How to Improve Your Sports Performance & Get to the Top – Novak Djokovic’s doctor shares his insights

by | Nov 17, 2021 | Emotional Wellness, Physical Wellness | 0 comments

He was already good, but not yet good enough to be the best in the world – he was a rough diamond who needed some polishing to shine.” These are the words of Dr Igor Cetojevic, better known as the doctor who ‘fixed’ Novak Djokovic. He gained celebrity status in the world of tennis after Novak’s game improved dramatically as soon as they started working together.  

Their paths first crossed after Dr Igor watched him play against Jo-Wilfred Tsonga at the Australian Open in 2010. Novak was lacking stamina and continually requested medical time-outs. The commentators mentioned that he was suffering from asthma, but Dr Igor was confident that something else was going on. Because he combines both Western and Eastern medicine in his practice (having studied for a general practitioner as well as Chinese Medicine, Acupuncture and more) he learned to look at health issues from a completely different perspective. He didn’t just remove gluten and dairy from Djokovic’s diet, as many believe, but he rather took a much more integrative and complex approach. What did he do to help Djokovic and what does his ‘whole system philosophy’ entail?

In this article we’ll be touching on some of the core components Dr Igor addressed when helping Djokovic improve his game and life, which includes nutrition, food sensitivities, mindful eating, managing emotions & relationships and doing what you love.

Food is Medicine, Food is Fuel

When Dr Igor first went on tour with Djokovic, he was shocked to see how many professional athletes were not taking care of nutrition. He says that “it is like putting diesel in a Ferrari and expecting it to go out and race.” We cannot perform optimally if we are not fuelling our bodies properly. A long-time friend of Dr Igor, Boris Bosnjakovic (currently the Head Tennis Coach of the Novak Tennis Center) agrees that most professional athletes don’t worry about diet. “It’s not that they don’t want to, many of them just don’t know who to ask or where to go.”

Dr Igor advises his clients to start by reading the list of ingredients on the packaged foods they’re consuming. It should read like a cookbook instead of a chemistry book, he suggests. He says that one should always be on the lookout for the least processed and freshest foods you can find and afford. Even though they may seem more expensive, they will be cost-effective in the long run and possibly more affordable than medical bills in future. He adds that we need to make sure to take in enough vitamins and minerals and to include a wide variety of colours on our plates to ensure we’re getting enough life force to sustain us throughout the day. Unfortunately, no one diet works for everyone, so we always need to take individuality and unique biochemistry into account and learn to be mindful of how certain foods are affecting us. Novak Djokovic was guided by Dr Igor to cut out sugar, dairy and gluten from his diet and was encouraged to include more white meat, plant-based proteins, vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds and healthy fats.

Food Sensitivities

Figuring out what foods you are sensitive to is key to increasing performance and overall health. Dr Igor discovered that Djokovic had a gluten intolerance and suggested he remove it from his diet. His stamina, breathing, health and game almost instantly improved. He also slept better, saw the court more clearly and had more energy.

But why is this? We’ve been eating wheat for many centuries and flourished, you may say? Unfortunately, the quality of the wheat was different in the past and has been modified since the middle of the 20th century, utilizing genetic modification and selective breeding to increase and ease production. Our intestines are not designed to digest the hybrid grain. On top of that, gluten (the sticky protein found in wheat and some other grains) is almost like glue and tends to stick to the lining of our small intestines. This causes malabsorption of important nutrients and may lead to cramps, bloating, gas and inflammation of the intestines. Gluten is not the only culprit, however. The overconsumption of sugar, dairy and any other food sensitivities, could have similar consequences. Food sensitivities tend to cause chronic fatigue and inflammation in the body and might show up in the form of a headache, joint pain, heartburn, low moods and more.

‘But what’s left to eat?’ you may ask. Dr Igor’s reply to this question is “Ask me the same question one more time, but this time please use your brain.” He finds many people are suffering in the world who do not have anything to eat and we should, therefore, be grateful that we’re still spoiled for choice. “Use your brain – search around,” he concludes. Despite his very direct answer, we can’t deny the fact that it is indeed challenging to make these changes and remove the inflammatory substances from our diet. Be assured that making these changes, was definitely not easy for Djokovic either, as he grew up in a house where his parents owned a pizza restaurant. But still, he made the decision and immediately reaped the benefits. Dr Igor suggests you “give your tummy a holiday” by removing all gluten, dairy and sugar from your diet for one month and then noticing how you feel. 

