Director of Sport Psychology
Nikola Milinkovic has extensive experience with Mental Toughness Coaching & Sports Psychology with High Performance Juniors, ATP and WTA players across several countries, including the United States, the Netherlands and his home country Serbia. Nikola spent last eight years leading the Mental Toughness programs in high performance academy settings in both the US (Florida, Massachusetts and Connecticut) and the Netherlands. Nikola played ITF and college tennis, is a certified PTR Professional and has coached college tennis. Learn the mental game of tennis from Nikola to take your game to the next level.
In addition, Nikola has worked extensively with sports organizations in Serbia. He is a visiting lecturer at Belgrade Sports Academy, UNICEF Serbia and is a Serbian Tennis and Water Polo Federation Consultant. He appeared on national television and gave various mental health journal interviews. Furthermore, Nikola extended his psychology work across the United Nations system in The Netherlands where he served as the Human Resources and event organization coordinator for three years. Nikola earned his BA degree in Psychology and Theater Arts from Clark University and his EdM degree in Counseling with focus on Sport Psychology from Boston University.
Passion: I am passionate about teaching sport psychology to junior, professional and adult players because the mental game of tennis changed my life. I went through many challenges as a competitive junior player involving tournament performance particularly. During one of the most important times in a player’s life, at age 16, I had quit tennis for two years due to performance difficulties. I had, however, had the courage to go back to it two years later and had experienced my peak performance and mental toughness in college which changed my life completely and brought the most memorable moments of my tennis career.
I decided to combine psychology with theater arts and sports and to use this combination in my further work. I believe in a holistic approach that every person is able to develop and grow to the best of his/her ability and maximize his/her potential as a human being. Sport psychology tools and mechanisms are directly applicable in any area of life in addition to sports. This is the reason why I enjoy teaching it, I am able to relate to athlete’s challenges both personally and professionally.
Favorite quote: ‘Perfection lies in the imperfection’. Daily introspection will allow us to achieve balance in life. We need to know and use who we are to become who we wish to become. The idea of becoming is extremely powerful. Adding things to our personal base instead of changing them per se is the way to allow the change to happen.
The power of TEAM (Together Everyone Achieves More) is a critical component of every person’s development. We are collectivistic beings, and as such, we depend on each other to grow, learn and develop. This can be seen across various fields, at home, in school, on a team, or at work. Relationships that we create can take us a long way and can last a lifetime. Whether they are romantic relationships (a team of two), or a working relationship (a team of however many members), we need each other in order for our skills and knowledge to surface.
In competition, it is critical that we develop a healthy respectful relationship with our opponent. We actually need the other person to play on a high level, so we can become aware of where we stand with our game and how we handle both good and poor performances. This insight is valuable in providing us with the information on what we need to work on to improve and grow. This notion is tightly linked to practice and training. The number one most important element of practice is improvement, and how we become better week to week, even by the smallest margin. Certain perceptual habits we create in practice are the exact habits we will fall back on in competition.
Let us, for a second, consider Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer and how they perceive their own performance. They both talk about pushing each other in matches. They very well know each other’s game, and are aware of their strengths and weaknesses. They are both very good at using their strengths against the other player’s weakness. In other words, if we wish to be successful competitors, we need to be put in similar situations in order to learn and grow. There are two main parts to developing the right perceptive mindset. The first is the big moment management. Being able to acknowledge the importance of a big moment in a performance, on the field, or at work, and being mindful of it, can have an enormous impact on our life. If we are not mindful of it, the largeness of the moment can overwhelm us, induce anxiety, and we can underperform. The second is playing within our personal means. The information we gather from our competition is useful so we can integrate it into our own performance and focus on how we want to perform.
We spend too much time considering the strengths of the competition, focusing on the other person, and not giving enough credit to our own performance and style of play. The emotional response behind this perception can be anxiety provoking along with a series of debilitating thoughts impacting our behavior, also called paralysis by analysis. This external stimulation draws attention away from us and can have a harming effect on our performance and mental and physical health. The critical component of perception is that we allow ourselves to remain in the present moment and to learn from that experience, to not just ‘go through it’ but to rather learn and ‘grow through it’.
The perceptive mindset is a powerful tool that has had a critical impact on my performance and life in general. I find daily pace to be very fast, making me only react, or go through it. Slowing it down and perceptually making sense of it has helped me grow through it instead by being an active participant in my own life.
