Former sprinter Mark Richardson talked about being in the zone in the winter of 1996:
‘It’s a very strange feeling. It’s as if time slows down and you see everything so clearly. You just know that everything about your technique is spot on. It just feels so effortless; it’s almost as if you’re floating across the track. Every muscle, every fibre, every sinew is working in complete harmony and the end product is that you run fantastically well.’ - Extract from ‘Mind Games,’ Grout and Perrin, 2006.
Most athletes at some point in their career will talk about the phenomenon of ‘being in the zone’. Unfortunately getting in the zone and staying there is not as easy as most athletes would have hoped.
The techniques and tools in this article will help you to enter the zone and stay there for extended periods of time.
Intuition is an ability that involves feeling how events will unfold. In order to enter a zone-like state it is important to begin to trust and act on your instinctive feelings. However there is a huge gulf between intuitive knowing and intuitive acting. How many times during a performance have you said to yourself ‘I knew that was going to happen’ and not acted on this foresight?
Top athletes who enter zone-like states regularly do so because they are prepared to let go, and act on their impulses without fear.
'Intuitive knowing' and acting is especially important for fast paced sports that demand the co-operation of the mind and body.
A powerful way to develop and strengthen your intuition is to regularly train as if you are performing in the biggest match of your life. This strengthens your sense of focus and discipline that is required to perform well at the highest level of sport. By practicing with such intensity and commitment the brain is trained to work automatically under greater levels of pressure, allowing your intuition and instinct to take control.
The biggest predictor of behaviour is state. If you feel good then this positive state will be reflected in the quality of your performance. Spend a few minutes before every performance getting yourself into a resourceful state to dramatically increase your chances of performing well. Emotional rehearsal is one way to do this.
Emotional rehearsal uses the power of imagination to create a positive emotional state. By mentally recreating personal experiences productive states are produced encouraging the deliverance of zone-like performances.
Some athletes create internal pictures of their loved ones; some imagine the end product of feeling good after a strong performance, while others often reminisce about some of their best times in sport.
The subject material that is mentally rehearsed is irrelevant as long as it creates positive feelings.
Be aware, the more intense your internal experience are , the stronger the impact will be on your subsequent behaviour.
Focus can take two directions; inwards and outwards.
You should do the bulk of your inward focusing before matches, and your outward focusing during performances.
Applying this principle is important if you want to improve your chances of entering the zone.
By being outwardly focused during competitive performances you hand control over to your physical motor responses, allowing your body to operate on autopilot. When the mind and body switch to autopilot the chances of entering the zone are increased.
For information please review the Mindsport guide to developing focus.
Filling up your tank
The brain does not distinguish between real and imagined events.
Take full advantage of this, by filling your mind and body with powerful energy to get into a zone like state.
A good time to use this exercise is in the dressing room before competitive performances.
Get yourself into a comfortable and relaxed state by taking as many deep breaths as you need in order to achieve this. Close your eyes and imagine your body is a storage vessel with an individual tap on the end of each finger. Visualise and identify any negative energy that may currently reside in your body. This could be in the form of anxiety, nerves, apathy, or a number of other negative emotions that may be present before competitive performances. Notice the colour and form they hold inside your body. Now imagine opening all of the taps on your fingers in which you see all of the negativity drain out of your body. Do this until your body is hollow, and free of any negative energy. Now imagine with the taps still open, your body filling up with positive energy. Notice the colour, and the form of this positive energy and how it feels when it enters your body through the taps. Keep doing this until your body is filled to the brim with power and positive energy. Open your eyes when your mind and body feel energised and ready for action.
Play as if this is your last match on this planet
This mindset can be used for a number of important purposes. One of these is to encourage you to play without fear. Take time before a performance to convince yourself that this is going to be your last performance on this planet, and therefore it is your last chance to show the world who you are at your best. Allow this thought to reverberate through you, to deliver a top-class performance:
‘Play as is if your life depended on it, but know it doesn’t.’ Amir Khan
It is important to note that this technique may not work for everyone. Performing under this kind of pressure may inhibit some athletes, while for others it has the effect of harnessing their focal powers, helping them to deliver top performances.
