Getting in the zone – concentration and focus
The way people talk about ‘The Zone’ you’d think it was another dimension. In many ways it can seem just that. Everyone has those games or matches in any sport, or sometimes in education, business or the arts where they just seem to be so immersed in what they are doing they almost forget the world around them. The universe doesn’t seem to extend beyond that immediate moment and location in time and space. The result is often fantastic. It feels like production is tripled or every action is inspired and incredibly effective. Unfortunately, these moments in ‘The Zone’ tend to be fleeting and all too infrequent.
There are however small steps we can take to smooth our journey to ‘The Zone’ and help us reach that zenith more often.
One of the ways is to develop habits and cues that help trigger the emotional state most suitable for competitive sport . The good news is most of these habits and cues can be achieved by doing very mundane, ordinary things.
Small pre-game cues
Often we as squash players rush straight onto court from the car, work, school or wherever else and start playing a match immediately. No time to prepare and certainly no plan. We find ourselves a game down before we feel anything close to ready. This seems like a fairly obvious thing to say but rushing does not help as in order to perform at our best, we need to ensure we get our mind on the court and switched on. It’s very easy to feel like we’re still in the car, office or class room even once we’ve begun hitting.
Switching off the outside world is incredibly important. Nick Matthew, the four-time World Champion, said in his book ‘Sweating Blood’ that one of the things he would do to help himself get mentally prepared for going on court was to put his squash bag on his hotel bed.
This simple mental act of putting his [Nick Matthew’s] bag on his bed reminded him that the squash was about to begin and thus helping him to close out the rest of the world.”
There are all sorts of small things you could do to help your mind realise that squash is about to begin and the rest of the world needs to be shut out. I used to change my shirt between coaching and playing regardless of how much I’d worn it as this helped me to literally take off my coach’s clothes and put on my playing game (as not all of the things you do as a coach are beneficial for the playing side of the game!). For a junior that I coach, it is the action of taking a minute or two to put his squash shoes on properly and lace them up that helps him settle into the right frame of mind for squash.
Cues for you
Of course these small actions and mental cues need to be practiced a few times before they come effective and we begin to associate them with squash and getting ready, thereby causing the brain to begin it’s process of focusing in. They need to become ritual and you will need to commit to completing a small action every time before you go on court. They may not work effectively the first, second or even third time.
The small action or habit also needs to be something that works for you. Changing into squash clothes or putting a bag in a visible place doesn’t work for everyone.
If nothing jumps to mind as something that would help focus you, try to recall a few games where you felt like you had reached ‘The Zone’ and think about what you did before that game. How did you get to the court? Were you rushing or did you have time? At what point did you begin to feel ready and focused?”
When and Where
If you change clothes before getting in the car, it wouldn’t be workable to use changing into a squash shirt or top as a cue for getting focused, as you’ve then get to concentrate on driving afterwards. Ideally, you want something that comes a very short time before you go on court. Secondly, you need to ensure the focus achieved through your mental cue isn’t then disrupted because you need to concentrate on another action, such as driving.
If you are walking or taking public transport to your match, you can start your mental cues whilst still at your house but for anyone driving the mental preparation needs to come at the venue to be effective. It could be along the lines of the junior I mentioned above who takes time putting on his squash shoes or it could even be something simple like opening the door to the changing rooms, as if you are opening the door to the new world and shutting the door to the old.
Obviously, it is far better for you to be in a reasonably relaxed state when you enter the court and not rushing in a few minutes late, so always do your best to arrive a little bit early. Going on court and hitting a few shots before your opponent gets there is needless to say a great way to get in the zone and get loosened up. If you are able to, turn up ten minutes early and hit a few shots and limber up – it makes such a difference.
For some people, the nature of their life means that they will always be trying to cram a game in and all of us have those days when we have to rush on to the court and hurry through a quick warm-up feeling guilty for being late. If this does happen, look to on court cues to help you.