Need help with the mental aspect of your game? Try Nikola’s Mental Skills Training Program Here and get your head in the game!
I felt lonely not competing when I quit tennis. I had a lot of time on my hands that I had to adjust to. I still wanted to keep playing sports. Besides tennis, I grew up playing basketball and soccer, so I decided to join a basketball team and start training. I felt like I needed to catch a break and rest from tennis induced anxiety and basketball was a good sport where I could be a part of a team and share both good and bad moments. I needed a team to be my support group and my home base, a place where it would be okay to potentially feel anxious again. I was tired managing anxiety on my own while competing.
After a few months of adjusting to the team I realized that we are all simply a bunch of individuals playing together. I was hoping that we would communicate more off the court and learn about and appreciate each other more. I felt that every player wanted to excel individually and the only thing we had in common was the uniform. I did not think we were a team at all. So, for the second time in my life, I quit the sport that I love. I felt disappointed for still not having found my support group.
By this time, I was 17 years old and moved to the United States from Serbia due to my mother’s job with the United Nations. We moved to New Jersey, where I attended a public high school to close out my sophomore year. I met a group of Chinese students who were part of a a competitive table tennis team. I went to a few practices just to check it out and feel the atmosphere, to see if it felt ‘warm and fuzzy’. After a month of practicing with them, they invited me to join the team as a starter. Most importantly, I realized that for the first time since my encounter with debilitating anxiety, I was having FUN. By the time I got really good, we had to move back to Europe, to the Netherlands this time due to my mother’s work.
I attended an American high school and immediately joined a table tennis training facility in the city. This place was ranked nationally and had a competition team as well. After a few months of practicing, I became a starter and we were developing into a great team. I was going to start travelling regularly and it seemed like I found my home base in table tennis. Everything was moving along great until one day at school, while passing by the gym, I saw the sign for the tennis team tryouts. I instantly got a feeling of excitement and love for the game of tennis all through my body. All the thoughts of joy, fun and personal growth flooded by mind. I remembered what it was like being on the tennis court, on clay, having dirty shoes and socks, and even feeling miserable competing. I realized I was missing A LOT! It came to me that this was a sign that I was supposed to go back to tennis, my first great love. I felt ‘warm and fuzzy’ on the inside just thinking about it. I KNEW this is the sport where I truly belong and where, ironically, I could find my ‘team’.
A few weeks before tryouts, I quit table tennis and started training for the tennis team tryouts. When the day came, I could not even believe I was back on the tennis court. It seemed surreal. The tryouts lasted a full week. I did really well, won a lot of matches, felt anxious but not as nearly as much as back in Serbia competing. I found out I had made a starting team which was the turning point in my tennis career moving forward.
The biggest advantage of this American system was that we were trained to be a part of a team, with every player having a clear role and a spot they played at. I never experienced that before in my life. Tennis, to me, was always about me and how well I deal with adversity ON MY OWN. This was still true but the format of representing a team instead of myself, was a miraculous experience for me. I felt confident finally being able to use the skills I had.
After a few a months of playing at various tournaments, I competed in Germany at a regional ‘singles’ tournament. I felt anxious again but something was different. I was feeling anxiety in a way that was driving my effort forward, it did not hinder me any longer. I was winning round after round and the unimaginable happened – I WON the whole thing. This was the most important moment in my life as a tennis player up to that point. I simply could not believe it! I did not even know how to react, smile or cry, or both. I was not even aware of what just happened. This experience made me realize how successful I could actually become.
My tennis career moved forward with lightning speed having earned ITF ranking points. To this day, I still cannot explain how my once debilitating anxiety changed into a positive driving force. I believe it was a combination of things but most importantly, I credit this to tennis as a team sport. I believe that through this team specific environment, I was able to succeed instead to fail.
