Switching Focus In Tennis: Playing the “Zone”

Editor’s note:  In watching the US Open Tennis Championships these past few weeks I was simply amazed at the incredible speed of processing these athletes demonstrated in match after match.  The Roger FedererNovak Djokovic match was the ultimate challenge for both players.  Taking nothing away from Rafael Nadal, (check out the first video) who advanced to the final, these giants moved with speed, grace and controlled power that was exemplary of athletes ‘playing in the zone’.  The “zone” is spoken of often in that it is characterized by a state of focus, concentration, and flow in that “nanosecond” that is the NOW.  This article attempts to provide another dimension to this definition – which comes perfectly in the game of tennis.  Scott Ford, a USPTA Pro has studied, developed and teaches a (cognitive-visual-perceptual-physical) “ZONE” to which tennis players can strive to achieve peak performance.  This article provides a more extensive look at the process of shifting focus and playing in the zone.

 by Simon Hartley, MSc, BASES and Stephen Walker, PhD, CC-AASP

Be World Class

A little while ago I asked a National Head Coach, ‘what separates genuinely world class tennis players from the rest’. His answer was very insightful. One of the keys, at the very highest level, appears to be the way world class players are able to control and switch their focus very quickly within the PDA cycle.  Consider Tennis at the highest level of play:


If you have not come across the term PDA cycle before, it stands for “Perception – Decision – Action”.  This is the mental process athletes involved in interactive sports go through when they perform. Firstly they perceive. They read what is going on around them. In tennis, if their opponent has just played a shot, they will assess the trajectory and power of the shot, the opponent’s position and their movement. All of this information (and more) will then inform their decision. What the player does is based on their perception. Where will they move? What shot will they look to play? These things factor into their decision and once they have made their decision, they will execute their move and play their shot.

Obviously, as a player moves through this cycle, their point of focus frequently changes. When they are in the ‘perception phase’, their focus needs to be wide and primarily external. They need to pull in information from the world around them. They must focus on what they see, hear and feel from their opponent and their environment. As they enter the ‘decision phase’, that focus must switch and become internal. A helpful guide to understanding this process is Nideffer’s Attentional Focus Model.

Once a player has decided upon the most effective move they need to be able to execute it well.  In order to execute skills and play high quality shots, a very specific and narrow point of focus may be required. In some cases that might be predominantly external (i.e. focusing on an external cue, such as the ball or your opponent’s movement on the court) and in some cases it is primarily internal (i.e. focusing on the feeling cues from our body which helps us to regulate the power and weight of our shot). Interestingly, many high level coaches talk about ‘shot responsibility’. They explain that at the moment when a player is executing a shot, they should be entirely “immersed” in the shot. That moment should be their ‘quiet time’ when everything else except the shot disappears into the background; it is a moment devoid of anything else (Hartley, 2010a).

The ability to control our focus throughout that cycle is an aspect that separates great players from the pack. Controlling focus and changing focus very quickly is a skill that requires lots of practice. High level coaches are also aware that the PDA cycle has more phases in expert performance. It is not simply a case of perceiving, then deciding and then executing. As players become more experienced they often have a secondary perception and decision phase before they execute their action. Essentially, they make another assessment before playing their shot. Is it still the right shot? Is the opponent in the same position that I expected them to be in? If they are, I may simply confirm my initial decision and go with it. If not, I may need to change tack and play a different shot.

Timing and the Speed of Processing –

In a match situation, we are not given more time to cater for the extra perception phase, the re-assessment and another decision. The ball doesn’t slow down to allow us to fit these extra processes in. Therefore, we must run the processes more efficiently and change our focus almost instantaneously. Neurologists and ophthalmologists sometimes refer to this as parallel mode processing.  Clearly it involves cognitive perceptual visual spatial activity in the brain.

If we fail to focus back onto the shot quickly enough, we deny ourselves that important ‘quiet time’ in which to execute the shot. This can lead to errors (Hartley, 2010b). Tactically, we can help ourselves by starting the whole process as early as possible. Physically we can ensure that we can move quickly and therefore give ourselves more time at ‘the sharp end’.

The ability to make late decisions separates players in a number of ‘open skill’ sports – where they are required to react to their opposition. When athletes are finely trained in shifting focus quickly & efficiently their opponents have less chance to respond.  Novices find that hard to do because they may not have the ability to switch their focus between perception, decision and action at lightning speed. Not only do they require longer in each phase of the cycle (i.e. it takes them longer to perceive and assess, and longer to make their decisions), it also takes them longer to pin their focus firmly on the execution of the shot.

