In The Zone

Have you ever played a match where it felt effortless and easy to hit the ball well? If so, you may have experienced "the zone".

Published June 01, 2014 12:00

In The Zone
Victoria Azarenka

Have you ever played a match where it felt effortless and easy to hit the ball well? Your timing was right, your footwork great and your anticipation of where your opponent's ball was going to land was right on target. Probably your head felt clear, time seemed to slow down and the ball seemed to be twice its usual size. Did it feel GREAT?

If you answered "YES", then you have experienced "the zone" or "the flow" and your body and mind have achieved the Ideal Performance State (IPS).

Do you know HOW you were able to play that way? (Many players don't)

Would you like to play in this calm, confident and easy way more often?

Improve your focus and concentration and learn to control your arousal (stress level) on the court and YOU can begin to experience THE ZONE.

Players who have played "IN THE ZONE" describe the following experience:
• Play without pressure
• Feel confident & in control
• Physically relaxed
• Calm
• Alert and focused
• The ball appears large and clear
• Feels easy and effortless
• Play by instinct, automatic
• Time slows down
• Feel challenged, energized, joyful

Most players can feel the IPS when they are in it…..But only a few have any idea how to get back into the zone. Champions have developed this ability and so can YOU using mental skills and practice!


The way you think and emotionally react to situations on the court affects your arousal or stress levels, and can cause an increase in muscle tension, heart and breathing rate. These physical changes are a part of the stress response can result in decreased physical coordination, timing and tennis performance. Angry thoughts, worries and anxiety, analyzing too much, dwelling on something that happened earlier in the match are all emotions and thought patterns that can negatively affect your performance. An essential element to achieve the IPS and play at your best is to stabilize your arousal, no matter what is going on around you.

Techniques such as relaxation and breathing; visualization; work on your self-talk to be more positive; stop distracting negative thoughts and use recovery techniques like massage, can all help stabilize your arousal. You can learn these with the help of a qualified psychologist. To learn more about the IPS, refer to Sports Psychologist Dr. Jim Loehr's books: Mental Toughness Training for Sports & The New Toughness Training for Sports.


During a match, you need to be able to shift your concentration and focus to respond to changing situations. Like a camera, you zoom in and out on what is happening around you.

DIRECTION: Internal =what you think and feel OR External =what is going on around you
WIDTH: Narrow = like a zoom lens on a camera where you target one thing (e.g. the ball) OR Broad= like a wide angle view (e.g. anticipate where your opponent will move)
• These two dimensions of concentration interact together for different situations. You need:

Broad-internal focus: Make decisions, anticipate your opponent's moves or solve a problem on the court. You refer back to a previous situation to determine your present response.
Narrow-internal focus: Think about something, analyze a problem or mentally practice a situation.
Broad-external focus: Evaluate the whole court and react. Pay attention to your opponent.
Narrow-external focus: Zoom in on the ball and hit it accurately.

Decreased Internal focus + Increased External focus = Improved Chance of Ideal Performance State = playing in the zone.

WHY? If you are not thinking and analyzing as much (internal focus) you can more efficiently monitor what is going on around you (external focus). The result is that you perceive the situation to be slowed down and you are better able to react, to anticipate the play and to execute the shot.

• This is best achieved when your tennis skills are good enough to play without a lot of thinking or analysis.


Apply all the skills you need in match conditions to your practice sessions.

• Identify those things you need to improve or find more difficult.
• Don't avoid your weak areas; practice working on them to improve your ability to manage them!
• This helps to increase your ability to execute those harder shots/points. It helps you to use those skills more easily and confidently in match situations under pressure.


• Use "buzz" words or phrases to help you at critical moments. For example, try "move in" or "attack", to remind you to take the ball early; "bend" to help you to make that low volley.
• Negative self-talk, for example "Don't miss this second serve" will focus your attention on what can go wrong and usually causes the negative thing you fear to happen! To avoid this, keep your self-talk positive.


• Focus on just this point, right now and give it your best effort, no matter what the score.
• This keeps you focused in the present and allows you to let go of past errors.
• Keep your focus on the process (what you do now, where the ball is, strategy etc.), not on the outcome (winning or losing, or the score).


Distractions can be internal (what you are thinking) or external (what is going on around you).
Avoid Distractions by focusing on something concrete, e.g. look at your racquet between points.
Manage Distractions by:
Change your perception—for example: "My opponent's bathroom break allows me to stretch and rehydrate and will help my tennis".
Put them away—visualize putting them away somewhere to think about after the match.
Observe them passively—see them without judgment, as if you were watching from outside.
• This allows you to let them exist without them having an emotional impact and disturbing your optimal arousal level.


The contents of the Health site are for informational purposes only and should not be treated as medical, psychiatric, psychological, health care or health management advice. The materials herein are not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this site. Reliance on any information provided herein is solely at your own risk.

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