Most people think of tennis as an individual sport but there is very much an important team component that we need to keep in mind. Junior team tennis, high school tennis, college, Davis and Fed Cup are some of the well-known examples of tennis as a team sport in terms of the ‘singles’ format. Another obvious aspect of tennis as a team sport is shown through the ‘doubles’ format. At the highest level, let us reflect back for a second on any professional player who gave a tournament winning speech. What is the very first thing they say? “I would like to congratulate so and so and his/her TEAM, on a terrific performance.” What is the second thing they say? “I would like to thank my TEAM for being there for me and my family for sticking by my side throughout the challenging times.” All the while, most people are thinking: “What team are they talking about? It’s an individual sport.” What about the last thing they say? “I would like to thank the sponsors, ball boys and girls and other volunteers who made this event possible…and to my fans: Thank you guys, you are the best crowd in the world, I couldn’t have done it without you.”…
‘TEAM’ (Together Everyone Achieves More), is my favorite breakdown of the word. Each player brings something specific to the practice table, whether it is their energy, effort, positive attitude, teammate support or simply a high level of tennis…and therefore has a role on the team. Being a part of a team can be extremely valuable and set a solid foundation for further development, both in sports and in life.
Tennis in Serbia was very much played as an individual sport in my junior days. All tournaments had a singles format only. My coaches were busy at the academy so they seldom attended my matches. I was left at the mercy of riding alone in the car, and to my own thoughts about feeling anxious.
At first, I started to experience anxiety only on the day of the match. I did not know how to handle it so I tried the most common self-talk : “oh come on don’t be ridiculous, don’t be such a coward, it’s only tennis’. Later on it became :’ Why am I feeling this way ? What the hell is going on ?”
I was trying so hard to convince myself that this is just a game and that everything will be alright. None of it worked. Feeling anxious became normal to me. I expected myself to feel this way on game day. I became very good at feeling anxious, I was actually the expert at it. As the Director of High Performance at Intensity, Ryan Ginley, says : ‘ Practice does not make perfect, practice makes permanent’. This is how I felt, like I was practicing how to be anxious.
Thoughts of feeling anxious for the upcoming weekend tournament started to enter my mind at the beginning of the week. I was not even aware how difficult dealing with this was going to be. It was like thunder before the storm. The weekend anxiety was just a warning for what was coming after. I started feeling it the moment I would sign up for a tournament. I felt I had a package deal, if I sign up for a tournament I get to take anxiety with me, like a bonus point. I felt completely overwhelmed. I could not stop thinking about it day after day, at school, and at home. I had trouble falling asleep as I kept thinking about my match and how I was going to fall apart. During the day, I had trouble eating as my stomach would close up and I would lose my appetite the second I thought about the weekend.
Escaping into my own mind was clearly not a solution so I started seeking advice from my parents and coaches. Both sides had the best intention to help me. My parents would tell me to just have fun and go out there and do my best. I understood but could not feel that way at all. I could not even smile in a tennis match let alone have a good time.
My coaches were telling me to pretend it’s just practice. This definitely did not make any sense to me because if it was practice I could easily play against the best player at the academy. But it wasn’t practice. I did not know how to handle anxiety in a match situation. I got frustrated. I spoke to my teammates who would go as far as the finals and some even won big tournaments. None of them seemed to experience what I was feeling. I felt so alone and alienated.
I reverted back to my own mind for counsel. I started to imagine my best performance every Friday night while listening to music. I would relax more and get a spur of confidence here and there. I was trying as hard as I could to make myself perceive the upcoming match as ‘just a game’. I got so excited and happy when I accomplished that, which is quite sad actually. I would fall asleep with a happy thought. However, once I woke up…BAM, back to reality, back to my old anxiety again. On the day of the match, I started to hope my opponent would not show up. This was the only way to pass into the next round. I felt miserable, pathetic and most of all, hopeless. I had all this talent and skills but could not use any of it. I stopped seeing the point behind playing tennis and training. So, I did what I tell my players today to never, ever ,do… I quit the sport. That moment was the beginning of a lifelong change I was about to experience…
Stay tuned for Nikola’s next blog, where he explains how this decision impacted his life!
Need help getting over that mental hump on the court? Find out more about Nikola’s Mindfulness Meditation Training and book an individual session with him today! Click here to learn more!
While growing up in Serbia during my elementary school years, I was lucky enough to join a club in my area that had a coaching staff of the highest quality. Practices started off once a week due to my own scheduling and availability of my coach. The club had an academy and a fitness side, as well as an adult program, much like we have now at Intensity.
I was taught to play the game in a technical and tactical way. Proper mechanics and play patterns were two main components of our junior training. I must admit that I have always been an exceptional listener, an even better follower of directions and, most of all, possessed an incredible work ethic. These three skills enabled me to stay task-focused and learn the game more efficiently. It was a fun, social and educational way of learning the game of tennis.