Mindful Eating

We know by now that it’s important what we eat, but something Dr Igor also taught Djokovic was how to eat. He tells the story of when Djokovic was on court a few years ago and was suddenly craving chocolate. At that stage, he hasn’t had chocolate for more than a year. He requested a bar of chocolate and then simply ate one block and savoured each moment. He put the rest away. The relationship we have with food and the environment we create when eating is crucial. ‘We’re not just balls and meat and organs – it’s important to calm our minds when approaching our meals,” says Dr Igor. “Switch off your phone while eating – everything can wait for you – bless your meal and be thankful. Recognise the colour, taste and smell. If you’re not even looking where you put the petrol in your car, you can’t expect it to go out and race and perform either.” By doing this you will prepare the body to optimally digest food – which is a crucial element, especially for sportspeople. 

Do you want to be Happy or Successful?

Our mental and relational health is just as important as physical health could ever be, Dr Igor finds. We need to learn to manage our emotions in life, otherwise, they will show up under pressure or on the court. You need to ask yourself the question: “Do you want to be successful or happy?” Many athletes do not consider that they might still not be happy after becoming the world number one. “I know many people who are successful but not happy,” he states. “You can be number one in the world but be alone and then what? What will you use the money for? To buy ten cars? Do you want to stand on top of a mountain…alone? Reconsider what your goal is in life? How about incorporating happiness into your life each day and let that carry everything else? If we’re happy, we’re healthy and if we’re healthy our chances of being successful increases.”

It’s also important, he finds, to spend time with the people you like, because we are social beings and need people around us to flourish. He suggests you spend time with the type of people you would like to become. Remember, he says: “A real friend wishes the best for you. Find people that are walking the same road – a road that, down the line, leads to a much happier life.”

Take Responsibility for your health

There is a lot Dr Igor offers his patients, but ultimately, they need to take action to truly improve their health. When a patient visits him, he relates to them as a friend, not a patient. By doing this he is asking them to take responsibility for their health and not be a passive participant. Many patients want to sit back and have a medical practitioner ‘fix’ them. This is because we have been trained to think that we can buy health and that all healing is in the hands of the doctor. Unfortunately, the most common diseases we see today are lifestyle-related, which means that we need to take control and be active participants in changing our lives if we’re interested in sustainable change.

Dr Igor says that the body is our greatest healer and teacher. If we learn to listen to the wisdom of our bodies and quiet your minds, ‘it’s simple to be healthy. True and lasting health depends on how much responsibility we take for our bodies,’ he says. 

Where to Start?

Even though there is no one-size-fits-all approach, Dr Igor’s tips for getting the basics of healthy living right, are the following:

  • Switch off your telephone when eating and don’t allow yourself to be disturbed.
  • Don’t eat when stressed and be grateful as food is your life force and fuel.
  • Eat mindfully and chew your food properly – prepare your body to eat.
  • Include as many vitamins and minerals in your diet as possible – do this by eating plenty of fruits and vegetables.
  • Don’t drink cold water while eating as this congests the stomach gland. Drink something warm after meals as it increases enzymatic release.
  • Avoid heavy meals in the evening.
  • Avoid Processed Foods – make sure to read the list of ingredients on food labels.
  • Choose organic foods when possible.
  • Don’t buy junk, just don’t have it at home – they’re like drugs!
  • Move your telephone far away when you’re sleeping. ‘Novak implemented this from the very beginning – we need technology, but we do not have to be slaves of it,’ says Dr Igor.
  • Love your game and what you do, you can’t hate it.

 “The best player will not necessarily win. The winner is the person who can best adapt to his or her surroundings and maintain an equilibrium physically, mentally and emotionally”

The full interview with Dr Igor can be watched here:

For more info on how to enhance your sports perfromance, feel free to make contact.

Related Blog Posts

    Your Cart
    Your cart is emptyReturn to Shop