The Key To Playing Tennis In The Zone And Why It’s So Hard To Do That
The following is an email exchange between Arturo and me discussing playing tennis in the zone…
Arturo: I played a tournament right before Christmas. Both matches were interesting.
In the first, I could see the weaknesses and my opponent tried to put pressure on me but I had too many answers for his attacks. He started to play better in the second set and I could hear the doubts and fears creep in.
But I simply let them go and started to play well again. In the past, I might have fought these thoughts more.
But now I simply acknowledge them and then move on. I also try to really relax on the toughest points.
In the second match, I played an older experienced player. He was very good but he had played a long match before mine and it was at night. Both factors made his match play drop a bit.
I had the advantage of having played on the same courts at night last summer. I knew that it was hard to see and simply tried my best. And then it just happened… I got into the zone.
My opponent tried all sorts of tricks. He went to the restroom a couple of times. He told me I might win Wimbledon if I hit shots like the last one (a backhand that hit the net and fell over for a winner). I simply acknowledged everything he did and let it go.
I relaxed and simply tried to focus on every point and hit every ball. He also attacked me but I always had an answer.
In fact, on one shot I surprised myself. He came in on my forehand and I ran over and simply looped a passing shot short into the service box. It landed on the line. I was trying to pass him but it ended up being much better than I thought it would be. He tried it again and I put up a topspin lob.
My son was watching and I asked him what I looked like. He said I was in the zone.
I wasn’t celebrating or getting angry. I was showing no emotional response. I was simply focused on each ball and each point.
My opponent for the third match did not show up and I won the whole tournament (it was round robin).
I won a tournament in the main draw (not consolation). The first time since I started playing competitively three years ago.
Now I really understand what Nadal means when he says that he played his best tennis on the most important points.
I wish I could express what it feels like but it really requires practice. Knowing how to relax and how to let yourself play your best.
I simply let go.
My goal for 2011 in tennis. Learn to simply relax on the most important points. Whatever happens, happens…
P.S. Why are there so many internal battles going on in a player’s head? That is the question that I ask myself.
It seems to me that dealing with this would help players immensely. Thanks for getting me on the right road.
Tomaz: Great to hear that you played in the zone. And yes, it happens when you let go of the outcome.
But this can happen when our ego doesn’t get involved – or when we don’t have any insecurities – which may not have to do with tennis actually.
If you don’t judge yourself negatively when you lose and you’re not dependent on other people’s opinion, then it doesn’t hurt when you lose. It’s no big deal.
And once you’re not afraid to lose, you can let go of the outcome.
See, for most people it’s exactly the other way around and they can NEVER get out of this loop.
They NEED the win to cover up their insecurities. They are afraid to lose because that MEANS something painful to them.
There’s a painful belief / story behind losing.
Therefore they force the play and cannot let go of the outcome – therefore they cannot play well and they LOSE – and it’s what they feared the most really happens.
It’s the self fulfilling prophecy and it’s painful to watch – especially with juniors. But also with all other players.
They look for their confirmation of how good they are in the win and because they are so dependent on this win they cannot let go of the outcome, they play tense and they lose.
It’s the spiral of doom – that’s how I call it.
The key is to believe in yourself BEFORE you have the proof – the wins. 😉
The key is to heal your insecurities internally by thinking things over and appreciating yourself for the good work you’ve done and for the fight you’ve just taken. Then you are ok with yourself.
The “I am not good enough” pain that keeps pulsating inside of each of us subsides and you feel “I am good enough.”
“I am a good tennis player and a loss doesn’t make me a bad player or even a not worthy person.”
“I am a good tennis player but today someone was even more skilled in this sport.”
“It’s just a test of skills and it has NOTHING to do with who I really am.”
“I am a worthy person and appreciated and respected among my peers regardless of my results in tennis.”
These kinds of thoughts and eventually beliefs WILL enable you to let go of the tennis matches as your source of covering up insecurities.
You will deal with your own insecurities outside of tennis and then a tennis match is nothing else than an event where two people test their skills.
It doesn’t mean anything painful to lose. Sure, you’d prefer to win but losing match feels more like a nuisances – like a red light stopping you in traffic for a minute. You don’t dwell on it and it doesn’t affect you in any painful way.
Once you have this mindset, you’re not afraid to lose and then you simply PLAY. You play to win and you take your chances and there’s no doubt or hesitation in your movement and shots.
There’s no tension – you see the situation, your subconscious analyzes it with lightning speed and the response comes instantly and you simpy follow the first and only idea that comes to your mind – whether that’s playing down the line, approaching the net, playing a drop shot or any other tactical decision.
You play in the zone which means you don’t interfere with your conscious mind with the decisions that arise from the subconscious. Your conscious mind’s task is only one – staying focused.
Now compare this explanation of how to play in the zone and how entangled the areas of tennis and life are and you’ll understand that for most people what I just described above is never attainable in their life.
Their conscious mind is too active as they have been in their “head” all their life.
They didn’t just “play” games as kids, they didn’t train any sport professionally where in time you develop a very strong sense of FEELING your body and accurate body awareness.
You stop thinking and start feeling.
That’s the pathway to the subconscious as the conscious mind (Self 1) is turned off and we just “listen” with all our SENSES what our body is telling us.
And if you’ve played any kind of sport professionally or semi professionally for 5 or more years, you must have experienced many loses. Eventually you realize that these are just loses in a game of sport and that they are NOT life threatening.
But you need to lose many times especially at a younger age when your ego is not that involved and you simply see it as a play. Of course, parents and coached are the key to giving the right perspective to the kid.
This perspective gets transferred then to your perception of tennis matches as an adult.
Through many matches played and by feeling and not thinking one is able to experience tennis in the zone and enjoy every moment of it.
The ultimate goal of mental preparation for tennis is NOT to know more techniques from sports psychology.
It’s to know nothing and simply be in the moment – turn off the mind and let the subconscious mind and the body play the game while your only task as Self 1 is to focus and allow the uninterrupted flow of information (feeling your body, feeling the racquet in the hand, feeling the contact of the shots, being aware of the position on court, being aware of the situation and your opponent and simply being alert) to enter the brain.
Then trust Self 2 and your body to do what’s necessary in each moment to achieve the task you’ve set up to do – win the point. Play the best shot in each situation that brings you one step closer to winning the point.
Because in the zone you’re not really aware of the ego goal of winning the match.
All you see is just this one shot you’re making and you’re barely aware of your intent to eventually win the point.
It is there somewhere in the background guiding you towards the final goal but it does not interfere with the total focus on each and every moment of the ball exchange.
Only when the match ends you feel like “coming back” to reality and your ego – Self 1 – wakes up because without it we wouldn’t even communicate with other people. 😉
It’s our personality and with it we function in society.
The key to tennis in the zone is to turn it off for the duration of the match and simply feel and be in the moment – experience every moment fully and observe the ball.
Let the rest happen and when you get the first idea in your head from the subconscious just follow it without hesitation or doubt.
The door to the zone opens and you finally play tennis the way it’s meant to be played…
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This entry was posted on Saturday, January 8th, 2011 at 10:34 pm and is filed under Mental Tennis. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
One Response to “The Key To Playing Tennis In The Zone And Why It’s So Hard To Do That”
Bob Leedom Says:
January 31st, 2011 at 10:19 pm
It’s been many years since I last read it, but this (very good advice) sure sounds like a summary of Timothy Gallwey’s “The Inner Game of Tennis”.