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TennisOne Peak Performance

Playing Tennis in the Zone
The Parallel Mode Process

By Scott Ford, USPTA

Playing tennis "in the zone" is a remarkable experience. Billy Jean King once said that being in the zone "is what the game is all about." If you have played the game for any length of time, you have probably been in the zone a few times, maybe more. Looking back, you will remember the ease with which you played the game, the surety with which you struck the ball, the control you seemed to have not only over your own game but over your opponent as well. You will remember how every part of your game seemed to come together into a unified whole. Your concentration was total, your visual awareness heightened, your anticipation uncanny, your timing perfect. At times it even seemed like the ball was moving in slow motion, getting bigger as it moved toward you.

Top players like Guillermo Coria seem to slide effortlessly into the zone.

But there is one more thing you will remember if you have ever been in the zone. You will remember how difficult it was to reproduce the zone the next time you went out to play. No matter how hard you tried, no matter how hard you concentrated, you just couldn't get back into the zone.

Why is that? What is it about playing tennis in the zone that makes it so difficult to reproduce? After all, if you did it once, you should be able to do it again; right?

You would think so, but conventional wisdom says you can't control the zone. You can't make the zone happen.

In this series of articles, Scott Ford, USPTA Professional from Denver, Colorado and his team of sport vision professionals, neuroscientists, and motor behaviorists from Arete-Sports will take you beyond conventional wisdom into the underlying visual, cognitive, motor operating mode that produces your peak performance state. Through step-by-step, on-court progressions, and clips from the groundbreaking new video "Welcome to the Zone," you will be shown exactly how to reproduce your peak performance state every time you walk onto the court.

Serial Mode and Parallel Mode

As a tennis player you have two performance states: your normal performance state and your peak performance state. Without going into detail in this article, your normal performance state is governed by a visual/cognitive/motor operating mode called a Serial Operating Mode. Your peak performance state, however, is governed by a much more efficient and accurate operating mode called a Parallel Operating Mode. You don't play better tennis because you are in the zone, you play better tennis because when you are in the zone your visual/cognitive/motor operating system is functioning in its most efficient and accurate operating mode, its Parallel Mode. The increased efficiency and accuracy of your Parallel Operating Mode is the cause of your higher level of performance.

Fig 1

Fig 2

When I teach tennis players how to get into the zone, I don't go into the details of these two operating modes and their complex differences. Instead, I give them a concentrative task that causes them to automatically switch from a Serial Operating Mode to a Parallel Operating Mode, and with this change to a Parallel Mode of operation comes a corresponding change from their normal performance state to their peak performance state. In other words, by reproducing the underlying operating mode of the zone you will also reproduce the peak performance state of the zone.

Fig. 3

This concentrative task begins with visualizing an imaginary window pane spanning the court from sideline to sideline at a comfortable arm's length in front of you. (Fig 1 & 2)

If you draw a line vertically down the center of your imaginary window and horizontally across at shoulder height, you create four quadrants in your contact zone: high-right, low-right, high-left, and low-left. (Fig. 3)

The following video clip from "Welcome to the Zone" shows you how to set up your imaginary window.

This initial description is meant to give shape and dimension to the area of space in front of you known as your contact zone. Your imaginary window is a visual representation of the front side of your contact zone and will allow you to measure how well your strokes relate to the four quadrants of your contact zone.

Click photo to see how to set up your imaginary window.

A Different Objective

The next order of business in this concentrative task involves a different objective for your strokes. Instead of using your strokes to hit every ball back over the net, your new objective is to use your strokes to keep every ball from getting past your imaginary window. If you are successful in preventing the ball from getting past your window say "yes." (Fig. 4) If the ball gets past your imaginary window say "no." (Fig. 5) This immediate verbal feedback is an important part of the initial concentrative task you start out with.

Because the act of visualizing an imaginary window in front of you requires that you concentrate more on your contact zone than on the ball, I always suggest that you start the learning process at half-court. Like anything new you learn in tennis, it is best to start this concentrative task in a controlled situation.

Once you understand the size and shape of your imaginary window, then the main objective of your concentrative task is to use your strokes to keep every ball from getting past your window no matter where you are on the court.

Fig. 4

Fig. 5

The following video clip describes your new objective.

