The zone is that special mental state where everything flows effortlessly and the player is playing at peak performance. James Loehr has called this state the IPS - Ideal Performance State.
If we combine the findings of Csikszentmihalyi, Loehr, and other authors that have been researching the illusive Zone (Scott Ford from Arete-sports.com), then we can identify the main characteristics of this mental state that allow us to perform at our best.
10 Ways to Enter the ZoneIf we know the main characteristics of the zone, then we can reach this ideal mental state by putting these pieces of the puzzle together. We can work on each of these elements in practice and become increasingly better at entering the zone and playing our best tennis.
1. Challenge and skills
The player in the zone does not perceive his opponent as a threat. Instead, the player perceives the opponent as a challenge and uses his skills to overcome this challenge. A tennis match becomes a problem solving task and the player is focused only on finding the solutions.
Drill: A coach (or a partner) feeds you balls left and right so that you end up in a defensive position. Your goal is to play the ball cross court over the service line. Since there is no opponent and you are not playing a match, this is only a problem solving task-you need to use your skills to direct the ball from a certain position in the court into a target area.
Next, repeat this drill by playing with your partner and instead of having the idea of playing AGAINST your opponent, focus only on solving the problem with each ball. Each situation in tennis is only a challenge and your goal is to tackle these challenges when they appear. If you solve more than 50% of these challenges, you'll win more than 50% of the points, which will make you the likely winner.
2. Focus on the process and not on the outcome
The outcome-hitting the ball in, winning a point, winning a match, reaching the finals- is not within your control. If you focus on the outcome, you will become anxious since deep inside you know that you cannot guarantee the result.
Being anxious only worsens your ability to play good tennis. That's why you need to focus on the process that is within your control; direct all of your attention toward the ball and what you want to do with it.
The process is your idea of how you want to send the ball away, which means that you IMAGINE the trajectory of the ball and where you want it to land. Keep your focus on the execution of the shot until it's finished.
Notice how Federer does not move his head until he completes the follow-through. This does not mean that he just keeps his head still, it means that he keeps his focus on the execution (and not the outcome- he is not looking at the target area!) and the head therefore remains at the point of contact.
Drill: Rally with a partner and for every shot imagine the exact trajectory of the ball-how fast, with how much spin, how high over the net, how deep, and how close to the sidelines you want it to go.
Then focus all your attention on the execution of the shot until it's finished while keeping in mind the desired flight path of the ball. You don't have to force your head to be still; instead, just experience your stroke fully until it's finished. This will automatically keep your head still.
Another way to get used to imagining the trajectory of the ball is to rally with your partner and try to hit the ball in same trajectory as the incoming ball. For example, if your partner played a topspin shot 2 meters above the net that landed 1 meter from the baseline, try to hit the exact same ball back to him. Repeat this for every ball that comes to you.
3. Having a clear goal and being decisive
The opposite of being decisive is being indecisive, which means that you don't have a clear goal. A player in the zone does not change his mind and does not doubt his decisions. Whatever decision comes to mind, he sticks with it, trusts it, and goes with it.
Drill: Rally with your partner and try to keep the ball away from each other. Don't attempt to win but try to keep your opponent moving if you are in a good position. Notice how the decision of where to play comes to your mind. When it happens, stay with it. Whatever you decide, stay with it, give it your full attention and don't doubt it.
Even if at one point you realize that another shot might be better, it is too late to replace the old decision with a new one and to reprogram your body for a new shot. You'll only make things worse. So just stay with whatever comes to your mind and execute it with full attention. This is the best way to learn to play instinctively, which is a key component of being in the zone.
4. Seeing every shot as feedback
A player in the zone does not judge his shots as good or bad. He sees them only as feedback to indicate whether he needs to keep doing what's working or make slight adjustments. Judgment immediately triggers emotions, which break the flow and the zone state.
Drill: Put a tennis ball on the court about 10 meters away from you. Take 5 or 6 tennis balls in your hands and throw each of them at the target ball, trying to hit it. You will automatically notice whether your throw was too short or long or too much to the left or right and you will adjust.
In most cases, people don't get upset when they miss; they only notice the feedback and eventually adjust so that their throws land closer and closer to the target ball.
This will help you understand what it means to "play" without judgment and to focus only on the feedback of your last shot.
Next, transfer this idea to the tennis court. Rally with your partner in the doubles alley and try to keep the ball within both sidelines-the singles and the doubles sideline. Notice how every shot you play gives you feedback-whether you need to keep hitting the way you're hitting or whether you need to adjust and direct the ball slightly more to the left or right.
Progress to rallying over the whole court and notice how every ball you play gives you feedback. If you play the ball too long, don't see it as a bad shot; instead see it for what is it-a ball that was long. This gives you information about what to do next, whether to play with more spin or lower or with less speed.
Your goal is to transfer this idea to the whole game of tennis. Tennis, after all, is only trying to hit a certain target area on the court in each situation and every attempt you make gives you feedback on what do to next.
5. Being here and now
Another characteristic of being in the zone is having no sense of the past or future. The player is immersed in "the now". This allows him to use all of his brain capacity for solving the problem in the moment without distracting thoughts about the past and future.
Drill: The moment of "now" travels with the moving ball. Rally with a partner and focus your attention on the ball when it's coming to you and the ball when it's going away from you. Notice the seams on it spinning, what color it is, whether you can see the brand (Wilson, Dunlop, etc) spinning, the exact trajectory of the ball, and where it lands.
If you devote your full attention to the ball, you'll be in the here and now. You'll also be one step closer to playing in the zone.
More resources on "the zone":
Go to Part II - 5 More Tennis Drills to help you enter the zone
Back from Playing In The Zone to Tennis Psychology
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