What, Or Where, Is The Zone?
Competing in sport, or even coaching it, brings with it a variety of emotions and mental experiences. Rightly or wrongly the positive ones have often been referred to as ‘the zone’. It’s not uncommon for athletes to say “I was in the zone today”. One of the more common requests we get is “can you help me get into the zone”?
The Zone and its cousin Flow are both describing a kind of effortless optimal performance. For both our internal process are not getting in the way of us being able to execute our skills to the best of our abilities.
These same internal experiences more commonly create barriers to effective performance. They can test an individual’s mental toughness by challenging their ability to self-regulate and manage these experiences constructively. Note the idea of “self-regulation” because we want our clients to develop the skills to do this on their own. Relying on others (which includes us as their performance psychologist) for this is a short term solution only.
Self Regulation is Psychbabble for Managing Your Emotions Yourself
The widely used Yerkes-Dodson Inverted U Stress Curve used to suggest that we should try and always be somewhat aroused. In other words, some nerves are better than no nerves before or during pressure situations.
This theory has two major flaws. Firstly, it overplays the role that emotions play in optimal performance. It incorrectly implies that athletes need to be feeling a certain way to perform at their best. We know this not to be true now. Both scientific and anecdotal evidence confirms that humans are quite capable of being excellent across a huge range of emotions. Secondly, the Yerkes-Dodson model suggests it’s bad to be too relaxed before you compete. This is BS. Unless you’re asleep and miss the opening whistle there is no downside to being very relaxed. In fact, if you decide to work 1-on-1 with one of our sport psychologists or performance psychologists then it’s likely they’ll introduce you to what we called the Relaxed Competition Mindset.
The Relaxed Competition Mindset
One way to begin to develop a Relaxed Competition Mindset is to understand the Zones of Awareness. These zones suggest that we can attend to information through three different zones. Zone One is an inner zone (physiological sensations). Zone Two is the middle zone (thoughts) and Zone Three is the outer zone (the five senses). When we are functioning well and coping with our situation, our awareness across these zones is balanced. This allows us to respond very effectively and efficiently. This is mighty useful in high-pressure situations because maintaining a balanced awareness means we can respond quickly to stimuli. In other words, we can maintain good levels of focus during perceived chaos.
When we find ourselves getting too caught up in one of the zones we can lose this balance. With this, our abilities can be impaired and we can experience distress, reducing the opportunity for optimal performance.
Being Outside Of The Zone
While each person is different, the way we respond to adversity can actually be quite universal. In such situations, people tend to become much more aware of their self-talk as well as their physiological state. “Oh my, I can actually feel my heart racing” for example.
When we first notice our thinking or physiology shifting in an unhelpful manner, using strategies such as mindfulness can prove effective.
When these experiences become too intense, trying to challenge our thoughts or become more aware of our body can be like we are putting fuel on an already burning fire. This is where the third zone (the outer zone) can become useful in helping us to manage.
The Five Senses
For touch, individuals competing outdoors might consider pulling out some of the grass from the field. Or tightly gripping a towel and noticing the feeling. What about taste? Eating as part of a pre-match routine can help but instead of quickly consuming the food, notice the flavours more. For each mouthful or while chewing gum, try to notice the release of flavour with each bite. With the sense of smell, noticing any smells in our environment such as muscle rub creams. For sight, individuals may ask themselves how many colours can they notice around them. Or how many people can they count wearing hats? For hearing, listening to music as part of a pre-match routine can really help get your head out of the way.
It’s Also A Matter of Timing
It should be noted that we don’t want to be considering these things while trying to execute skills. In other words, the majority of the Relaxed Competition Mindset work is down before we start competing.
Ultimately, that’s the key. We want to be able to shift our attention and focus where necessary to restore balance and composure to your internal state. In doing so, we remove some internal barriers to performance, which puts us in a position to meet our performance potential.
If you’d like our help Getting Into The Zone then below are few ways to contact us: