Fearless Tennis: Behave Your Way into the Zone

Improvement ahead

by Jeff Greenwald, M.A., MFT; sports psychologist

Reprinted with permission from Fearless Tennis

Sometimes the best way to get yourself into the zone is by acting your way there.

If you watched Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the 2006 Wimbledon finals, you may have noticed how the game’s best have learned to create the right mix of emotions in competition. You saw Federer’s relaxed stride as he strutted onto the court to defend his title for the fifth time, while his nemesis, Rafael Nadal, sprinted back to the baseline after the coin toss like a kid on Christmas morning. One also can’t help but notice Maria Sharapova’s incessant fist pumping that has become almost as predictable as her grunt. One thing you can be sure of is that these world-class athletes know exactly what they are doing—they are behaving their way into the zone.

Their behavior makes good sense. For years we have known that the human mind is wired to make associations. When our physical actions are connected to positive emotional experiences, these actions become powerful triggers in the future. If Nadal’s trademark sprint becomes a routine—either before a match, following a moment of clutch play, or during a momentum swing—that same move will eventually become a helpful trigger at a time when he may need an emotional tune-up. The same holds true for you. When you behave in a positive manner, often the emotions and mind-set follow.

Federer’s relaxed and confident walk certainly helps him maintain the looseness that is characteristic of his entire game. Nadal’s sprint to the baseline has the effect of raising his heart rate, increasing his intensity so that he can embrace and harness his nervous energy. Sharapova’s fist pump is a reminder to fight and to recapture or maintain her sense of momentum.

Both Jim Loehr, in his book Mental Toughness Training for Sports: Achieving Athletic Excellence,  and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow in Sports , have been enormously helpful in identifying the key factors related to a player’s ideal performance state and the concept of “flow.” The important next step is for players to cultivate and access this state effectively when under pressure or feeling tight.

Unquestionably, all competitive players know how challenging it can be to consistently create the right mix of emotions week in and week out. However, this experience does not need to be reserved for the likes of Federer, Nadal, and Sharapova. You, too, can train yourself to get closer to this mind-body state. For example, notice your ideal walking pace—that is, when you are in a good mental place and feeling confident on or off the court.

What is your walking pace and body posture like when you feel positive and upbeat? See if the pace of your walk in this state can be applied to your between-point walk on the court. See if it helps you generate a rhythm that feels more energizing and confident.

Experiment with your walking posture (for example, walking tall with your shoulders back) and see if you feel more confident and in control. The moves may be subtle, but the emotional impact can often be dramatic.

Personally, as I am now more aware of my physical presence in competition, I notice that when I am playing well, the pace of my walk between points is slightly quicker—a pace that reflects confidence and intention. Between points, I walk with my shoulders back, with my eyes on the ground or on my strings, to help me maintain my focus. Another nuance I notice when I am successful is that when I miss a shot and lose the point, I often smile, as if to say, I know. But I’m still in charge here.

You don’t have to be a Federer, Nadal, or Sharapova to behave your way into the zone. Develop your body awareness so that you can act how you want to feel, with a renewed determination to commit to your shots, regardless of the circumstance. Then watch as you begin to move closer to repeating your best day more often.