Steve Flink: “Zen Tennis” Review

Most authorities are in accord about one central point surrounding the competitive battlefield: the outcome of tennis matches is determined not simply by talent, technique and tactics. These skirmishes are often decided by the superiority of one player over another in terms of mental toughness. The mind frequently is pivotal in separating winners from losers, by the thinnest of margins, under the most arduous of circumstances. The space between the ears of competitors can matter more than anything else. 


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.

Reviewed by Rich Neher

Bill Scanlon almost needs no introduction. He is a former professional U.S. tennis player who won seven singles and two doubles titles during his 13 year professional career. The right-hander reached his career-high ATP singles ranking of World No. 9 in January 1984. He is known for upsetting top-seeded John McEnroe (7–6, 7–6, 4–6, 6–3) in the fourth round at the 1983 US Open and log wins over eight players who had been or would be ranked #1 in the world, including Stan Smith, Ilie Nastase (twice), Björn Borg, John McEnroe (three times), Ivan Lendl, Mats Wilander, Boris Becker, and Andre Agassi.

Bill is also known for achieving a golden set against Marcos Hocevar of Brazil in the first round of the WCT Gold Coast Classic at Delray Beach, Florida on February 22, 1983. Scanlon won the match, 6–2, 6–0.[2] A golden set is when a player wins the set without losing a single point. The feat is recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Bill has been a professional investment advisor since 1992. He is founder and principal of Advantage Capital Advisors LLC, a registered investment advisor in Los Angeles, California. He was formerly the senior partner of The Scanlon Group, a top wealth management team at UBS Financial in Los Angeles.

He also authored the book Bad News for McEnroe: Blood, Sweat, and Backhands with John, Jimmy, Ilie, Ivan, Bjorn, and Vitas as a tribute to the era during which he participated on the ATP International Tour. The book focuses on the high-profile personalities of the sport during that era, their rivalries, their celebrity, and the growth of the sport's popularity.

Dr. Joseph Parent is a highly regarded expert in Performance Psychology for sports, business, and the arts, as a consultant and executive coach. He is the best-selling author of ZEN GOLF: Mastering the Mental Game, as well as several other books.

Dr. Parent offers corporate keynotes, executive coaching, and mental game lessons at the Ojai Valley Inn and Spa Resort in Ojai, California, and is available for coaching by voice or video calls anywhere in the world.

ZEN TENNIS is a book tennis players who appreciate the importance of understanding the mental game will love. I was having a hard time putting it down once I realized how the content can help my own game. And a lot of help it needs!

The main chapters (and some of their content):

I - The Zone (Playing in the Zone, the mental game of champions, playing perfect and fearless tennis)

II - The Mind (Mental fitness, be present to win, nothing to fear but fear itself, not too tight, not too loose, trust your instincts)

III - The Match (pre-match routine, breathing, butterflies, not afraid to make a mistake, body language, staying power, distractions, handling pressure, post-point routine)

IV - The Path of Improvement (Training the mind, mindful awareness, practice being positive, making changes, practice big points)

V - The Game of Life (Accept who you are, let go of the past, never give up)

The character of ZEN TENNIS is shaped by the way it tells the story. On the one hand it's Joe Parent's structured way of describing what's goping on in a player's mind and on the court in scientific terms. On the other hand there is Bill Scanlon with stories from his matches and examples of what those mental aspects of the game really mean when it comes to being on the court and facing a determined adversary.

Starting many paragraphs with ZEN Proverbs and short stories from The Art of War and from The Secret Path of The Warrior is both entertaining and enlightening.


Some of the insights I gained from this book are extraordinary. Here are a few examples.

Dr. Parent describes the most important attitude of playing in the Zone
The outcome of a game, set, or match need not determine how you feel about yourself as a person. The perspective of richness is not all that common. Most people feel they need to constantly prove and improve themselves. We think that the only cure for our feelings of inadequacy is to "gold-plate" ourselves into something better. We think we need to be something different than we are in order to become what we want to be.

When you transform your "poverty mentality" into a "richness mentality," having a bad day won't undermine your trust in your abilities. The perspective of basic goodness allows you to create the ground for discovering unconditional confidence. 

About fearlessness
When you're playing in the Zone, when you are expressing your unconditional confidence, there is a quality of fearlessness. If you start to worry about making a mistake or fear that you won't be able to keep playing well, you'll lose connection with the Zone.

We usually think of hope and fear as opposites. However, if we look carefully, we can see that they are two sides of the same coin. Fear is the expression of not wanting pain after poor results; hope is the expression of wanting happiness from good results. However much you have of one, in its shadow there will be some amount of the other. 

About the importance of the instinctive mind as opposed to the thinking mind
Bill: 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.

Great read for tennis players who want to know more about their game, why they win or lose, how to get in the Zone, and how to stay in there.​

 Playing in the ZONE