Play for someone who you love
Making the commitment to play for a cause beyond yourself, will inject inspiration, drive and determination into your performance.
Athletes often dedicate performances to loved ones, admired individuals who have recently died, and sometimes for charities and other worthwhile organisations.
The effect on athletes who use this strategy is often miraculous. They appear as if possessed by a force greater than themselves, helping them to attain a zone-like performance.
Answering the following question before competitive performances may help you to enter the zone before performances.
How would you play if you wanted to express your love to someone close to you?
By directing your attention and focus to how you would play if you were dedicating your performance to someone special, the mind fills will positive thoughts and actions to increase the likelihood of playing at your best.
The power of process
Athletes are often distracted by performance outcomes. In professional sport winning is more important than anything else.
However its important to remember that consuming yourself with the outcome of winning does not tell you how to win. Its therefore essential that your focus is directed towards the processes that create the winning result.
Outcomes are just a by-product of the quality of the processes that you have followed. If the quality of the processes is poor, this will be reflected in the outcome.
Work out the key processes that form the backbone of performing well. For example, in the sport of boxing some of the key processes may include keep your guard up, stay on your toes and keeping your elbows tucked in at all times.
The key processes depend very much on the sport that you are playing. Sometimes it is useful to sit down with your coach to identify these key processes.
During a performance if you direct all your focal powers towards these processes, you increase your chances of producing a strong performance.
You can read more about the Mindsport approach to process orientation by following this link.
Enjoy the game
Focusing on enjoying your sport will increase the of enterinf the zone.
Feeling good causes the release of a set of chemicals into the body known as endorphins.
Endorphins are naturally occurring hormones that are secreted within the brain in order to carry information around the body. Endorphin secretion is associated with an increased sense of wellbeing and heightened receptiveness, improving the body’s functioning on a physical and a mental level. During zone-like states athletes often report heightened feelings of wellbeing and pleasure, much like the states associated with an endorphin release.
Therefore it is advisable that you get yourself feeling good before you perform, because there is a strong likelihood that being in the zone could well be a by-product of generating an increased amount of endorphins. Common ways to do this may include listening to music, using visualisation techniques, and using deep breathing exercises.
Do not try at trying
Falling into the trap of trying too hard when you want to achieve a desired result is easy. It occurs frequently in sport, when you get an athlete desperately trying to regain their past form. Unfortunately their attempts to get back to winning ways are usually in vain. The rule is, if you over-try to reach a particular outcome your efforts push your target further away from your grasp.
The key to entering the zone is to find the middle point between over-trying and under-trying. This state is probably the most important factor in determining how successful you are at staying in a zone-like state for extended periods of time.
The reason you often drift in and out of the zone during a performance is because of a failure to maintain the equilibrium between under-trying and over-trying. Sometimes when things are going against you, you will try to force the issue, tipping the scales towards over-trying. The moment this occurs you leave your zone-like state.
‘Don’t force the flow. When you push, things tend to push back.’ Neil (2006)
Many top athletes have had to go through hardships and adversity in order to get to the top of their game. Bereavement, long term injuries, and psychological issues are some of the challenges top athletes have overcome in order to get to the top. Two recent events in the world of golf saw Darren Clarke and Tiger Woods overcome the emotional turmoil of losing an immediate family member during the 2006/2007 PGA Tour season. Through persistence and tenacity they moved beyond their personal losses, and in the process became stronger and more accomplished athletes.
Accessing the zone more often, involves tenacity and determination. Whatever life or your sport may throw at you, hang in there. All it takes is a quick turn of events and suddenly you are back in your flow state, playing at your best. By persevering and remaining committed to your cause you maximise your opportunity to get back in the zone.