When warming up, don’t just hit the ball hard and aimlessly. One thing you can do is to hit three shots to yourself but to really think about what shot you’re going to hit. You could have an order such as straight drive, straight drive, straight lob and then hitting the ball over to your opponent. You could mix this order up and hit drive, lob, kill or any other variation of shots or even just freestyle. Just make sure you focus on each shot and give it purpose rather than just hammering it. This is a good way to start that process of zoning in.”
It also helps concentration to have a target. You might try to hit three straight drives in a row aiming for the service line. If you can combine changing the shots and having a rough target to aim at, fantastic. Maybe you’ll aim for the line with the drive, the top quarter of the front wall for the lob and then half-way between the service line and the tin for the kill.
Secondly, if you can squeeze in extra movement, do it. Boasting the ball or playing a short cross-court shot to the front corner of your opponent’s side and then following this up with a drive to your opponent is a great way to get your movement going. Try to also fit in a few jumps or twists whilst your opponent is hitting the ball just to warm-up the body a bit and get your mind in gear for the movement to come.
That’s all well and good. What about when you lose your concentration during a game? This is something that happens to a lot of players, usually after a good spell in the match. Complacency really is the greatest danger to a sportsman because it is often completely unintentional, which means it is able to sneak in unnoticed. Suddenly, the mind just wanders and before you know it, you’ve sat back a little and allowed your opponent a bit more room and not only have they earned a couple points, they’ve built up their confidence and settled. The momentum has now well and truly swung their way and now you are chasing the game and worse still, you’re unfocused and not playing as well as you were moments earlier. How can you stop this from happening?
In between rallies
Squash is such a high paced game there really is no where to hide. There’s simply no opportunity in play to take a few seconds like you might while a corner kick is taken in football or during a conversion in rugby. So the best time to refocus is clearly in between rallies and games. Games can last quite some time though so it is best to focus on the smaller chunks of time that make up rallies, as things can change dramatically between the beginning and end of a game.
Similar to the pre-game cues, the actions taken to aid concentration in-game are fairly small things which need to be tailored to each individual but can make a huge difference. Tennis star Rafa Nadal is notorious for his rituals in between rallies, which include moving a lock of his hair from each side of his face and gracefully fiddling with his shorts and bottom. Not that you should concern your opponent by picking your bum between rallies but it is these small actions which make the significant differences.
The best time to use refocusing cues is before the serve, as you have a good amount of time to have a think. If you have the serve, all the better as you can control this time to a greater extent but even if you don’t, your opponent can not serve until you are ready, so you don’t have to be rushed.
There are some small and easy things that you could implement today, such as taking the time before you serve to think about which serve you will play and where you will aim for it to hit on the front wall. Once you’ve picked a spot, it can help to really focus on this point. Some players also like to focus on something on the court before the rally begins – a visual cue. For this I recommend staring at the ball as it’s also very practical and can be done easily when you don’t have the serve.
If you have the serve, bounce the ball with your racket a few times. This is a personal favourite of mine and is used a lot by tennis players as it helps them to ease into to ‘The Zone’.
You can also use other senses to help you get in the zone in between rallies, regardless of who is serving.
One popular use of sensory cues in squash is touch. You may have noticed a lot of players wiping their hands on the walls. This isn’t always about sweat. A lot of players do this to help ‘centre themselves’. In other words, they use it to remind themselves they are on a squash court, in the here and now, and to block out all things that have come before or are going on around them.”
The other sense popular with sportsmen and women is sound. Some players will whisper a word to themselves before they begin a rally or an action. This is a particularly popular method for people involved in sports which are of a very stop-start nature such as golf or sports that involve only a very small amount of time such as diving. Our equivalent in squash is of course between rallies. I remember reading about one diver, whose name I forget, who would whisper the word ‘explode’ to himself before he dived. It helped him to focus in and achieve the mental state he desired almost instantaneously. If you can find a word that motivates you or helps you achieve focus, give this a go as well.
I recommend trying several of these and seeing which feels the best for you. Remember though that these things take time to become effective; you need to repeat the actions a few times for them to become second nature and capable of getting you in ‘The Zone’.