Tennis is 95% mental at the elite level. This is a very famous and very often used statement of Jimmy Connors. This has been widely accepted as true, taking into account the complexities of tennis as a sport and the very fact that the elite players are better from the rest almost only because of their mental strength. Even though many coaches are aware of the different elements of Psychology in tennis, it has always been a difficult aspect to be implemented in training. If we can understand psychology in tennis as a whole and also understand the interrelation between the different elements in it, it will become easy for the coach to incorporate psychological training in day to day tennis sessions.

One of the main goals of a tennis coach is to help their students to play the best that they can possibly play. If the physical, technical and tactical aspects of the game have been worked on then the player will transcend levels and play at his/her best only when he/she is playing in the PEAK PERFORMANCE ZONE.

Therefore increasing the probability of the player entering the zone, by developing his/her mental skills, is the ultimate goal for any coach.  It cannot be argued that a player displays maximum mental toughness when he is experiencing the zone.

Hence it goes without saying that if we study the zone state and understand the factors involved in it then we can arrive at the psychological demands of this sport and it becomes easy to comprehend the aspects of psychology in tennis.


In the flow, Peak performance state, in a groove, on a roll, in the zone – whatever you call it, they all define one thing. It’s that special feeling of playing like you can do no wrong and everything goes your way. You are so absorbed in what you are doing that nothing else seems to matter because you are so connected to your task. Most of us might have experienced this state at one time or the other. Unfortunately, these peak performances don’t seem to happen often enough. In fact, every time it does happen, it is usually by chance, it just happened to be a day when everything fell into place, clicked for you, and you got a taste of what it’s like to be in the zone.

This zone is the definitive reason why many people are motivated to participate in sports. It is a state of hypnosis, but there is nothing mysterious about it. When in the zone, everything happens in slow motion and what is most important becomes clear and highly focused. Players transcend levels while playing in the zone. It gives a feeling of excitement and satisfaction at a level that is unparallel to any other experience. Therefore working towards playing in the Peak Performance Zone could be the ultimate goal for any tennis player. As a result, it becomes important for the coach to understand the elements or factors involved in increasing the probability of entering the Zone, in order to create the right atmosphere for the players to train in, to help them achieve their ultimate goal.

By examining the descriptions provided by elite level players, it’s possible to identify some of the common alterations of perception that occur when an athlete has a “peak experience”, or enters the “zone” or “flow” state.

While in the zone the athlete experiences the following:

1). Complete absorption on the task and the task-relevant cues;

2) Time seems slowed down and as a result, the approaching ball seems larger or more vivid or appears to travel slower than usual;

3) The athlete feels as if he or she is in complete control, knowing what’s going to happen almost before it happens, i.e. total confidence;

 4) Performance seems almost effortless, and totally automatic.

 5) A feeling of happiness or enjoyment.

When we study these experiences along with some well established psychological theories, we can arrive at certain interesting conclusions.


The attention theory states that at any given time, an individual’s attention can lie at any place on two separate Dimensions.  The first Dimension consists of the direction of your focus, either Internal, attending to your own thoughts and feelings, or external, attending to events going on in the world around you. The second dimension consists of a broad or narrow focus of attention.  The two dimensions can be crossed, creating four quadrants of attention.  In each quadrant lies an attentional strength; a task that the individual will be performing while their attention is in that quadrant.  This concept is graphically represented in the figure below.

(Adapted from Nideffer, 1992)

At any point in time, a player’s focus of concentration is in one of the four areas shown above.
Players use a broad-internal focus of concentration to problem solve, to make strategic decisions, to develop training goals and training programs, to anticipate the moves of the competition. This type of concentration requires the athlete to mentally cross time zones. To take immediate information and use that to recall information from the past which is then useful for predicting the future. The game chess requires the player to stay predominantly in this quadrant.

Player’s use a narrow internal focus of concentration, to organize information and to visualize or mentally rehearse or practice.

Athletes use a broad-external focus of concentration to assess what’s going on in the world around them, to make sure they are ready to react when called upon to do so. It is used when the player is focused on task-relevant cues, the opponent and the environmental conditions. Martial art requires a performer to be Broad externally focused.

At the point in time, a critical move needs to be made in sport, athletes are typically required to develop a very narrow-external focus. Shooting or Archery requires the players to stay narrow externally focused.

Now let us study the attentional demands of tennis:

While serving:

  1. First, the player uses broad internal focus to make a decision regarding the tactics he is going to use for the serve and the point thereafter
  2. He then uses narrow internal focus to mentally rehearse or visualize the serve and the tactics he is going to use
  3. His focus then shifts to narrow external to enable him to focus on the execution of the serve
  4. As the ball leaves his racket his focus broadens externally to help him focus on the task-relevant cues

And as the ball leaves the opponent’s racket his focus becomes increasingly narrow as the ball approaches, and then immediately broadens once he executes the shot.

While Receiving:

  1. First, the player uses broad internal focus to anticipate the opponents serve from past information and tendencies of the opponent and the tactics he is going to use to counter the serve
  2. He then uses narrow internal focus to mentally rehearse or visualize the return
  3. His focus then shifts to broad external focus to enable him to pick out the task-relevant cues
  4. As the ball leaves his opponent’s racket and as it approaches him his focus becomes increasingly narrow

As the ball leaves the opponent’s racket his focus becomes increasingly narrow as the ball approaches, and then immediately broadens once he executes the shot.

