The Ideal Performance State

Do you have players who throw their racquets and scream throughout their matches? Does one of your players give up as soon as she is broken once or twice in a set? Is one of your best hitters a choker who consistently loses to players with much weaker strokes?

Anger, tanking and choking are three of the four mental performance stages in which players may find themselves during a match. Your key, as a coach, is to help them reach the fourth – the Ideal Performance State.

Sport psychology’s main guru, Dr. Jim Loehr, popularized the concept of the Ideal Performance State (IPS) and the various stages players go through to get there, in an effort to help coaches and players better deal with the stress of competition.

Before you can help your players cope with their mental demons on court, they’ll need to understand what their emotions mean, in order for them to deal with them on a more subjective level.

The Four Mental Stages

Picture your mind as a bulls eye, which is made up of four concentric circles.


The outside circle is tanking. Players who tank simply quit trying, sometimes purposely hitting balls long or in the net. By tanking, a player can rationalize that he or she didn’t really lose because they didn’t try. They may do this to avoid giving credit to a rival they can’t stand, or to save face by avoiding failure. It’s always disheartening to try and fail; not trying eases some of this pain.

Prepare your players for the time they may find themselves tanking. One way to motivate a player who feels that the match is lost is to set micro-goals, such as winning the next game, or holding serve the last two games of the set her or she serves. Instead of simply hitting the ball as hard as he or she can in an effort to end the point, at least have your player go for winners. Practicing particular shots, such as passing shots, short, crosscourt angles, or other shots may allow the player to get some success and enjoyment out of the match, and may even get the player back into the match.

Almost anything, even low-percentage tennis, is better than tanking.


The next circle in the bulls eye is anger. The anger ring is closer to the bulls eye because anger comes from a player who is trying, but losing, and becoming frustrated. The angry player at least cares. Anger may result from the player’s reaction to an opponent (who is cheating or practicing gamesmanship) or may be directed at the player himself (for poor performance).

The problem with anger is that is an uncontrolled release of emotions, with no positive impact on the player’s game. It is most often accompanied by negative self-talk, which is usually put-downs of the player (e.g., “You idiot. You can’t hit two balls in a row!”). Players who throw racquets, swear, scream, hit balls into the fence or kick things are letting off steam, but not doing anything about the cause. Before they know it, they are out of the game, set or match.


The next circle is choking. Choking is simply fear. When a player is trying, but losing, they begin to compensate by becoming more conservative in their play. They hit weaker, shorter balls. Their serve toss becomes lower. They react to opponent’s shots, rather than try to dictate play. Their weight is typically static or moving backwards, as they let the ball play them, instead of vice versa. In short, they panic, and their fear begins to paralyze them. Some of the results of choking and methods for dealing with this mental state are outlined in article “How Chocking Affects a Player’s Strokes” in the March 2002 issue of High School Tennis Coach.

The Ideal Performance State

The Ideal Performance State, also known as “The Zone,” is that state in which a player is able to hit the ball where they want, how they want, when they want. When players enter the IPS, their confidence soars. They become players, thinking tactically on the other side of the net, rather than hitters, who think technically on this side of the net. Even when they are down in a game, or trailing in a set to an opponent who is playing well, they love the battle.

What most coaches fail to realize is that “The Zone” is more a motor phenomenon than a psychological one. No player who hits the Zone is ever hitting poorly. Players who hit balls into the fence and consistently double fault don’t talking about being in the Zone. What players who are hitting badly do, however, is consciously think about mechanics while they’re playing.

Players who are in the IPS don’t think about their grips or footwork; they are focused on the other side of the net, measuring crosscourt vs. down the line, or trying to wrong foot an opponent by setting him up with a combination of several shots.

Players in the Zone often refer to themselves as “being unconscious.” This means, their brain was responding to the goals it was being given (crosscourt, deep, etc.). When player consciously try to override their brain’s stored motor memory by thinking about mechanics during match play, there is no way the brain can do what it has been trained to do.

To help your players get into the IPS, make sure they understand which of the four mental states they may be in. If they understand what the IPS is, and that they need to get out of their brain’s way and let it do it’s work, this may help them clear their minds of the conscious directions that interfere with stored motor patterns.

During practices, have your players try to recall any times they were in the IPS during a match, and try to recreate the feeling they had at that time, during this practice. Ask them to recall the temperature that day. Was it a noisy or quiet court? Were there any smells associated with that match, such as fresh-cut grass or a particular sports drink? Was it windy or calm?

Sport psychologists often refer to this technique as “visualization,” however some sport psychologists ask their players to visualize future matches, and future winners. Because the brain has not experienced this yet, it’s debatable as to how useful this really is.

Make sure that any time your players hit the Zone, they take note of how they’re feeling, so they can catalogue it for later use in another match.

Helping your players understand the four mental stages in which they may find themselves during a match, why they happen and how they can deal with them during matches will help your players achieve the Ideal Performance State much more easily, more often and result in more wins.

Back to Top