Playing in the Zone
5 More Tennis Drills To Help You Enter The Zone

Jim Courier in the zone at Roland Garros
Jim Courier played in the zone
(Michael Cole / Getty Images)
This is part II of Tennis In the Zone, which shows you 10 ways to enter the zone and play your best tennis.

Here are 5 more elements of the zone state and drills to help you achieve this peak mental state.

6. Belief in your abilities
When a player enters the zone, he doesn't doubt his shots. As soon as he decides what kind of shot to play (which in the zone happens automatically and very fast), he focuses on the execution and does not stop to think about whether or not this shot is too difficult to make.

There is total commitment to it and the player "sees" his shots as already being successful as he makes contact with the ball.

The key for the existence of this belief is to accept mistakes as a part of tennis.

Of course, it's impossible to play without mistakes (I remember Jim Courier once played a 3-set match in Roland Garros making only 3 unforced errors-he came pretty close) so the player needs to accept mistakes as something normal and keep his focus-stay in the zone.

Drill: Choose a certain shot first, for example, a forehand, down-the-line winner. Have a coach or a partner feed you balls from a basket for this drill. Your goal is to visualize-see-yourself make the shot down the line before you hit the ball.

Take a few seconds and see in your mind how you make the shot. Then get into a ready position, which signals to your partner to feed you a ball. Play the shot without any hesitation or doubt; you already know where the ball will go.

Don't expect perfection since it's not possible, but practice this mental state where you are 100% sure that you will make the shot and then execute your stroke with 100% commitment. You will notice that the percentage of your shots landing where you want them to will increase significantly.

7. Playing point by point
A player in the zone is focused on the "here and now" (see drill #5), and thus, is playing each point separately from the total score. He doesn't care whether it is 5:1 ahead or 0:4 behind, he gives 100% effort for every point he plays.

This makes him very hard to beat and very unlikely to lose the lead once he gets ahead.

a) Introduce rally-point scoring.
This means that every ball that goes over the net and lands in, counts as a point. If player A plays the ball 6 times and player B 5 times and then misses, the score is 6:5 for player A. This helps the players focus on every shot, since it counts, and not only on who wins the point.

b) Play each point twice.
If player A wins both times, he gets the point but if player B wins one of those two points, the score stays the same. Example: player A serves at 15:15 and wins the first point. He serves again to the deuce side (since it's still 15:15) and now player B wins the point. The score stays 15:15 and player A has to serve twice more.

Variation: if player B wins the third point played and he has already won the second point, this gives him two points in a row, so he wins the real point and the score is 15:30.

c) Threes.
There are two players and the game starts with a serve. The score is only one (not X:Y but just X) and it starts at 0. The server's winning points increase the score by 1, and the returner's winning points decrease the score by 1.

Example: if the server wins the first two points, the score is 2. If then the returner wins one point, the score goes to 1. The first player to reach +3 or -3 wins the game. Then they change roles-the server now returns and vice versa.

8. No ego
Ego-based motivation can be described as external motivation-where external rewards or threats motivate the player to compete. Ego-oriented motivation would be, for example, showing superior ability, beating others, earning money with winning, and becoming famous.

Egoless motivation is when there are internal rewards for the player: mastering the sport, seeing a tennis match as a series of tasks (and challenges) that need to be overcome with one's own skills, personal improvement, and giving 100% effort.

When a player plays in the zone, he typically experiences every situation as a challenging problem and focuses on solving this problem. It's not about beating your opponent; it's about solving the problem that your opponent presents to you. If you solve the problem, then the consequence will be the result you are looking for-the key is not to focus on this result when you play.

Drill: The coach feeds the player a series of shots that present challenges and asks the player to play each of these shots making the correct tactical decision.

  • 1st ball goes high to the backhand and it needs to be played cross court with high top-spin and land beyond the service line
  • 2nd ball is played to the middle and the player needs to run around it and play a forehand inside-in
  • 3rd ball is played short cross court and the player needs to attack down the line with a forehand approach shot
  • 4th ball is played to the backhand volley and the player needs to play it down the line beyond the service line
  • 5th ball is a lob and the player needs to smash it into the right side of the court
The player here learns that every situation has a solution-a shot that has the highest probability of winning the point. So the player is looking to execute each of these shots to the best of his ability.

The next step is to play points with a partner and to see each ball coming from the opponent as one of the situations you've already practiced and then attempt to use the correct response in the situation. This problem-solving focus takes you out of the ego-based motivation of trying to beat your opponent.

The final goal of the player is to master the game of tennis-with all of the shots, and physical and mental demands-and this will consequently enable the player to achieve better results and rankings.

9. Effortless play and breathing
The player in the zone feels as if every movement is effortless and his breathing reflects that. The player is not out of breath, and when he moves and hits the ball, his body feels elastic, full of energy, and free of tension.

Your goal to is to recreate this feeling of no tension and effortless breathing in practice as much as possible so that your body and mind get used to it.

Drill: Rally with a partner and exhale every time you hit the ball. Let the inhale happen whenever it happens, just focus on the exhale.

Then notice the tension of your body when moving and hitting the ball and rate it from 1 to 10. If, for example, your rating is 7, try to relax to level 6 and rally again. Keep focused on the exhale when you hit the ball and your level of relaxation.

Try to lower your tension level as much as possible while at the same time keeping alert and ready to react and move quickly to the incoming ball. Your goal is to transfer this feeling of no tension and breathing to practice matches and then to actual competition.

10. Enjoyment of play
One of the most important aspects of the zone is the feeling of enjoyment. The zone cannot be achieved if the player is experiencing stress and anxiety. The joy of playing the sport for no external rewards is the key.

In other words, a person who loves to play tennis even if there are no rewards has the greatest chance of entering the zone.

Drill: Rally with a partner and instead of looking to improve yourself and looking for mistakes, look for feelings of joy. How does it feel to hit the ball in the center of the racquet? How do you feel when the ball goes over the net the way you want it to? Do you enjoy yourself when you are moving, breathing, and hitting a tennis ball?

Remember how it is just to play, like children do. Your goal is to remember the feeling of joy when playing tennis and what you need to focus on to experience enjoyment when playing tennis. Once you know that, you'll be able to refocus during a match and start enjoying it. This is the express way to the zone.

In order to enter the zone, which allows peak performance, we can work on certain characteristics of this mental state.

Instead of just letting the zone happen here and there, perhaps 2 or 3 times a year, use these 10 tennis drills to open up the door to the zone. Once you know the feeling of the zone, you'll be able to recall it almost every time.

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