You’re probably familiar with the standard operating procedure for tennis clinics. If it’s for beginners, the teacher feeds balls, keeps the energy level high, and — if they’re doing their job — provides individual feedback. With more advanced students, they typically focus on strategy with the occasional personal tip.

This approach, while familiar, fun, and reasonably effective, overlooks an important aspect of group activities — entrainment. In community, people can tune into each other energetically and start inhabiting a sort of group intelligence that enhances individual performance and, often, teamwork as well:

  • Navy Seals are more than big-muscled sharpshooters with balls of steel. They receive intense training in entrainment. A Navy Seal team on a mission is a case study in the best sort of group-think. This is one of the main reasons they’re so good at what they do. Because each individual is a single cell in a collective multi-celled intelligence — think an ant colony with a really, really high IQ — their ability to read and react to their environment can become so enhanced that it seems straight out of The Matrix.
  • It’s not just the military that’s mastered group flow. Churches have been doing it for centuries. Those Baptist revival meetings? Speaking in tongues? That’s group flow, people, experienced as ecstasy.
  • And meanwhile, on the secular side, we have raves and trance dancing.

In terms of brain function, what happens when entrainment occurs is that the frontal cortex shuts down — it’s called transient hypofrontality — and the rest of the brain takes over. Processing speeds increase by orders of magnitude when this happens. This takes us into a state called flow (basically, our peak-performance self), the apex of which is the Zone.

The famous Zone, the beautiful Zone.

Entrainment can also happen on the tennis court. A person can self-entrain simply by being in dynamic, unencumbered relationship with the ball and the beautiful rhythms of the game. But we can also entrain with others. This is where group entrainment come in. When this happens, you become part of a rising community tide that lifts everybody in it.

The result: The potential for an ecstatic community experience (think Baptists and ravers) along with dramatically enhanced performance (think taking out bin Laden) — along with a deep and abiding soul-lesson about how good it is to be in flow.

Seems like quite a payoff, right? So why are the principles of flow and group entrainment not currently brought into tennis clinics? There’s a simple explanation, I think. The prevailing attitude is, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ Which is true enough — but it’s also created a kind of stuckness.

There’s a lot more out there, tennis teachers, than is dreamt of in your clinics.

In a recent meditation, I wrote about the difference between Tier One and Tier Two coaching. Tier One coaching is ‘flat.’ The student receives instructions and does their best to implement them. Tier Two coaching brings three-dimensionality into the equation. It does so by asking the student to note the quality of their mental operations — it invites them to get better by also observing the observer. And so the Tier Two coach invites their student to run experiments with their attention. For instance, “What happens when you watch the ball with soft eyes?” Or: “What happens when you focus on footwork and the rhythms of the game?”

A Tier Two clinic would have all the group members focus on the same thing collectively:

  • “Today, we’re all going to focus on exhaling loudly when we strike.”
  • “Today, we’re all going to focus on swinging freely, not hard. “
  • “Today, we’re all going to work on keeping what the French coach Patrick Mouratouglou calls a ‘low ceiling.'”

When you have a shared intention, a shared object of attention, and a shared activity, that’s how you create entrainment and group flow, with all the attendant benefits.

I’m not out on the court running clinics, so at this point this concept is only theoretical. I’m quite sure, though, that, in addition to being heaps of fun — there is such a thing as community ecstasy — clinics built along these lines would pay big performance dividends.

How often have you experienced group flow and entrainment? Was it magical for you? Do you seek it out consciously?