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Focus and Flow on a Tennis Court

Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, the world’s leading researcher on positive psychology, coined the concept of ‘flow state’ in the 1960s, which is similar to being ‘in the zone’. He said people are happiest when they are in a state of complete absorption in the activity occurring in the present moment.

Playing in the zone is an idea that any competitor would love to reproduce. If we know exactly whatflow entails, then it’s something attainable that can be taught and trained for, an ideal for all tennis players to strive toward.

Csikszentmihalyi showed some prerequisites to ascending into the flow state. They are life skills: staying in the present moment, having clear goals, curiosity and a growth mindset, confidence, low self-centeredness, feelings of personal control over the outcome or situation, high intrinsic motivation, and even a loss of self-consciousness, or timelessness.

Have you ever had one of those days when you are completely stuck in your head? The trouble for most people when this happens is not being present or aware of thought patterns that distract us from life and athletics. Why is this?

The self, or ego, is an active wannabe superintendent of our heads. Thoughts spin out of control – some days morethan others – when we fret about the past or future, worry about things or people we know, or revisit old wounds, fears or insecurities. Staying present in the moment is uncharted territory for the mind, and a threat to the survival of the ego.

An active mind (ego) on court usually means poor focus on competing. Playing a tennis match can inspire a range of emotions for players. The last shot missed or game played, what could be or should have been, potential judgments of others, are all typical internal distractions. This is the ego emerging and the opposite of playing in the zone. Athletes can make it a practice throughout the day to check in with their minds and become aware of mental images. Controlling our internal dialog allows us to be in the moment. The act of being present is like a muscle that needs to be strengthened. When the mind wanders, hyper-focusing on breathing and what the senses detect what is felt, tasted, smelled, seen or heard – can help players return to what is in front of them.


In a Wired Magazine interview, Csíkszentmihályi described flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

During qualifying for the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix, Formula One driver, Ayrton Senna, explained, “I was already on pole, […] and I just kept going. Suddenly I was nearly two seconds faster than anybody else. I realized that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel.”

When tennis players become focused only on the movements of their body, the force of their lungs, and the feel of the ground beneath their feet, attention is placed only on external things, rather than internal mind activity – and they enter the zone.

Attentional theory by Easterbrook (1959) states that a person’s attention can lie on two possible continuums; an internal or external focus of attention, and of broad or narrow focus. An average performance has athletes moving their attention from broad to narrow internally and externally, just as they do in life. However, a player reaching a flow state becomes so immersed in the task at hand that the internal focus goes away. Players point their attention only to relevant task cues in their immediate environment, and their attention ‘flows’ only from broad to narrow focus on their external environment.

Competitive instincts take over, self-talk dissipates, and the conscious mind quiets. The act of focusing on external attention only, with internal focus dissolving away, is the act of playing in the zone. In tennis, a player in flow sees only the opponent and the general situation in the match (broad external focus) before each point begins. Once each point starts, s/he places full attention on the ball and into instinctively executing each shot (narrow external focus).

Matthew Krug’s 1999 article inAthletic Insight, the Online Journal of Sport Psychology, showed his study of Monica Seles and her concentration. Seles’ high narrowing score meant she could block out any and all distractions when playing, and fully focus on hitting each shot to the best of her ability helping her win nine Grand Slam titles.” Said Seles, “Once you think about being in the zone you are immediately out of it.”

She also helped prove in the study that technique and strategy must, through practice and repetition, be made reflexive. “By making these actions reflexive,” wrote Krug, “the mind is free to become immersed in an external focus. This immersion defines the zone.”

For tennis players, practicing strokes and strategy with feedback from coaches can develop good habits and make such actions reflexive during matches, especially if they adopt what Stanford psychologist, Carol Dweck, calls theGrowth Mindset, where they believe their talent can be developed through learning and experience.

To be present, or H.E.R.E., means that an athlete is Honoring Every Recognized Experiencemoment to moment. It’s not what if, it’s what now. To play in focus and flow is a challenge for everyone, whether a pro or adult recreational level player. However, when a player has solid technical and strategic instincts and an awareness of being present, he can purposely quiet his internal dialogue during competition, place his attention fully on the external task relevant cues, become completely absorbed in enjoying the process of playing and enter the zone.