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JAK'S MONTHLY ESSAY SERIES: Achieving Your Personal Best

A Roadmap Into "The Zone"

You've heard of it. Perhaps you've even read about it – if not I would suggest that you research mental skill pioneers Timothy Gallwey (The Inner Game of Tennis - 1972), and Dr. Jim Loehr (Mental Toughness Training for Sports - 1986).

Have you ever been there? Do you know where it is, and how to get on its path?

Well, it's very likely that the vast majority of you actually have been there, albeit most likely a fleeting visit, but, nonetheless, still have experienced it, although you may have not fully realized it at the time.

To be sure, however, you did indeed feel it on a sensory level. Ethereal. A sport's euphoria.

Jak Beardsworth Playing TennisA quite accidental but common gateway exists specifically in those challenging returns of serve, the ones that you initially anticipated were going to be in, but, in the very last split second, after you have committed to your forehand or backhand reply, you realize it's actually out by a hair. Fully committed to your shot, you, now realizing in an instant that there's nothing at stake with zero pressure, totally relax and let the racket go freely through the ball. Completely unencumbered with virtually no muscle tension or accompanying mental/emotional stress, a very powerful, penetrating, effortless thoughtless return happens, one that's not only deep and powerful, but perfectly placed!

An unreturnable. Remembering one of those moments now?

Back in the day, long before there were sports psychologists and/or the now more popularized term "performance coaches," two phrases were commonly used in reference to players who were far exceeding their recognized normal level of play: "He's unconscious," and "She's playing out of here mind."

Both, prescient and on the money then and now, refer to playing without thinking and totally trusting your game, reminiscent of Nike's slogan, "Just Do It." The million dollar question is how do you achieve that state of mindless relaxation, such as the one in the aforementioned serve return, in all of your match play when the pressure is on?

"See it, feel it, trust it," as the grizzled old rancher former golf pro in the Texas outback, played by Robert Duvall of course, says in the delightful and insightful movie, "Seven Days in Utopia (2011)," in which he guides a failed young tour player in finding his true potential game and mind-set.

On the tennis court, there exist two separate mind-sets: in-point and out-of-point.

During the point you are ideally unconscious, not thinking analytically – that would be akin to painting by the numbers, operating in an uptight, calculating left brain, running a 10 point check list of do's and don'ts while striking your shots. Playing in that state of mind actually, literally makes excellent ball tracking pretty much an impossibility.

Brain freeze.

Conversely, you actually can be thinking, but in the right side of your brain. That's exclusively thinking in pictures – imagery – visualizing both the direction of your shots as well as their intended margin over the net, including trajectory, while you focus on meeting the ball at the perceived optimal place and time.

That's it. That's all you can manage during the action. Ball striking technique is either already firmly embedded on your tennis hard drive, or it isn't.

That's where practice comes in!

In between points is the time when you can consciously coach yourself up with reminders of executing your game's core fundamentals, or strategy and tactics. Then go right back to only the ball and visualizing your shots, and, yes, a kinesthetic awareness of your body in motion. Nothing more.

By the way, that Nike slogan was and is far more than just marketing. I remember a time when I presented reward tees to aspiring players of all ages after a particularly good session - the ones who were willing to let go of their fears and embrace the game that they had - that said, "I Just Did."

Believing in the game you've brought to the court is a must. To distrust it at the ball striking moment – self-doubt occupying your mind - is a recipe for disaster.

It's also important to recognize that trying harder, triggering high muscle tension, will never ever get you into your zone. Although trying harder could be useful for maximizing your footwork in both getting in position for your shots, and defending the court against theirs, and is certainly in the mix for performing well. But it's mostly an intuitive, unwelcome human emotion when interacting with flying yellow spheres in a 2,808 square foot arena (doubles) with an infinite ceiling.

Simply, relaxed muscles are "smart," fast and loose and powerful. Tight muscles are "dumb," slow and rigid and weak, and unable to replicate successful efficient stroking paths with any consistency.

Robotic spastic play in contrast to letting go, playing freely, starting with not strangling your grip.

Are you familiar with the fable of the two Samurai warriors, identical twins with the same fighting skills but aligned with opposing warring houses? Upon facing off in battle one brother assumed his fighting stance while gripping his sword very tightly, while the other, in the same stance, held his sword in a relaxed manner. Shortly thereafter the former's head fell heavily to the ground.

Although tennis is not life and death, at times the match pressure, or the pressure you place on yourself, can seem like it and become overwhelming, especially if you're afraid to lose and do not trust relaxation when it really counts. Rafa Nadal's take on this always comes to mind: "I do not fear losing. I fear the fear of losing."

Becoming an outstanding ball tracker, a crystal clear visualizer, and a dedicated breather at the racket on ball impact, along with regularly scheduled practice sessions in between matches – and with performing your best every time out being the #1 goal – will at least get you on the path to cracking open the door into your zone, and even get you there more and more often.



Copyright© 2020 by Jak Beardsworth Tennis. All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.