Therefore it is evident from this that, for a good performance, the focus of concentration of a player has to be on the external while the ball is in play. Internal focus can happen only between points or games when the ball is not in play.

Another theory tells us that ‘The athlete’s perception of the passage of time is dependent upon the direction of his focus of concentration. The more internal the focus, the faster time seems to pass. The more external the focus, the slower it passes and the more time the athlete feels he has to react.’

This coupled with the experience of players about time slowing down while in the zone proves that the player’s focus needs to be external while the ball is in play.

In my opinion, this is the single most important factor that has to be considered while arriving at the psychological demands of this sport on a player.

When athletes are in the zone, the shifting of their focus of concentration from one style to another has to be seamless. By seamless, I mean the shifts are made automatically, without any conscious direction from the athlete.

What happens if the player needs a conscious direction to shift his focus from one quadrant to another? Now forget about the fact that there is no time for this since the demand on the player is to react in fractions of a second, the very act of conscious direction is an act of internal focus. This will affect his external focus dramatically.


To increase the probability of a player entering the zone, the following requirements are necessary.

  • Skills should be automatic and skill level match
  • Strategies to be set before the match and well-rehearsed mentally
  • Ability to handle distractions
  • High Level of self-confidence
  • Attention to be predominantly external
  • Arousal levels should be optimal to aid in the seamless shifting of focus from one quarter to another
  • Process-oriented vs. Outcome-oriented.

Exploring these requirements

1. Automatic Skill Level:

If the skills require a conscious direction from the player, then due to the fact that he has to internally focus to give the conscious direction will take away the focus from the task-relevant cues. The athlete’s abilities related to the physical, technical, and strategic demands of tennis are improved by one thing, hard work.  Nothing can replace the hours upon hours of repetition that are required to make physical skills automatic.  If a player wishes to enter the zone with consistency, he must take the court prepared for the match.  His technique must be honed, so that execution of strokes happens automatically without any conscious thinking. Players should also use mental rehearsal of all the visual and kinesthetic aspects of their performance as often as possible.

2. Strategy to be set prior to the match:

If the player has to work out a strategy during the match then that means he has to focus internally. The strategy must be set before the match.  He must know his opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. A mental rehearsal or visualization of the strategy must be done prior to the match. Very little time is spent during the match on planning or strategy.

3. Ability to avoid or let go of distractions:

.Simulation techniques need to be used by making the training sessions as close to the final performance as possible by introducing spectators, judges, distractions and stress inducers so that the player can learn to deal with them. Mental rehearsal also helps the players in their decision making or shot selections and therefore helps in making the thought process seamless. From a coaching and/or teaching perspective, the challenge is to provide information to the athlete in a way that does not increase the individual’s distractibility! When coaches are more analytical, more often than not, they provide too much information. The information creates the very problem of paralysis by analysis that the coach is trying to avoid or overcome. The player’s attention becomes internally focused which results in obstructing the flow of attention. (Global vs. Analytical methodology).

4. High Confidence Level:

What a player attends to, particularly if he or she lacks confidence and/or skill, can cause changes in breathing and muscle tension which destroy coordination, timing, and performance. Coaches need to create a positive and supportive training environment for the players to train in. We need to keep verbal technical and tactical instructions to the minimum. The focus should be more on creating an atmosphere where learning happens. This, in turn, will also help in making the players become more independent and more confident in their own abilities. Players should be trained to use positive self-talk and imagery to improve self-confidence.

5. Optimal Arousal Level:

The Effect of AROUSAL LEVEL: The athlete’s ability to shift concentration along the dimension of width is directly related to his or her level of emotional arousal. The higher the level of emotional arousal the narrower the athlete’s focus of concentration and the less capable he or she is of broadening it. In martial arts, the students are advised to maintain calmness and never to fight with anger. The reason is martial arts require immersion in broad external focus since he has to be aware of every move made around him. If his focus narrows, then the abilities are reduced drastically.

Relaxation and focusing techniques like centering, P M R, Meditation or Zazen will help in the players maintaining emotional arousal at optimal levels. This again helps in the seamless shifting of attention from one quarter to another.

6. Process-oriented players:

Players should be trained to keep their focus on neutral performance-oriented or process cues. A process cue is a technical or tactical self-instruction that is directly related to successful performance. Outcome-oriented players rarely experience playing in the zone. The reason is that the outcome-oriented players, tend to focus on outcome-oriented cues like the closeness of the score, or the importance of the point, or the importance of the performance to one’s self etc. This focus on outcome cues, especially if the player’s confidence levels or skill levels are low, results in anxiety. This anxiety causes changes in breathing and muscle tension which destroy coordination, focus, timing, and performance. The good news is that the relationship between the focus of concentration and emotional arousal is a reciprocal one. This means that by teaching and/or helping athletes attend to neutral, task-relevant cues, you can slow breathing and reduce muscle tension, allowing them to get back in the flow of the game.

Playing in the zone is the ultimate experience. The players feel one in body and mind. They feel completely at peace. Conflicts disappear. Ramesh Krishnan once commented that he feels close to god when he plays tennis. I believe that Ramesh Krishnan is one player, that I have seen personally, who had the ability to repeatedly get into the zone state. I think the experience of the zone is what he means by being close to god.

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