Getting in the Zone

Have you ever met an athlete who didn’t want to "get in the zone?" Me neither! However, getting in The Zone is overrated.

“What?” you say. “But that’s why I play my sport!”

Of course it is, and it’s an awesome experience when it happens. But, what we know about peak performances and getting in The Zone are two important things.

First, it is a rare experience. Second, it’s not something an athlete can MAKE happen. Let’s look at those two points. We know that elite athletes are only in The Zone about 10 percent of the time. If the best of the best can only get in The Zone 10 percent of the time, what about the rest of us? Most likely less than that. So, the question then is: How do you handle the other 90 percent when you are NOT in The Zone?

Now, the second point. No athlete can force themselves into The Zone. All an athlete can do is set the conditions to ALLOW themselves the chance to get in The Zone. So, what are those conditions?

It’s important to be clear about what you want to do. For example, a runner should be clear about his race strategy. A basketball player shooting a free throw should be focused on staying true to her routine and focused on the basketball goal (but not worried about whether she will make it or not).

Second, it’s important to have a back-up plan for the unexpected. For example, a soccer player should be mentally prepared to respond to the ball being stolen. Of course, he doesn’t want that to happen, but he must be prepared to quickly switch to defense in the event that it does occur (rather than criticizing himself for losing the ball or for making a bad play). A golfer should have a plan on how to cope with a bad shot, or with hitting a ball out of bounds, because it’s going to happen! It’s silly to pretend (and unrealistic to expect) that she will never hit a bad shot.

Third, it’s important to focus on the things you CAN control and let go of what you cannot control, which starts with winning. No athlete can control winning. That’s right. I said, NO ATHLETE can control winning. If they could, then wouldn’t they win every time? Now, this doesn’t mean they don’t or shouldn’t want to win. Depending upon their abilities, they should. However, focusing on and/or worrying about winning usually translates into more anxiety, less confidence and less-than-optimal performance, particularly if it’s a reasonably challenging situation.

In terms of what an athlete CAN control, there are two main aspects: your effort and your focus. Giving 100-percent effort is within your control and focusing on what you want to do in the sport is too. For example, a baseball pitcher knowing his pitch, focusing on the target, and firing away is within his control. The ability of the pitcher to STAY FOCUSED on these things may be difficult in a pressure situation (e.g., game tied, bases loaded with only one out), but IS within his control. HOW to do that is a mental skill to be discussed in another blog.

In sum, if you are focused on the right things, you are increasing your chances of getting in The Zone. And, that’s what it’s all about, giving yourself the best chance for success.

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