Tennis in the Zone
Tennis in the "zone"
The challenge of the "zone"
For more than twenty years, the "zone" has been a focus of sport psychologists, so much that some say that the "zone" is the heart of sports psychology.
The "zone" can be seen as the internal state of an individual that provides focus, enabling maximum performance. Those who performed in the "zone" describe it as unique experience, something that can' t be easily described or repeated.
Some earlier studies referred to the "zone" as the state in which we arrive unknowingly, almost incidentally, and that this state only lasts until we become aware of it: as soon as we become consciously aware of the good playing streak - the magic stops. Our thoughts interfere with the subconscious focus, bringing us back to the "normal" state.
Recent studies have been focusing on the analysis and discussions around the possibility to enter the "zone" consciously through appropriate psychological preparation, self-discipline and thought control. So, the "zone" is no longer seen as the lucky coincidence, but something that can be invoked and maintained consciously.
Imagine yourself for a moment as your best: playing your best tennis, hitting the ball with full power, every ball hitting the court exactly where you want. Imagine yourself enjoying every moment of your game, every moment spent on the tennis court....Is this enough challenge for you?
Motivation and where to find it
I was a professional tennis player for about 15 years. As my sports career lasted for a fairly long time, I would frequently be asked about my retirement plans and reminded about my age as an obstacle to achieve great results.
I remember I was 25 when a respected sports journalist asked me during the tournament in Umag if I was planning to end of my career, given I haven't achieved anything highly significant to date. I told him that I not only did not think about retiring, but that my career was just starting.
And that was not too far from the truth. At that age and stage in my career I just started to reach the necessary maturity and insight into the "internal game" we all play inside - whether we are aware of it or not. I was looking for a different type of motivation - the one that keeps me determined to train as hard as necessary for the level of the game I needed to play, regardless of age, place or time. I found this motivation within me, I felt the "zone" and the satisfaction it gives to those who reach this profound state. The sense of achievement and satisfaction in reaching the "zone" pays of for all heard work and training invested over many hours, days and years.
Facing "The King of Clay" Muster
One of the defining events that prompted me to pursue the study of our inner self and the conditions that allow us to spontaneously enter and exit the "zone" was my match against Thomas Muster in Bucharest in 1993.
I had passed qualifications for the ATP tournament in Bucharest and was facing the top seeded Thomas Muster in my first game. At the time, Thomas Muster already earned his "the King of Clay" title. He was ranked 12th on the world tennis list, a challenging opponent for me: my ATP rank at the time was 350. I remember thinking after the draw: "Ok, let's see what he does better than me."
The Centre Court in Bucharest was full. The match started as expected: I played well, but the result was 6:3 in the first set for Muster. In the second set he was leading 4:1, keeping fast tempo that I tried to follow as much as I could.
When we swapped the sides, I summarised the situation in my head: I am not playing bad, but if this continues, there will be 6:3 6:2 for him and that will be the end of it. I decided to make the most of the remaining few points and really try my best to get a few more winning hits. I felt the match was already lost, but I decided to take a different approach and see what happens. I stood closer when receiving his serve, taking more and more risks as the second set progressed, which paid off. Little by little, I started dominating the court - I was playing in the "zone". I had my full concentration on the task at hand, my moves were more precise, I was seeing the holes in Muster's play and was able to capitalise on them. Soon I was turned the score in my favour and won the second set.
I played with the same approach in the third set, leading 2:1 and getting closer to victory. I was fully focused on the game and was able to play my best and see what I would not usually see - details of the game that gave me the room to capitalise on my opponent's weaknesses. Muster turned to his coach Leitgeb and his look indicated his powerlessness to respond to my hits.
And then something changed - all over sudden I became fully aware of the situation that was unfolding in front of me - I came back to the "ordinary" reality. I realised that I could actually win the match and that realisation somehow made me exit the "zone". I wanted to win so much that I could not concentrate sufficiently to re-enter the "zone". My previously accurate hits were now sending the balls outside of the court and I just could not come back to that confident, accurate playing I was exhibiting in the second set.