However, a few years passed and my technical and tactical skills came to a satisfactory high level. By this time I was twelve years old and the club started assigning me different coaches as I was moved from one level to another. At one point, my coach encouraged me to start playing in tournaments as he thought I was very talented and skillful. I never thought about this but decided to give it a shot at a national 14U tournament.
I signed up for a few consecutive tournaments to see how well I would perform. I felt motivated to compete because I was having a great time playing tennis. These national events were what really counted toward building my ranking and the way to do it was to win, win and …well, WIN. So it started – I played a few tournaments and lost in the first rounds. I would go back to the club and work on things that my coach thought I needed to work on technically and strategically. I signed up for the next few tournaments and again, lost in the first rounds.
Once in a while, we would have intra-academy tournaments that players of all ages entered. I played well, won a few and usually advanced to at least the semi-finals. Practicing with my fellow teammates made it easier for me to compete against them. I knew their game styles really well plus I was probably the most patient player at the academy. I was willing to build the point like a house, brick by brick and not deviate from the blueprint one single bit – a trait I learned, twenty years later, that Rafael Nadal was famous for. Would have been cool to compete against Rafa on tour, but oh well…
As I competed at various tournaments, I felt extremely uncomfortable stepping onto the court to play a match that counted for something, like a big test I had to pass. At first, it started with heart pounding, sweaty palms, locked legs and nausea. No matter what I tried to do, these sensations never fully went away. I didn’t know what was happening to me. Weekend after weekend during competition, they would come back to haunt me.
I accepted I was feeling this way. I adjusted to the new state by consciously carrying these sensations with me. They came into my life uninvited and disturbed my inner peace and confidence. I soon discovered whom I have actually met. Its name was ANXIETY. Finally the question of WHAT was happening to me was answered, but the challenge of HOW to handle it was the journey I was about to embark on.
Check back with Nikola to read more about how he dealt with the mental aspect of tennis in his career! If you would like to learn about his program at INTENSITY and work the mental aspect of your game , visit his Mindful Meditation page here to book a session with him today!
Welcome to my very own mental toughness blog. I will be guiding you through my personal journey of being a junior player to becoming a mental toughness coach and overcoming some of the most difficult moments both in my junior tennis performance and later on in the working world as an adult. I am hoping to help you understand what mental skills are and how to use them so you don’t go through the same horrific moments I used to.
As a junior performer, I can freely say that I have lacked most mental skills. Or should I say, I had them inside me, I just had no clue how to use them. Since my beginning days of tennis, I was always the player who had great talent, physical predispositions and technique to make it to the highest level, and was told so by every coach in my junior days.
I had a great time training. I learned a lot and improved very quickly. Every day was about me and my own development as a player. I made good friends at the club and was enjoying our time together…until tournaments came along. OH MY LORD – yikes !!!This is where my performance started to take a giant slide downhill. Parents were watching, teammates were there, ranking was at stake and all of a sudden I felt like it was all one big test I had to pass…but, who was grading me and what was really the point behind competition? The stress level was out the roof, shaking, the increased heart beat and the racing thoughts were, I wish I could say, the only sensations I was feeling.
I will just back track a little bit and give you a brief insight into how I chose to start tennis. Both of my parents have always been very athletic and sporty. My mother was a professional folk dancer and had an amazing stage presence and a great creative artsy mind. My father grew up playing soccer, basketball and cycling, and later he picked up race car driving too. This genetic combination most likely had something to do with my choosing tennis, as it is a game of serious both physical and mental skills and creativity on the court. Now, my parents being supportive parents that they are, never wanted to impose any choices on me. However, they only told me one thing: “You can choose which sport you want to play, but you HAVE TO have some sort of physical activity. It’s healthy for both the mind and the body”. And so my quest for sport seeking started. Since I actually grew up playing soccer and basketball, I was thinking about those two, but I didn’t really see myself competing in either, I loved playing them for fun. One day, I saw tennis on TV and got this feeling all through my body that made me feel like this is where I belong…I KNEW I would be good at it and decided to join a local club.
The first day of practice came and oh boy, no red ball, no orange, no green ??? but yellow right away !!! Welcome to high performance, as an eight year old …
I hope you enjoyed my first blog post and hope you will come back next week to hear the rest.