Athletes regularly talk about “being in the zone,” but rarely can tell you how they got there — or what they need to do in order to get in the zone again in the future. In essence, they know there is a “zone,” and for most athletes the only skill or knowledge they have as far as replicating the zone-mindset is to simply hope they will be able to do it again. Using an analogy, this would be like an amateur chef in the kitchen who ever once in awhile cooks up a masterpiece — yet has no idea how he did it, nor any clue about how he might cook another masterpiece in the future.
The good news for athletes looking to “lock in” with their mental toughness and get in the zone is this:
- The zone, or being in Flow, is in fact a very real mind-state that does exist. Psychologists have studied this phenomena and most agree that we do have the capacity to become absorbed into activities and ultimately play at a higher level as a result.
- Being in the zone is not limited to sports, as all people can learn ways to get in the zone with just about anything they do. This means athletes can use this mindset to help in school, as well as their social and career-related experiences.
- The zone is actually a mindset that involves a number of inter-related psychological factors, including interest level, motivation, confidence, resiliency, and task difficulty
Breaking Down The Zone
Lets take each one of these psychological factors separately. First, it is well accepted by psychologists today that the zone, or “Flow,” is in fact a mindset where people lock in and become absorbed by what they are doing (i.e. playing their sport). In these instances, we often lose awareness of outside distractions, including time, and our focus on the task is heightened. Similarly, when in Flow we are motivated to succeed, and often challenged by the task (meaning the task is not perceived as impossible, nor so easy to do that it is worthless to bother doing).
Second, being in the zone is not limited to sports — in fact, most of us experience Flow from many different things including exercise, hobbies, studying, artistic endeavors, and sometimes even work. Ask yourself, how many times have you gotten lost in an activity because of the challenge and enjoyment of the activity?
Finally, the main features of Flow include interest level, motivation, confidence, resiliency, and task difficulty. When you are interested in things you have a much greater chance for Flow, while having no interest in an activity makes it nearly impossible to reach Flow. Similar to interest level, when your motivation to complete (or succeed at) a task is high, you also increase your chance for Flow. Confidence is also key, as you need to believe you can be successful or it will be near impossible to experience the zone. Athletes must also be resilient, and not have thin-skin when it comes to frustration, stress, and adversity. Finally, and perhaps this is the most intriguing aspect of Flow, is that the task you are engaged in must be challenging, and not too easy or too difficult. This makes sense when you think about it — if the task is too easy you will become bored, and if the task is too difficult you will likely become frustrated. The key, then, is to find tasks that are very challenging and will keep your focus and motivation high.
Athletes & The Zone
Most athletes have experienced moments of Flow, most likely because they greatly enjoy playing sports, are motivated to succeed, and regularly compete against other athletes who are roughly the same ability. It is in these moments where the athlete feels he “couldn’t be stopped,” or that the basketball rim was 10 feet wide. odds are confidence was high and that he was competing against a challenging opponent.
While there is not a recipe for getting in the zone, there are some things athletes can do to help them get in the zone while competing:
- Love playing your sport. As was mentioned previous, without a strong interest it is very difficult to get in Flow. The key is to find “games within games” – especially at practice – that keep interest level high. For example, a basketball player might challenge himself to stop the guy he is guarding at practice, and keep track of how many times he succeeds. In this example he has taken a sometimes boring drill and turned it into a challenging task.
- Take advantage of pre-game routines. Athletes stand a much better chance for getting in the zone when they make it a point to engage in a pre-game routine that allows them to think about the upcoming game, elevate their mood state, and lower their negative anxiety.
- Keep a daily journal, and take note of your improvement over the course of the season. When you see success, your confidence will improve, leading to greater chances for Flow. By keeping a journal you can also identify patterns and trends that you can use to help you improve your mental toughness for the future.
- Bounce back quickly from frustration and failure. Rather than act out, yell, or call negative attention to yourself when you come up short, make it a point to turn adversity into learning experiences. When you develop your resiliency, it allows you to more quickly get back in the game, and inevitably have a much better chance for Flow to occur.
- Challenge yourself. This means picking challenging opponents to compete against, as well as setting challenging individual goals