There is a lot of pressure on athletes to perform and succeed. Often, you move up the ranks slowly, gradually building up resilience and experience. But tennis star Sloane Stephens bucked that trend. Never in the history of tennis has an athlete climbed the rankings at a more rapid pace — she went from No. 957 entering Wimbledon to No. 12 in the world following her victory at the U.S. Open in 2017. Now, Stephens is a top tier player, and showing no signs of slowing down. 

While Stephens trains hard, her life is not lived entirely on the court. She created the Sloane Stephens Foundation, which aims to improve opportunities for urban children through education, fitness, and sport. “I think it’s really important for me to have something bigger than myself that I’m working for. As I got older, I realized how lucky I was with my opportunities and what tennis has done for me,” she tells Thrive. “So many kids don’t have that same experience. So I’m constantly trying to use my platform and my foundation to help those kids.” Her foundation has introduced tennis to thousands of students, while providing 20,000+ hours of assistance to children.

She shares with Thrive how she stays motivated, the importance of mental conditioning, and how she stays well-hydrated during the day.

Thrive Global: What is your morning routine?

Sloane Stephens: I usually wake up around the same time. I check my emails. I always have breakfast. I go to practice, the gym, and then if I’m home, I hang out with my family or friends, or just chill at home. If I have errands, business calls, or any appointments, they’re usually in the afternoon. I’m a big foodie, so I have a few staple restaurants I like to go to. If I’m traveling for a tournament it’s obviously a little different. If I have a match that day, my practice is a little shorter and my warmups are a little different. I’ve been traveling to the same tournaments for a decent number of years, so I usually have a few go-to restaurants for team dinners. 

TG: Being a part of a competitive sport, how do you mentally prepare and avoid getting overwhelmed?

SS: I think for me I just have to take it one day at a time. If you think too far ahead it can get overwhelming. Plus, I have a really strong support system, which is so important.  

TG: As a professional athlete, it requires a lot of drive to train and compete. What are some of the ways you motivate yourself to keep at your goal?

SS: There are some days you wake up and you don’t want to go to work or play tennis or whatever it is; that’s part of life. On those days, it helps to think in little steps, like, “OK, I just have to get my workout clothes on,” then once I get to the gym, I’m like, “OK, it’s only X amount of time here.” It’s less daunting that way. That was really important for me when I had a serious foot surgery a few years ago. There were days I wasn’t sure if I’d make it back on the court, so I just took it step by step and made sure to celebrate the little wins. But on a larger scale, I think it’s really important for me to have something bigger than myself that I’m working for. As I got older, I realized how lucky I was with my opportunities and what tennis has done for me. So many kids don’t have that same experience. So I’m constantly trying to use my platform and my foundation to help those kids, to show them the opportunities that are out there. That is a huge motivator for me.

TG: How do you focus? Are there some small tips or tricks you use to maintain your focus?

SS: I think it helps to set small goals. For me, sometimes it’s easier to focus on specific tasks that lead you somewhere rather than big picture. My other secret is using essential oils. I really feel like some of the scents, like peppermint or spearmint, give me that extra edge to focus. I had a whole lesson on the best way to use them, which was cool. 

TG: What does your body need to perform at its best?

SS: Sleep is really important for me, which can be hard with all of the travel and jet lag. A balanced diet is key — I don’t like to restrict myself, but I eat pretty well overall. Obviously a good fitness routine is important. Also, it’s really important to incorporate a good recovery routine; I use Biofreeze when my body needs a little help.   

TG: Many Olympians and professional athletes have spoken about sleep and performance. How does sleep impact your game? Do you require a certain amount?

SS: Sleep is so important. With tennis being an international sport, I’m constantly in different time zones all over the world, so the jet lag makes sleep a little tough. I try to get eight hours, but that definitely isn’t always the case. When I don’t get enough sleep, you can see my energy is low on the court, which makes playing in the heat or a long match really difficult. I’ve had to practice after a long flight and limited sleep; let’s just say those aren’t my best practices. 

TG: You’re probably more hydrated than most people — do you ever get sick of water? If so, how do you fit in hydration throughout your day?

SS: I never really think about that, actually, but I do have a lot of different drinks. When I’m on the court, I usually have water and some sort of sports electrolyte drink to keep me hydrated. I have chocolate milk after a match or practice to help me recover. And I’m a big smoothie person too.

TG: We hear a lot about athletes’ physical conditioning, but what about mental conditioning? 

SS: Mental health is something that I am super passionate about. I think that a lot of people forget that athletes are human too, and being mentally healthy is just as important as being physically healthy. I said this before, but I have a really strong support system. I talk to my mom, my fiance, and a handful of friends every day no matter where in the world I am. That’s huge. I also have a few really close friends on the tour, like Madison Keys, so we find time to relax and talk with each other. I think having people around you who understand your life and are just willing to listen is really important. 

TG: What were some of the best tips for healthy nutrition your trainers have given you?

SS: Drink a lot of water and cut back on sugar. 

TG: How do you prioritize when you have an overwhelming amount to do?

SS: I’m a big list person. I write it all out, see what I can delegate to other people on my team, and then try to organize the rest by what’s most urgent. It’s also important to be able to say, “This can wait.”

TG: What causes you stress and how do you alleviate it?

SS: With my personality, I like to be really involved in everything I do, so I try to be aware of this and remind myself to allow the rest of my team to do what they need to do without having me involved in every moment.

TG: When you are not training or traveling for work — what do you do to unwind?

SS: Do a face mask, go to the movies, online shop. Probably what most people do. 

SS: What is the best advice you’ve ever received and who was it from? 

TG: It’s actually a saying I go by all the time: “You win or you learn, but you never lose.” I really believe that. Everything that you go through in life teaches you something; it all happens for a reason. My coach growing up told me that, and it’s something I remind myself of when I have a tough day.

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