4.6 – Shortcuts to The Zone


‘Shortcuts to a more relaxed state of mind
are shortcuts to hypnosis and The Zone.’


Here are some ways to easily create a change of state that can be experimented with to see how they affect performance:


  • One-pointed Focus
    One-pointed focus, where the attention is completely absorbed to the exclusion of whatever else is occurring, is in itself a definition of hypnosis. So finding a point of focus which is engaging for a player will help them to find The Zone. This could be something as simple as noticing their breathing or the degree of spin on the ball.

‘Focus follows interest and The Zone follows focus.’

  • Blink Rate
    Blink rate appears to be neurologically hardwired to different mental states – blink faster and most people instantly feel more alert / blink slowly and most people instantly feel more relaxed and calm.
  • Peripheral Vision
    Hold up a ball and ask the players to focus on it. Then ask them to put their hands together in front of them and notice their hands with their peripheral vision, whilst still focused on the ball. Then, keeping their focus on the ball slowly open their arms until their hands disappear from peripheral vision beside and behind them. Ask them to move their arms slowly backwards and forwards and practise maintaining peripheral vision on their hands whilst still looking at the ball. Ask them what else they can notice with their peripheral vision whilst still focused on the ball. Then ask them if they were talking to themselves at all whilst in peripheral vision – were their minds quieter?

    If most of out attention is taking in information from a wider field on the outside, it makes sense that there is less attention on the inside. Most people report that internal dialogue is reduced or disappears when they are fully focused in peripheral vision.

    In tennis, it is possible to experiment between points and during points with peripheral vision to reduce internal dialogue and stay in the moment.

    Having less internal dialogue during a point fits with top athlete’s description’s of The Zone and a quieter mind. Focus switches from what is inside a player’s head to what is outside and so fits with a description of hypnosis as an altered state of being fully absorbed in an experience.

  • Jamming The Internal Dialogue
    If a player notices negative self-talk, they can practise jamming their internal dialogue by simply putting something else more interesting there instead – this could be singing a song in their head or using a mantra (repeating a positive phrase or word in their head).

    (See the Julie Silverthorn interview in the optional homework section on the next page where Julie talks about jamming her internal dialogue whilst learning to ski).

  • Monitoring
    When a player is in observation mode, they are focussed and in an altered state. For example, asking a player to monitor the level of relaxation in their wrist just before contact by calling out 1 (very tense) to 5 (very relaxed) will occupy their attention more in the moment and create more alpha waves in the brain.

    Simply asking players to monitor something can be one of the easiest ways to reduce interference and improve performance. Often there will immediately be a difference in their physiology showing an altered state – more relaxed, fluid movement, less tension in the face and around the eyes.

    Bounce-Hit can be looked at in this way – as a monitoring exercise. If a player is calling Bounce-Hit on both sides of the net during a rally, they are monitoring continually from the beginning to the end of the rally and so Bounce-Hit also works to jam the internal dialogue.

  • Closing Eyes
    As soon as we close our eyes, our neurology changes and we are in a light alpha state. Closing eyes at the change of ends can be a chance to relax and a mini-meditation / visualisation. Closing eyes briefly in the relaxation phase between points could be beneficial. Closing eyes briefly at the end of the Review/Plan stage between points can help to programme in process goals with visualisation. Closing eyes briefly at and/or just after contact with the ball during a point can help to increase relaxation and muscle efficiency and become associated with greater trust and ‘letting go’ of over-controlling and anxiety.
  • Breathing Slower
    A slower breathing rate is neurologically hardwired to the parasympathetic nervous system, relaxation and alpha brain waves. Can be practised usefully between and during points. Players can experiment with the effect of playing an ‘easy’ winner or a passing shot with a slow outbreath. Observing the breath will in most cases cause it to slow down. Allowing the outbreath to continue for longer and then waiting for the body to initiate the inbreath only when it gets the internal / automatic signal to do so can be quite surprising because of the length of the pause that can happen. This long pause is linked to a state of relaxation and is, of course, what happens when we are asleep, so can be a quick way in to a more relaxed mind and body. This exercise can be more effective than an instruction to ‘take a deep breath’ which could be associated with conscious over-control and even attendant anxiety (tense shoulders etc).
  • Visualisation
    Practising visualisation – mental rehearsal – is undoubtedly a key ingredient of high performance. Self-hypnosis techniques can be used to visualise emotional resilience, technical / tactical specifics and to help a player to navigate towards future goals. Rock climber Alex Honnold spent a year in focused preparation for his extraordinary free solo climb of the 3000ft face of Yosemite’s El Capitan in 2017, with many hours spent visualising every single move and every possible eventuality.
  • Dissociation
    When players report feeling as though they were watching themselves perform whilst in The Zone, this is a dissociative experience and shows that they were in a hypnotic state. Players can practise ‘letting go’ and allowing their autopilot to hit the ball. Being in ‘Observer Mode’ versus ‘Trying Mode’ is a mental dissociation experience. Simply asking a player to monitor an aspect of their technique will produce this state of mind.
  • Anchoring
    In NLP, an anchor is an unconscious / automatic response to a specific trigger. These can be created deliberately so that positive states can be anchored to a trigger; a word a player might say to themselves, something like a fist-clench or just the site of a tennis ball in motion. If the state anchored is one of relaxed focus, then the anchor becomes a trigger to The Zone.The next quote relates to the flow state at work, but applies equally to sport and especially to the use of anchoring in the Ritual phase of the between-points routine:

‘To induce a flow state, you must have rituals. Create a set of cues that your body can associate with being in a flow state. Things you do regularly around your work time. Once your brain has made the association, you can use these cues to signal to your body that it’s time to go into that hypnotic state. For example, my body associates flow with morning, tea, coffee shops, and earbuds. At this point, if I get some, or preferably all of these cues in place, I’m usually able to dive into a flow state fairly effortlessly.’
– Emilie Wapnick – puttylike.com

‘Neuroscientists now are telling us that the quality of the
moment before actiondetermines the quality of the action.’
– Jayne Storey – Performance Coach


Notice how many of the shortcuts to the zone presented above can be used to enhance the athlete’s state of mind at this crucial moment before action.



Back Next