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MENTAL TRAINING: Entering the Zone

By Miguel Humara, Ph.D.

We have all heard about “the zone,” that mythical place where one can do no wrong. When in the zone, you know you are there and you know you can’t miss a shot, the mind and body are united in their purpose. A visit to the zone is unforgettable. Some athletes report experiencing a state of focused energy, or a transcendent state of well being, or an altered sense of time, or being “on a high.” The runner’ high is well know and the most recognized example of peak moments or being in the zone. It is characterized by an unexpected euphoric sensation, in which the athlete feels an increased sense of well-being, enhanced appreciation of nature, and transcendence of the barriers of time and space. Well exactly what is the zone? How can athletes to find it at will?

There are many variables that contribute to an athlete functioning in the zone. The experience of an athlete in competition has both physical and mental components. In order to enter the zone consistently, an athlete must master both components. The five keys to opening up the zone are physical ability, focus, confidence, calmness, and excitation.

  • PHYSICAL ABILITY – The most important variable in entering the zone is the athlete’s ability to make the physical, technical, and strategic demands of their sport automatic. These are improved by only one thing, hard work during training. Nothing can replace the hours upon hours of practice that are required to make physical skills automatic. Technique must be honed, so that the athlete does not have to think during competition. A strategy must be set before the match. Quality performance results from quality preparation. If the preparation of an athlete’s physical abilities is there; then the zone may be close at hand.
  • FOCUS – The second ability necessary to performing in the zone is the ability to shift concentration from a broad to narrow focus. We often hear individuals complaining of external events detracting from their performances. When in the zone, athletes report a lack of awareness of these minor distractions. Focus in the zone means that your attention is fully preoccupied with the task at hand. Try the following exercise using a red laser pointer to improve your ability to shift concentration smoothly. Lie on the floor facing upwards with your eyes open. Have a friend turn the lights out and make the room as dark as possible. You should focus your eyes on the center of the ceiling but keep your peripheral vision on all corners of the ceiling (broad focus). Have your friend shine the pointer in one corner of the ceiling and focus your attention on that spot. Your friend should then strobe the dot and you should count the number of times that it was flashed (narrow focus). As you become more adept at this exercise, the difficulty level can be increased by speeding the drill up or adding background distractions such as music or crowd noise level. This exercise will help you to focus only on those cues that are relevant to the task at hand.
  • CONFIDENCE – Confidence is a commonly used psychological concept that can be defined as “a feeling of assurance or certainty, especially concerning oneself.” Playing with confidence means both being relaxed and having positive expectancy about your next performance. Positive expectancy and confidence are key features to the zone that are symbiotically related. A critical aspect of confidence is the expectancy that you will hit your next shot well. This can be achieved through actual physical practice or through mental rehearsal or positive visualization. Positive visualization is a basic imagery technique proven to enhance performance and we see it is a key feature of playing in the zone. Try imagining yourself executing your sport’s skills perfectly. For example, if you are using mental rehearsal to improve your basketball free throw shooting ability, imagine the ball going through the rim touching only the net not bounding off the back board and then in. If you are using it for putting on the golf green, then imagine the ball going right into the hole not just close to it.
  • RELAXATION – As an individual is having a peak athletic performance, a great deal of anxiety is often produced as a by-product. Thoughts like “I’ve never played this well, I wonder when I’m going to fall apart” or “I can’t keep this up for ever” are common and can producer levels of anxiety that will lead to a deterioration in performance. In order to combat this another imagery technique is useful. Imagine yourself pulling a little basket behind you. It is attached to you by a ten foot rope. Every time you have an anxiety producing thought visually place it in the basket behind you so it is permanently removed from your body. Keep placing those negative and fright-producing thoughts such as “I wonder when I am going to mess up!” in the basket outside of you and when you develop this habit you will start to maintain your ability to stay calm. Remember the athlete’s conundrum – “The more relaxed I am the better I play and the better I play the more relaxed I am.”
  • EXCITATION – Ironically just as calm is a necessary ingredient to getting into the zone, excitation is as well. There is a certain level of intensity that is necessary in order to perform well. Too little or conversely too much intensity will hurt performance. Excitement is felt when you are about to defeat an opponent or best your former personal record. In this context, excitement relates to aggression. One technique that is often used is to remain silent during competition. It is effective because it removes the player from the psychological interactions usually experienced during the round. When this is done, it is far easier to feel less guilt or conflict about acting aggressively about winning and you remain in the zone for longer periods. This very useful technique is surprisingly difficult to put into effect and you will find that most amateur athletes are more concerned about their social image than their performance and will not take the risk to be seen as cool or aloof by remaining silent.

The zone is the pinnacle experience. The zone is that unique place that indicates one is in the right physical, emotional and mental space. It represents the absence of all that we dread in life. No fear, no worry, no problems. The individual feels at peace, one in body and mind. The zone is part gift and part grit. It is the reward given to those who spend the time necessary sharpening the skills to consistently perform at a level few achieve. In order to enter it consistently, one needs to learn to think kinesthetically and visually and use the five keys to open up the zone: physical ability, focus, confidence, calmness, and excitation. Making use of these will allow the athlete to arrive at that very pleasurable and unforgettable place known as the zone.