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  • Joaquin Lopez

Open Heart Circles: Building Team Connection and Improving Performance

With tears in her eyes she said, "I am not sure if my back will hold up...I am so tired, but I will give it my all tomorrow," then she paused and looked down. When she looked up at the rest of us her eyes were twinkling, "AND," she said, "I am not worried about what my father will think. I know that he loves me no matter what. Even the score. Even if I lose." There was a long weighty silence. We could feel the breaking loose of the old fears within her, and the opening up, being free to accomplish what she was capable of, implement her hard work and to use her talent to the fullest.

After some time, one of the players asked, ``Can I give you feedback?” and went on, “ much love I feel for you. I am so proud of who you are, your dedication, your incredible intensity on the court and how you always find inspires me to play next to you.”

We all came to close the circle. There was such a state of heart and reverence for one another. We could have been in a monastery or a workshop designed to open your heart.

We were in Phoenix, Arizona and we were the Sonoma State University tennis team playing the PacWest Conference. I was exhausted from the long season, and also felt incredibly connected to my team. I said, "Tomorrow is going to be tough since we are playing a team seeded above us. On paper, they are better than us, but matches are not played on paper, and we have the strength of our deep connection. We know that, no matter what, we have each other's backs, and that is the most important thing. And it will carry us through."

And it did! The next day we were down for the entire match...until on the brink of defeat, and after four hours we pulled it out.

We finished the year in the top 25 NCAA and I was named Coach of the Year for the West Region.

We were asked many times what was responsible for our success. I believe that there are two important contributing factors. One was the work ethic that we instilled and the practices that we ran. I grew up in Spain and Spain is the number one tennis nation in the world. I used Spanish methods to develop the players--hard work, superior technique, footwork, all kinds of drills, some of them simulating pressure situations, and superlative fitness. The second factor of our success had to do with the connection we have with each other through our Open Heart Circles. As one of the players said, "It is because of the support and love I feel from all of you that I am able to pull out the tough matches. I cannot do that when I am playing just for myself."

Can you think of any times or places where you can be authentic? To speak your truth? To be heard? To listen to others? Many of us have never had such an experience. When I was a college player, and also on the professional tour, I struggled with working too hard, with feeling that whatever I did or accomplished, it was never enough. Casting around for some way to mitigate this situation, I turned to Psychology. Which eventually led me to inner stability, peace, and confidence. But it took time.

After my pro career and just barely making it to the minor tennis leagues of satellites and challengers I decided to come to the U.S. to earn a Master's Degree in Counseling Psychology at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto.

I started coaching tennis integrating all my knowledge about tennis, sports, and Psychology. And without looking for it, I started helping the Sonoma State tennis teams: first, as a Sports Psychology Consultant and later as the Women’s Tennis Head Coach which I worked for the past 10 years.

Early on I realized that the old usual method of running a college team, like a dictatorship, sometimes benevolent, sometimes not, was not going to work. There had to be a better way. It seemed to me that this was not a "Me" and "Them," but an "Us," a collective, and since we all had a stake in the outcome, better results would be achieved if the players were participating on all levels rather than just being told what to do by the coach.

Accordingly, I developed the concept and practice of Open Heart Circles which I evolved from my work as a psychotherapist. I made a commitment to create a safe space for the players where they could feel fully empowered as human beings regardless of their performance. According to many players, it has changed their lives by opening a window in how to understand themselves and others.

One of the players said, “Until I joined one of these circles I had never had a chance to speak the whole range of my truth, the beautiful and the ugly and not being judged by it, but accepted and cared for. I began to be able to love myself.” We had these circles once a week and covered a wide range of topics. At times the circles were centered around mental skills but many of them were about body image, dating, school pressure...etc.

As the players became more familiar with the Circles, we brought it all, “all who we are,” especially the aspects of ourselves that do not have a chance to be expressed. It has amazed me to witness the depth of what has been shared in these groups, and also to see every coach’s dream come true: the performance of our players improved dramatically and the ranking of the team improved as well.

In Part Two of our blog, we will discuss the details and principles of how these Open Heart Circles were formed and how some of these skills could be used by all of us to gain more insight into our lives.

Joaquin Lopez, MFT recently retired from SSU and is working at the Performance Psychology Center to provide therapy and mental skills training to athletes, coaches, and professionals. If you would like to find out more about Joaquin’s work or set up an appointment with him, you can contact him at or by phone at (707) 596- 8280.

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