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Past Essays

  • April 2024 - Coulda, shoulda got that: The Art of Poaching
    [read more]
  • March 2024 - Get Your JuJu On
    [read more]
  • February 2024 - Giving Opponents too Much Respect
    [read more]
  • January 2024 - Rally Ball Or Pull The Trigger
    [read more]
  • December 2023 - The Forgotten Stop Volley
    [read more]
  • November 2023 - "You're Only as Good as Your Second Serve"
    [read more]
  • October 2023 - good misses vs bad misses
    [read more]
  • September 2023 - Why good players are good players!
    [read more]
  • August 2023 - On poaching and fake poaching: Becoming a Force at the Net in Doubles
    [read more]
  • July 2023 - The Beautiful Game is Getting Ugly
    [read more]
  • June 2023 - The Approach Dropper: Lob Killer
    [read more]
  • May 2023 - Why club players don't practice
    [read more]

Essay Archives

Click a year to view more essays


  • April 2023 - DON'T FIGHT TIGHT
    [read more]
  • March 2023 - Classic finish line failure
    [read more]
  • February 2023 - Defending the lob over your net partner - The "Switch"
    [read more]


  • December 2022 - E. I. D. - Extended Impact Duration
    [read more]
  • November 2022 - Movement Enhancement to Stay Better In-Point Connected
    [read more]
  • September 2022 - Advanced Visualization 301
    [read more]
  • August 2022 - Tennis' uniqueness: warming-up the enemy
    [read more]
  • July 2022 - Extracting Double Faults Through Receiving Positions... and more
    [read more]
  • June 2022 - Consider Serve and Volley
    [read more]
  • May 2022 - How the Toss Primes the Serve Relaxation Pump
    [read more]
  • April 2022 - Ball Watching and Science
    [read more]
  • March 2022 - Caving
    [read more]
  • February 2022 - Kenny G and Emmo
    [read more]
  • January 2022 - The Knees
    [read more]


  • December 2021 - The Match is with You
    [read more]
  • November 2021 - The Backup Racket in Your Bag
    [read more]
  • October 2021 - Every Tennis Player Can and Should Have a Weapon
    [read more]
  • September 2021 - LEARNING NEW SKILLS: First the Process, Then the Results
    [read more]
  • August 2021 - The Challenge of Visualizing… For Some
    [read more]
  • July 2021 - Playing with both your feet and your hands
    [read more]
  • June 2021 - Finding the Range
    [read more]
  • May 2021 - The Focus
    [read more]
  • April 2021 - About Your Butt Cap
    [read more]
  • March 2021 - The Essential Forehand and Backhand
    [read more]
  • February 2021 - On Being a Doubles All-Courter
    [read more]
  • January 2021 - Same Grip Volleying Myths
    [read more]


  • December 2020 - On mechanics and style
    [read more]
  • November 2020 - THE BIG 3: The Glue That Keeps Your Best Game Together
    [read more]
  • September 2020 - Protocol and Game Tradition Revisited
    [read more]
  • August 2020 - As Good as Your 2nd Serve
    [read more]
  • July 2020 - Shot Shaping
    [read more]
  • June 2020 - Getting a Point in Jeopardy Back to Neutral
    [read more]
  • May 2020 - A Positive Mind-Set: On and Off the Court in Today's C-19 Reality
    [read more]
  • April 2020 - The Zombie Tennis Creed – Top Ten
    [read more]
  • March 2020 - A Roadmap Into "The Zone"
    [read more]
  • February 2020 - The service toss: myths and realities
    [read more]
  • January 2020 - Shot Gazing
    [read more]


  • December 2019 - The Dreaded High Bouncing Moonball Dilemma
    [read more]
  • November 2019 - Chalk Flew: Troublesome Line Calling without Hawkeye in Clubland [read more]
  • October 2019 - In the Spirit of Don't Drink and Drive… Don't Think and Hit [read more]
  • September 2019 - Old School vs New School [read more]
  • August 2019 - Getting the Ball Where You Want It [read more]
  • July 2019 - Taking Points Off…What? [read more]
  • June 2019 - Confidence Is Confidence: Take It Wherever You Can Get It [read more]
  • May 2019 - TENNIS INNOVATION IMPLODES [read more]
  • April 2019 - Defending the Court with Older Bones: A Club Player's Guide to Saying "Nice Shot" Less [read more]
  • March 2019 - Do You Have Doubles Rally Tolerance? [read more]
  • February 2019 - I Knew Jimy Van Alen: A Historical Look Back [read more]
  • January 2019 - The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste: Mental Toughness Skills [read more]


  • December 2018 - Less Bling is the Thing [read more]
  • November 2018 - Anatomy of a Doubles Serve Return…from the Inside Out [read more]
  • October 2018 - Older Dogs and New Tricks: Still Improving at Any Age [read more]
  • September 2018 - The All-Important Dynamic of Gripping [read more]
  • August 2018 - The Cinemascope Syndrome: Undermining Your Ball Watching [read more]
  • June 2018 - Serving and Returning Better with a Quiet Eye [read more]
  • May 2018 - The Man Who Breathed for Two [read more]
  • January 2018 - Rituals Anyone? [read more]


  • December 2017 - Why Serving is so Difficult in Clubland [read more]
  • October 2017 - Managing your body and mind in tennis space [read more]
  • August 2017 - Why Bother Breathing to Improve Your Game [read more]
  • May 2017 - The "Maintaining" One's Game as One Ages Fallacy [read more]
  • February 2017 - Punta Gorda Tennis Clubs: Setting the Bar [read more]
  • January 2017 - State of the Club Game: The Growing Death of Sportsmanship [read more]

Check back often for more essays.