In the zone
We asked a host of pros how a mere mortal can achieve unwavering greatness.
Wed Aug 22 2007
“I always carry a little toy bird in my bag to every match,” says tennis pro Elena Dementieva, the 2004 U.S. Open runner-up. “My parents gave it to me when I was born.” In another bid to keep her family courtside, “no matter what the time difference, I always call my mom before I play.” Number one men’s doubles team Mike and Bob Bryan also observe similar rituals: Bob wears his “lucky bead necklace” before a match and “if we’re winning we eat at the same restaurant all week,” says Mike. To keep their streak going during the 2006 French Open, the twins dined at a Chinese joint 21 nights in a row. According to Robert H. Reiner, executive director of Behavioral Associates, an NYC cognitive behavioral therapy group that frequently treats a bevy of pros and Olympic athletes, these traditions are a way to battle game-crushing worries. “Rituals give people a sense of predictability and familiarity,” says Reiner. “If you do something over and over again during practice, it will help you relax and stay in the moment when on the playing field. That’s why home teams have an advantage, since they get to wake up in their own beds.” Per Reiner, baseball players keep in peak mental condition via unusual habits such as never stepping on the third-base line. “Do I think these superstitions are really true? No. But if a person believes in them, it counts.”
Though 26th-ranked ace Dmitry Tursunov isn’t “as superstitious as some players who can’t play in a particular color: You know who you are…,” the grass-court titan engages in a pregame tradition of his own: “I get some time alone and think about what I want to do once I’m out on the court,” he explains. U.S. Open defending champ Maria Sharapova also pictures victory: “I look forward to holding the trophy at the end of the tournament, and it motivates me to win.” These types of visualizations are called cognitive rehearsal, a strategy that Reiner recommends to inoculate folks against fear of failure and stress. “It’s like when you’re given a flu shot. Your body’s had prior experience, and it knows what to do.” But don’t daydream about a whiplash-inducing backhand: According to Reiner, perfection will be rejected by your body since it’s not realistic. Strive for what’s attainable, such as reducing your double faults, rather than slamming down a 100mph serve.
Weapons of mass distraction
When it comes to crowds, a lot of pros hardly notice jeers or adulation. “I hear people cheering or saying my name, but I try to block it out,” says Sharapova. But sometimes spectators’ outbursts can’t be ignored: “I was walking off the court in Moscow after I lost a first-round match to Sergiy Stakhovsky in a third-set tie-break, and a woman was yelling from the bleachers, ‘Tursunov, you should be embarrassed!’ ” recalls Tursunov. Reiner suggests dealing with trash-talking by going through drills with a soundtrack: “For football teams, the coach will arrange to have blaring speakers to mimic the sounds of the crowd during weekly practices. The players get used to tuning it out.”
Photo courtesy of Pyramid Public Relations
Breakfast (and dinner) of champions
Sharapova and Tursunov both chow down on plain pasta the night before a game, which provides sustained energy, according to Sharon Zarabi, a registered dietician at Lenox Hill Hospital and a personal trainer at midtown gym Boom Fitness. “I would also include some lean protein,” she adds. “You’re going to be tearing a lot of muscle tissue—it’s important that you replenish that with good sources of amino acids.” Carbs paired with protein also works synergistically, since the latter helps slow down the former’s absorption, giving you a long-lasting boost. Zarabi suggests chicken and couscous, brown rice and salmon, and even sushi the evening before a match. As for that tempting brownie, “fat takes longer to digest, leaving you feeling sluggish and heavy.” To fuel your system game day, she recommends complex carbs such as a whole-wheat wrap with peanut butter and sliced bananas or even a bowl of high-fiber cereal like Kashi at least an hour or two before getting active. You should never perform on an empty stomach or you’ll “bonk” and lack energy. “I can’t stress drinking water enough,” she adds. Keep hydrated with two cups of water two hours beforehand, and four to eight ounces every 15 to 20 minutes during play to replace the electrolyte losses. Follow the match with three more cups.