In the latter stages of 2015, a new book arrived on my doorstep, and over the holidays, on into the early days of this new year, I read it with much enjoyment. It is called, ” Zen Tennis (Playing In the Zone)”, and the authors are former world top ten player Bill Scanlon and Dr. Joe Parent. They have joined forces to produce a manuscript that is lively, informative, meticulously organized and of considerable value to players from the elementary level all the way up to the sport’s pinnacle.
The book is only 150 pages long, but the pages are packed with penetrating insights and sharp observations. Dr. Parent and Scanlon have divided their illuminating book into five sections. The first one is called ” The Zone”, explaining how someone can play in that exalted state and why people are unable to get there more often. Section 2 is ” The Mind”, focussing on getting the most out of that crucial facet of the game. Section 3 is ” The Match”, providing guidance to readers on preparation, challenges and maintaining composure during a tough contest.
Section 4, ” The Path of Improvement”, is a guide toward developing mental skills designed to take a player to his or her maximum level and then remain there. And Section 5–the closing portion of the book– is fittingly entitled ” The Game of Life”, demonstrating how tennis can enable those who play it to learn larger lessons about character that can carry them through the minefields of life.
What makes the book so appealing is the format. In all five essential chapters, Parent and Scanlon play off each other productively, and the reader clearly benefits from their wisdom that is conveyed from such different perspectives. Scanlon, of course, draws on his dynamic experiences as a top flight player. This American competitor toppled John McEnroe at the 1983 U.S. Open, reaching the penultimate round of that tournament before losing to Jimmy Connors. Aside from McEnroe, he cut down other all time greats including Bjorn Borg, Andre Agassi, Ilie Nastase, Stan Smith, Boris Becker and Mats Wilander. Scanlon was a quarterfinalist at Wimbledon in 1979, and he captured the NCAA Championships in 1976.
In 1983, at a WCT event in Delray Beach, Florida, Scanlon defeated Marcos Hocevar 6-2, 6-0, taking the second set without conceding a single point. That ” Golden Set” remains a record in the modern world of men’s tennis, the only officially recorded set of its kind. Parent and Scanlon both analyze what happened that day and make it apply thematically to the book, looking at that singular achievement in context. Remarkably, not until the umpire informed him after the match did Scanlon even realize what he had just done.
In any event, let’s examine some of the book’s critical lessons, doing so in sequence. Consider this from ” The Zone”. Dr. Parent writes, “When you’re in the Zone, it feels like you can see everything. You’re vision is like a wide-angle lens that takes in the whole scene and magnifies all the details within it. Everything appears to be moving in slow motion, so you feel like there’s plenty of time to react to whatever is happening. Sometimes it even seems like you know what’s coming before it happens…. There is no worry about eventual outcomes; you’re just in the flow of the moment. It’s as if you aren’t separate from what you’re experiencing–you’re part of the whole field of activity.”
Scanlon follows with his thoughts on being in ” The Zone”, tying it into his “Golden Set” experience. He writes, “The Zone was not some place that I had found; it was more like it found me. It was not being someone other than myself, but being fully myself. The skills that I had worked so hard to develop were suddenly showing through exactly as I had imagined them. I felt free to go ahead and play as if everything I did would work perfectly.”
Near the end of that chapter, Parent puts fear into a proper context, writing, “When fearlessness takes you beyond fear, you can accept the possibilities of both good and bad results without taking them as measures of your self-worth. Then you can trust your abilities and reconnect with the Zone.”
Scanlon recollects his first ever experience on the fabled Centre Court of Wimbledon in 1981. He faced 1979 French Open finalist Victor Pecci, and took the opening set in a tie-break. Thereafter, he remembers, ” I was able to just picture my shots and really go for my shots fearlessly. It felt so good to be free of micromanaging my strokes that I found myself in an amazing Zone, during which I felt almost every shot I hit would be a winner. The experience of being in the Zone lasted for the rest of the match and I won the final two sets 6-0, 6-0. By going beyond fear, I played my best tennis ever on the game’s most hallowed ground.”
