Playing in the zone: Examples from the French Open

May 31, 2009
Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic

When Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal crashed out of the French Open, their opponents were said to have played in the zone. But what does that mean? And how does it come about?

[Stop Press: Nadal lost in one of the upsets of modern tennis today to Swede Robin Soderling. The story has much in common with one I prepared following a less spectacular upset which occured a day earlier (and is published below). Both stories deal with the mysterious effect of playing in the zone.]

I don’t know how I did it

I don’t know how I did it, the delighted Kohlschriber said afterwards. He had just emerged from three hours of overwhelming tennis. Commentators said he had been paying completely in the zone. But what does that mean, and how does it happen?

To say an athelete was playing in the zone is partly another way of saying he or she played out of their normal routines, keeping to an unexpected level of excellence, minimizing mistakes, and perhaps producing one or more flashes of brilliance.

Kohlschreiber needed to be in the zone for an entire match to have chance of beating Novak Djokovic. He was certainly that.

I watched with growing interest, as at first I was mildly interested, having little expectation of a tight game [May 30th 2009] . The in-form Djokovic was a bit more erratic than usual. His opponent, from the start, was metronomic.

“Good technique” I told myself. “Good baseline strengths with forehand and backhand. But a bit too predictable”

Predictable like Nadal

He went on being predictable for three hours. But it was predictable like Nadal is mostly predictable.

Nadal’s opponents now pretty much know what is coming, but just can’t so much about it. Cricketer Shane Warne liked to say much the same about the effect he had when bowling. You might know what I’m going to do, but you still have to deal with it.

Today, Novak increasingly knew what was coming, and could never deal with it.

In the zone

There is an excellent on-line article by Matthew Krug on the theory of being in the zone . He suggests that being in the zone is akin to the concept of creative flow, noting

The zone is the pinnacle experience. It represents the absence of all that we dread in life. No fear, no worry, no problems. The individual feels at peace, one in body and mind. Individual movements that took years to master flow together in an amalgamation of body and mind that comes and goes like a thief in the night. Researchers study the experience and our knowledge of the phenomenon increases over time.

I’m not sure we understand it as deeply as we might, but the theory has considerable possibilities for further testing.

It suggests that skill execution involves differing kinds of mental activities which usually are mutually inhibiting. That is to say, we let one set of performance needs interrupt necessary delivery of another set of needs. The need to attend to signals of what the opponent is doing will often be blocked by the need to devise or stick to a strategy.

The more pressure there is under competitive conditions, the harder it is to avoid ‘beating yourself’ before letting your opponent do so.

There is much still to be learned about being in the flow, as there is about creative leadership, and as with other creative processes, it’s easier to recognize than to understand.

Technical Note

The article by Matthew Krug is a valuable contribution to understanding the theory of flow, an makes a good easy to understand starting point for sports scientists and athletes.

The article deserves a deeper critique than I can offer here. I would mention that the notion of flow as presented in the article differs from interpretations offered by creativity researchers. I feel that the ‘two-by-two’ model (external/internal; broad/narrow attentional span) needs a little more careful handling to provide convincing explanations of behaviours that sustain flow and ones that contribute to its breakdown.

Nadal v Soderling

Nadal’s defeat by Soderling would have been an equally good example of a lower ranked player pulling off an upset and playing to an utterly unexpected level. I leave that to anyone interested enough to ‘stay in the zone’ and complete the analysis …