Mental Toughness Digest for Sport & Performance.
The Zone; What & Where Is It & How To Get There?
By David Barracosa (PSY0001733584)
Competing in sport, or even coaching it, brings with it a variety of emotions and mental experiences. From a mental toughness perspective, we hope these promote a level of motivation and focus that enables consistent and high quality performances. However, these internal experiences can create barriers for effective performance and therefore 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 people to develop the skills to do this on their own rather than relying on others.
To examine the importance of self-regulation in a sport and performance context we need to look no further than the widely recognised Yerkes-Dodson Inverted U Stress Curve. This model identifies that an individual who is able to maintain an optimal level of arousal (stress) throughout a training session or match is in a better position to succeed through their effort and application. However, experiencing too much or too little stress/arousal can have a negative impact on performance.
So, how do we find and maintain that optimal level of arousal? This is where self-regulation strategies become so important as only an individual knows what they are experiencing.
One way to begin to understand the process of self-regulation is to look at the Zones of Awareness, which identifies that we can attend to information through three zones: an inner zone (physiological sensations), middle zone (thoughts) and outer zone (five senses – touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing). When we are functioning well and coping with our situation, our awareness across these zones is balanced, allowing us to respond effectively and efficiently. This is vital in sport and performance because maintaining a balanced awareness means we can respond positively both technically and tactically (where appropriate). When we find ourselves getting too caught up in one of the zones and lose this balance, then our abilities can be impaired and we can experience distress, reducing the opportunity for optimal performance.
While each person is different, the way we respond to adversity or perceived difficulties/barriers can actually be quite universal. In such situations people tend to notice the balance across their three zones of awareness is altered and they tune in much more astutely to their self-talk and/or physiological state. This may not seem like a bad thing, but it ultimately depends on the intensity of these experiences, as well as how far out of balance the zones are. When we first notice our thinking or physiology shifting in an unhelpful manner, using strategies such as self-talk/cognitive challenges and mindfulness (which have been spoken about in previous digests by my colleagues Chris and Alice respectively) can prove effective. However, when these experiences become too intense, trying to challenge our thoughts or become more aware of our body can seem like we are putting fuel on an already burning fire as these experiences are already overactive. This is where the third zone (the outer zone) can become useful in helping us to manage.
In situations similar to those described, as our awareness of our physiology and thoughts increases, we lose touch with our sensory experiences because we cannot attend to everything at a heightened level. But if we are able to bring some awareness back to our five senses, the intensity of our thinking and physiology begins to reduce in order to compensate, restoring the balance we are searching for. How do we do this? The answer is really only limited to your imagination.
For touch, individuals competing outdoors might consider pulling out some of the grass from the field and rubbing it between their palms or tightly gripping a towel and noticing the feeling. For taste, eating as part of a pre-match routine but instead of quickly consuming the food, notice the flavours in each mouthful or while chewing gum notice the release of flavour with each bite. For smell, noticing any smells in our environment or the scent of something you may carry in your bag. 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 and focusing on a specific instrument or noticing the sounds we naturally hear around us. These are just a few examples and I encourage you to think of your own as well.
It should be noted that we don’t want to be considering these things while trying to execute skills, but rather noticing them in preparation for a match or at moments during competition where we can naturally switch off, e.g. walking down the fairway in golf between shots or while a player is being treated for an injury on the field. By using this strategy to self-regulate, when it is time to compete and consequently return our focus to the controllables (our effort and intended actions in the present moment), we are going to be in a much better headspace to be able to execute. Ultimately, that’s the key – being able to shift your 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.