One Method for Practicing the “Zone”

The ability to switch focus quickly and efficiently is often the missing link for players who are technically superior, but find it hard to fully realize their technical superiority in match situations.  Controlling and rapidly switching and honing focus is a skill. Therefore, like any other skill, it needs to be practiced!

But how?  And how do you know when you’re there?  One noted pro, Scott Ford, a USPTA Professional Tennis Instructor and author of Design B: How to Play Tennis in the Zone (1984), recommends one method touted to guarantee that a player is able to enter the “zone”.  He employs a model for timing and execution in Tennis that employs the “cognitive visual processing” functions in training advanced players. The method requires the athletes’ “PDA Skills” incorporate the practice of parallel mode processing.  Check out Ford describing in rudimentary terms the “zone” which equates to a cognitive-visual-spatial consideration in playing the game:


Training the Speed of Information Processing

The “zone” has been most widely connected with Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who has done a significant amount of research on levels of concentration and focus in many areas of human functioning. His seminal work: Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Performance has been cited numerous times in this arena.  However, the incorporation of visual processing in this field has now taken on a lot more significance.  Consider this:


In the coming weeks Podium will feature a Podcast with David DaSilva, director of the vision training program for the IMG Academy in Florida.  IMG has gained notoriety in its affiliation with the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, and now develops individually designed personal training for athletes in many sports including those preparing for the NFL Scouting Combine.  DaSilva and his department use “Strobe Glasses” to help athletes increase their reaction time – so that they can effectively “slow the game down”.

Stay tuned for the Podcast coming up later this week, and in the meantime – consider the target zones (1-2-3) you need to keep in mind when practicing on the court.  The precise attention you give to the ‘hitting zone’ offers a whole new meaning to Tim Gallway’s Inner Game of Tennis.


Hartley, S.R. (2010a) ‘Athletic Focus & Sport Psychology: Key To Peak Performance’, Podium Sports Journal, December 2010. Available Online. HTTP. <> (accessed 21st December 2010).

Hartley, S.R. (2010b) ‘Momentum Shifts in Sport: Value the Psychology Behind Them’, Podium Sports Journal, December 2010. Available Online. HTTP. <> (accessed 4th April 2011)


To find out how to master your own motivation and create a high-performance, motivational environment, download ‘Master Motivation for Sport at http://www.be-world-class.com/webinars/sport-webinars/master-motivation-in-soccer-webinar.

Simon Hartley, MSc, BASES Accredited Sport & Exercise Psychologist.

Simon is a freelance sport psychologist & performance coach at Be World Class. In recent years he has worked as a consultant performance psychologist to the English Institute of Sport as well as working with a range of professional sports in the UK. Simon has worked with Premiership and Championship football clubs, international teams including England Squash and professional golfers.

Simon Hartley is an Olympic Sport Psychologist, Performance Coach and the author of Peak Performance Every Time (published by Routledge).

Photo Credit: Dominik Walker (2011)

4 thoughts on “Switching Focus In Tennis: Playing the “Zone”

  • December 29, 2011 at 1:14 pm

    Hi Steve,
    I just wanted you to know I enjoyed the zone focus extrapolations on tennis.
    I think I’ll try it!

    • January 2, 2012 at 4:14 am

      Thanks Dave – techniques that help provide greater precision to the eye-hand movement and target focus can be designed for so many sports. This type of approach is applicable to any racquet sport, baseball (especially batting), and a host of others. Appreciate the feedback.

  • December 26, 2012 at 11:55 am

    I drop a comment each time I especially enjoy a post on a website or I have something to
    valuable to contribute to the discussion. It is caused by the fire displayed in the
    post I read. And on this post Switching Focus In Tennis: Playing the “Zone” | Podium Sports Journal.
    I was actually excited enough to post a commenta response :
    ) I do have a few questions for you if it’s okay. Could it be only me or does it give the impression like some of the remarks come across as if they are left by brain dead people? :-P And, if you are posting at other places, I would like to follow everything fresh you have to post. Could you list all of all your communal sites like your twitter feed, Facebook page or linkedin profile?

    • December 31, 2012 at 3:44 pm

      Thanks Mel,
      We do have a fan page on Facebook, and although I haven’t really gotten it together I have a twitter feed which is sportspsychcoach. This work by Scott Ford combines visual focusing ques on the hitting zone in tennis, but the applications for baseball and other target sports is noteworthy. Thanks for staying tuned, we’ll be more active in 2013 because we’ve been developing an editing staff. Best to you in 2013.
      Stephen Walker


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