To review, when you first go out to try this on the court, three things are very important:

  1. Start at half-court with mini-tennis. Do not start from the baselines.
  2. Remember that your objective is not to hit the ball over the net, but rather, your objective is to use your strokes to keep the ball from getting past your imaginary window. Do whatever it takes to defend your window.
  3. Say "yes" when you successfully defend your window. Say "no" when you don't. Immediate verbal feedback on the task you are trying to complete.

Click photo to see how to defend your imaginary window.

Process Without Outcome

Sport psychology talks about the necessity of staying in the process and out of the outcome when you play tennis. The process of using your strokes to defend your imaginary window has no outcome. It is only a process. Your only objective is to prevent the ball from getting past your imaginary window. Say "yes" if you are successful, "no" if you are not.

This process without outcome takes a little getting used to, so give it time and remember to start from half court with your practice partner. Remember, you want to start in a controlled situation (mini tennis) and work your way into more varied situations. When I teach people how to get into the zone, we spend at least thirty minutes at half court getting comfortable with the visualization process and the use of verbal "yes/no" feedback. This immediate verbal feedback keeps you focused on the process of defending your window and keeps you from focusing on whether or not the ball goes over the net. Process without outcome.

Total Focus and Concentration

One of the psychological characteristics of playing in the zone is complete absorption in the task at hand. Total focus. Total concentration. You will find that using your strokes to prevent each ball from getting past your imaginary window requires total concentration and focus on what you are doing. In fact, the act of visualizing an imaginary window in front of you takes complete concentration, and when you keep the ball from getting past your imaginary window, something happens almost immediately. You start making positive contact with the ball, and positive contact with the ball creates positive results.

Focal Behavior

Playing tennis in the zone requires a change in your focal behavior. This means a change in the focus of your eyes, the focus of your mind, and the focus of your body. This series of articles will further explain why this change in your focal behavior is necessary and why you play so much better when you change the way you focus.

For now, however, the first step is enough, and the first step is learning how to defend your imaginary window.

  1. Visualize an imaginary window spanning the court in front of you at a comfortable arm's length.
  2. Use your strokes to keep every ball from getting past your window.
  3. Say "yes" is you are successful, "no" if you're not.

That's it. No more, no less. Start at half-court and work your way back to the baselines. Before long, you'll be defending your window in the backcourt, the midcourt, and the forecourt.

A simple exercise you can try is to see how many balls in a row you can keep from getting past your imaginary window. Continue to give yourself verbal "yes/no" feedback, and as you play this imaginary game, you will find something else happening. You will find yourself slipping deeper and deeper into the zone.

Next time: "Positive Timing and the Zone"

Your comments are welcome. Let us know what you think about Scott Ford's article by emailing us here at TennisOne.

(For more information about the Parallel Mode Process and getting into the zone, visit
 From Jim Loehr, Ph.D., renowned sports psychologist and author of "The Power of Full Engagement" on Scott Ford's new video "Welcome to the Zone."
 "Scott has devoted his entire professional career to understanding and mastering the zone in tennis. His training system is both effective and practical. His approach clearly demonstrates the importance of visualization in achieving peak performance."

 Jim Loehr, Ph.D. 
 To purchase Welcome to the Zone go to:

Scott Ford, USPTA  

Author, clinician and performance specialist, Scott has been a USPTA Professional since 1977. He is the author of Design B: How To Play Tennis In the Zone as well as numerous articles that have appeared in Tennis Magazine, ADDvantage Magazine, Sports Vision Magazine, Baseball/Softball Performance Conditioning Newsletter, The International Journal of Volleyball Research and Volleyball Coaches Journal.  

Scott has presented his unique concepts of human system dynamics, linear and non-linear teaching, and parallel processing in tennis at the prestigious USTA National Tennis Teachers Conference, USPTA World Congress on Tennis, and the Canadian National Tennis Teachers Conference.

In September of 2000, Scott joined a team from the International Academy of Sports Vision in presenting his theoretical model of 4-Dimensional Symmetry and Parallel Processing in sports at the 2000 Pre-Olympic Congress of Sports Science and Physical Education in Brisbane , Australia .

Scott is the President of Arete Sports, LLC, a team of scientists, researchers and coaches specializing in the human dynamics of peak performance. He teaches peak performance in tennis at the Colorado Athletic Club Inverness in Englewood, Colorado.

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