In the second chapter on ” The Mind”,, Parent writes perceptively, “In Zen, mind and awareness are regarded as one and the same. The mind of awareness is open and spacious, the container of your experience. Like a mirror, it does not have any particular color or content of its own, but reflects whatever appears.”
Later, Parent elaborates, “What we discover as we look with non-judgmental awareness at the workings of our mind is that it isn’t just one mind. The Zen tradition teaches that we have both a thinking mind and an instinctive mind… The thinking mind is referred to as the conscious mind and the the instinctive mind is regarded as the subconscious or unconscious. Particularly important for tennis and other sports are how these minds are involved in decision-making and performing….Playing in the Zone means that you use your thinking mind for strategy, but rely on the instinctive mind for decision-making in action.”
Adds Scanlon, “Many times one aspect of your mind is functioning at a very high level and another isn’t. However, during the times when I played in the Zone, all the aspects of my mind were operating at their peak, at the right time and in the right place. The key was turning my performance over to my instinctive mind. When you play competitive tennis, being completely in sync rather than struggling with self-consciousness can translate into huge differences in results. People think that getting into the Zone means blocking out thoughts and clearing your mind. It actually is the full expression of all aspects of mind in perfect coordination.”
In Chapter Three ( ” The Match”), Scanlon recollects a U.S. Open quarterfinal he played in 1983 against compatriot Mark Dickson. Scanlon served for the match at 5-3 in the fifth set, and not only lost his serve but also took a spill, bruising his right hip. The match proceeded to a final set tie-break. Scanlon was drifting into negativity but then he ” remembered to flip the positive-thought switch.” Scanlon reminded himself that the match would be over in ten minutes. He knew that sounder execution in that sequence would be the decisive factor and made up his mind that he would execute better shots when it counted.
He sums up the experience this way in ” Zen Tennis”: “I could have thought about the misfortune of losing my serve for the match, or the pain in my hip, or the shot I’d just missed or the embarrassment I’d feel if I choked the match away. But my training helped me flip the switch and turn on positive thoughts before the tiebreaker. Ten minutes later I had won the match snd reached the semifinals of the US Open. When the time came to produce my best performance, I aced it!”
Let’s proceed to ” The Path of Improvement.” Here Dr. Parent is perhaps at the top of his philosophical and analytical game. He writes, ” Mindful awareness is an opportunity for exploration, discovering subtleties that you may not have noticed before. In Zen Tennis you are simply and non-judgmentally paying attention to what you are doing while you are doing it, being an objective observer of your own movements. This is different from self-conscious action, in which you are watching what you’re doing with a critical eye, directing your body to move a particular way, and bringing a sense of judgment and worry to the experience. Ideally, you want to be mindfully aware of every shot you play. You want to be fully present with your movements, but free from self-consciousness. By doing so, you can recognize your patterns, enabling you to reinforce your successes and learn from your mistakes.”
And so we move on to the concluding chapter, ” The Game Of Life.” Scanlon recalls losing an agnonizing battle against McEnroe at Wimbledon in 1983, just a few months before he upended the esteemed left-hander at the U.S. Open. He had set points in every set but lost them all and fell in straight sets at the All England Club. Scanlon felt ” depressed” at the time. But Scanlon altered his attitude and reexamined his loss, turning it into a triumph of sorts.
He writes in ” Zen Tennis”, ” The experience helped me through a number of challenges in my business and in my life since retiring from tennis. As a financial advisor I have weathered major crises in the markets over the years. My tennis experiences helped me to maintain a positive attitude and emerge stronger from each disappointment. I have a wonderful family and a successful business. So perhaps losing at Wimbledon [against] wasn’t so bad after all.”
The book is well worth reading. ” Zen Tennis” offers readers a wealth of good material. It should be read more than once by serious players with high aspirations. In my view, Scanlon and Parent are a first rate doubles team, blending their views cogently, looking out over the field of tennis competition freshly, giving us all a good deal to think about.
You can purchase Zen Tennis Playing in the Zone here