The magic stopped - I lost the third set 6:2 and the match was over.
This experience was an excellent example of entering the "zone" when everything seemed lost, when I was relaxed enough to try and take risks without fear of losing. But, as soon as I was aware of the chances for wining, I lost my concentration and exited the "zone", without being able to find my way back.
It was clear to me even then, that I had a chance of winning if I stayed in the "zone". My playing was fully focused, concentrated on my game, without thoughts of winning or losing, without trying to force something that was to happen - and I was winning. But, once I exited the "zone", I was just an "ordinary" player who wanted to win. If I kept my concentration I would have won the match against one of the best players in history!
Conditions of entry into the "zone"
In order to achieve the sensation of the "zone", there are some conditions that need to be met first.
One of them is a balance between our sense of challenge and the skills we possess. If our opponent is too weak, we might feel bored and lacking challenge, therefore the normal flow of conditions guiding us towards the "zone" will not be present.
I our opponent is too strong and if his skills are well above ours, the balance again can't be achieved and we can't achieve the "zone".
The next condition is the integration of action and awareness. This means entering into the state of total concentration on the task at hand. We need to concentrate on the present moment as if there is no other moment in time - if we achieve this, we act instinctively, without breaking the concentration on thinking. We need to let go and allow for things happen at their natural volition.
One more condition is crucial to this process: having a clearly defined goal and clear return information. In our case, it could be a point of the contact between rackets and tennis balls. So, our immediate goal is not to win, but to achieve maximum quality outcome with each individual shot.
How to define a shot in this context: a quality contact between a tennis racket and the ball, accurate timing and desired direction of the ball after the contact. The return information (feedback) comes immediately after the ball is no longer in our possession. An experienced player (and even the less experienced one) will know and feel if the shot was good or not.
When we talk about the" zone", it is good to mention that in this state we have a perfect sense of control of the situation, so we are confident that nothing can go wrong, everything is under our control. And, when we have the sense that things are under our full control, this results in higher self-confidence, which is crucial element of strong tennis performance.
Finally, I will mention two equally important sensations for those who wish to enter and play in the "zone": the loss of ego and the time transformation. When we were in the "zone", we feel as f something else within us is playing and not us, as if we are an instrument guided by a higher power, under which we lose sense of time. We do not know or think about how much time we spent on the court and it does not matter.
When we analyse the benefits and the overall sensation associated with tapping into the "zone", we can philosophically conclude that the strength and depth of the experience of the "zone" is powerful enough to be the reason, motivation and reward for playing tennis.
After many years of studying and watching tennis matches over the years, and especially through my own playing experience, I can highlight the importance of the state of mind one needs to have in order to play in the "zone": the carefreeness.
During some of my difficult tennis moments, I entered the "zone" only when everything seemed futile, when my chances for winning were almost non-existent. We occasionally see the players just when they are ready to surrender and accept defeat, starting to act nonchalantly and actually enjoy the game, after accepting their fate. With this state of carefreeness, they actually start performing better and even change the outcome of the match that seemed lost only a few minutes earlier.
During my tennis career, I would sometimes enter the doubles competition and get paired up with a partner I did not know. Many players such as myself saw this as a great training and experience opportunity. With this level of low expectations and high degree of carefreeness, some of my "blind" doubles would often play far better than expected, getting through the rounds and even winning tournament titles. All because the pressure was low and we were there to enjoy the game and make the most of it. We were carefree and therefore able to do much more than if we had a game plan and set high expectations for our performance.
So far, we have discussed and analysed the conditions of being in the "zone", the benefits and conditions surrounding this particular state.
Now, the question is how to create the necessary conditions that will guarantee the state in which a person can enter the "zone" at will.
I strongly believe this is possible. With quality preparation, setting the specific goals for the game, positive thinking and strong discipline, it is possible to achieve the level of absolute concentration necessary to enter the "zone".
Ability to enter and plan in the "zone" is only a step away from each of us. It is up to every individual to decide if they are bold enough to explore their inner selves and find the way to control their state of mind and enable performance in the "zone" .