One of the most common expressions athletes use in describing their best play is “being in the zone.” The slang term “zone” is described as playing near perfectly, as though the athlete couldn’t miss if he or she tried. Athletes have talked about being lost in the moment, supremely confident, and never giving thought that they could fail or lose. Some athletes have further described the experience as time standing still, and having the most fun playing in the zone compared to any time ever before. This utopic feeling is the perfect mental state, allowing for effortless muscle-memory movements, incredible focus, and stamina that just keeps going. The million dollar question, then, is how do athletes regularly experience the zone so that they can play their best?
The science behind being in the zone…
While the zone is a slang term athletes use when talking about their best games, social scientists often refer to this experience as being in flow. When experiencing a flow mind state, the individual performing an activity is fully immersed in an energized focus, fully committed to the activity, and greatly enjoying the experience. Additionally, flow is not unique to athletes, as various other individuals from education, the arts, entertainment, music, and science have also reported being in flow and experiencing optimal outcomes. While we are not exactly certain why, or specifically how people experience flow, the general consensus is that a flow mind state can be experienced. Scientists have found the following 3 conditions generally need to be met in order to potentially experience flow:
- There must be an activity with a clear set of goals, progress measurements, direction and structure.
- The activity should provide clear and immediate feedback so that individuals can adjust their performance to maintain the flow state.
- There is a balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and their own perceived skills (in other words, the individual must have confidence in being able to complete the task).
Studies show that we are able to experience flow more easily when we are intrinsically motivated (interested in the activity for the pleasure of the activity itself) compared to when we are motivated to do something simply for the reward (extrinsic motivation).
Tips to help
Getting in the zone is a unique experience to each individual, meaning there is no “one size fits all” recipe to follow that will lead to flow. Interestingly, my experience working with athletes has revealed that oftentimes athletes experience flow initially by chance, with the hopes they will begin to learn patterns that help them repeat the feeling again in the future. A few additional tips to help include:
- Keep a journal. Rather than try and remember all the factors that may have helped you play in the zone, why not instead keep a running journal? When you have a “zone-like performance,” take note of the things you were thinking and behaviors you experienced as your great game was occurring. Ideally, by recording these findings you will be able to replicate them again in the future, providing a better chance of experiencing flow again.
- Establish pre-game routines. What you think and do just before games has a tremendous impact on your attitude, focus, motivation, and resiliency. Some athletes listen to music, complete a body relaxation exercise, or use imagery to help them see the success they want to experience today.
- Develop a bounce-back. Often in sports things happen to take you off your game, making it important to develop a bounce-back strategy that allows you to quickly re-frame your thinking and turn your focus toward the next play rather than replaying the last bad play.
- Refine approaches. As you learn more about the things that make you tick, be sure to adjust your approaches as necessary to ensure future peak performances.
Flow for life
Experiencing flow is not unique to sports, as flow can be experienced doing a variety of life activities. Teachers and business leaders can experience flow leading students and employees, musicians can experience flow while writing new songs, and construction workers can experience flow while working with others creating a new structure. Finding passion and purpose in what you do increase intrinsic motivation, which in turn can become the catalyst for experiencing flow in a variety of life experiences.
We may not ever fully understand flow, or “the zone,” but we do know there is a mindset that can be achieved whereby time seems to freeze, and our productivity is at its best. Knowing yourself and what makes you go is a big part of replicating flow, making it important to keep notes of your best performances and the things you thought and did just before the performance. Gradually, over time, you will begin to see trends and patterns best suited to your personality and learning style — hold onto those findings and use them for future self-improvement.