traumas from off the field to on the field. They added up and all of a sudden, he had trouble throwing a ball back to the pitcher. You can think of performance blocks this way- It’s almost like practice balls in a bucket. The bucket gets full and a ball falls out, the problem wasn’t the ball that fell but rather an accumulation of previous things which led to the ball falling out.
So our work was aimed at helping Mackey release different stresses that he was holding in his body, not at a conscious level, but at the subconscious level.
Q. What’s your favorite part of what you do?
A. My connection with clients and knowing that I helped them as a person. And getting to know people, sharing with them, and having them share with me. Just being real and uncovering issues which inhibited their personal best.
Q. What is the main thing you want all of your athletes to learn or accomplish through working with you?
A. That they’re more than an athlete and paradoxically when they bring who they are to what they do their performance will always be better. And they should trust that. That’s the only way for sustained peak performance.
And who they are is OK! The sum of their experiences is what makes them unique and the building blocks to their continued greatness. It doesn’t mean they’re not going to be constantly working on things and trying to improve. This is always part of the process. I like to say, “Every journey starts with a single breath.”
- Rob Polishook can be contacted using the information below. You can also visit his website at insidethezone.com and purchase his internationally released book, Tennis Inside the Zone: 32 Mental Training Workouts For Champions via Amazon.