Getting in the “Zone”
Have you ever wondered why your performance fluctuates from day to day or hour to hour? Have you ever experienced being in the “zone”? What you are feeling and thinking when in this mental state? What is being in the “zone”? It is an enlightened state of very high level awareness, combined with, confidence, relaxation and enjoyment. Getting in the zone and staying in the zone is a skill, and just takes a little bit of applied knowledge and practice.
In recent months, we had a client who bowled on a highly competitive level. Throughout his coaching sessions at Performance in Motion, he was able to harness his focus through the medium of golf and understand how to think and feel to become in the zone. His thoughts one day, “We had a Friday session – Checking in on goals and relating them to golf concepts usually brings me into a raised state of awareness, so that was the first thing that got me ‘in the zone,’ as we would say.”
On this particular day, this client used our bio-feedback machine to help him understand what he was thinking and feeling. While not an experienced golfer, breathing techniques and golf-focus activities helped the client find how to achieve his “zone.” He describes the situation, “Dan told us about different techniques we could use to get ourselves into the highly coherent state – counting our breathing/getting into a breathing rhythm, thinking about a time where we were relaxed and focused” When leaving the studio, he was clearly in the zone. That night in his bowling match he rolled his best back to back games ever, as he recalls, “Afterwards, I felt a lot better hitting golf balls in the studio – having more fun and learning more because my brain wasn’t thinking about everything else going on in my life. I left and went to my usual Friday bowling league that night with my dad. Nothing felt too different, but my first game was lower than usual (197). I normally get a little tense when I can’t string a bunch of strikes together, but I wasn’t too concerned after that game because I felt more confident than usual. My second game was the 300 (and the first time that I had ever bowled one while my dad was there, which made it more memorable). My last game was 279, and 300+279 was also the highest combined back-to-back scores I had ever shot. I was definitely more “present” that night with my brain than I had been for a while.”
This demonstrated that both the art and science provided clarity for one to achieve peak performance. This client had never before used goals and mental imaging to achieve his peak performance. With practice and coaching, he was able to find his vision, and relate it to his reality. The approach was very different than what he was used to. Before he was simply practicing technique to improve his game, but never fully reflecting on the bigger picture and the possibilities. The mental exercises of creating a clear goal and vision allowed the client to become in the zone, completely focused on the targets and goals necessary to achieve maximum success.
When we create a plan with clear goals and mental images, we are more likely to achieve beyond what we thought was even possible. It was clear that the client had great potential, but was limited by his passive approach to achievement. When he created a plan by letting go of past performance and opened himself up to the present and future possibilities, he began to believe in what he originally couldn’t see as possible.
In a recent study, The Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition compared performance between participants using internal focus, and external focus. Internal focus means that the individual is focusing on their own movements when performing. This would be like a golfer focusing on their grip, stance and swing while taking a shot. External focus means that the individual is focused on the target, so the golfer would instead be entirely focused on the hole when they shoot. The study found that those who used external focus during performance did much better than those with internal focus. This is part of being in the “zone.” When a performer is able to focus their entire action (mind and body) on the target, they are able to reach higher levels of performance.
Another study, done by Applied Cognitive Psychology found that negative self-talk and anxiety diminished the cognitive performance of participants. In other words, those participants who were asked to have negative thoughts while performing mental tasks were unable to perform as well. When trying to be in the “zone,” it is important to be confident and relaxed. If we chose to think negatively about how we will perform, it is more likely that we will perform worse. Being both confident in oneself and not worrying negative possibilities will lead to a better ability to get in the “zone.”
An additional factor is experience, world class athletes are known for their ability to recall every single play/moment of their career in vivid detail, and this is no coincidence. People who understand how to get in the “zone” know that every single shot, or play, or moment is a learning opportunity. The best teacher of performance is experience. If we are not worried about failure, and completely focused on the target, we can learn from each situation and improve for next time. This is why high performing athletes can remember their previous performances so well, they are in the moment, and their level of focus is so high, that they are able to learn from every movement and improve their game. This doesn’t always have to be about athletic performance either; a study titled the Norway Feedback Project tested the effects of feedback in couples therapy compared with therapy without feedback. What they found was that feedback produced much more significant improvements than no feedback. Feedback gives one the power to change and become better. This builds on the idea that we learn best from experience, because experience gives us the opportunity to receive feedback. When in the “zone” we learn from each experience and make adjustments.
Like most other skills, getting in the zone is something that comes with practice. Words are very important in your thought process. If you don’t have the opportunity to receive professional coaching, self-coaching can be proficient. Try using the mirror-technique, stand in front of a mirror, and state out loud what you would most like to achieve. Listen to your voice, and watch your own body language. Does your voice sound confident? Is your posture confident? If not, keep repeating the goal until your body and voice reflect confidence in your ability to achieve the goal. This body language is a visual for your thought process about this goal. Only once you truly believe you can achieve will your body reflect confidence and ability. The next step will be to write out what it is that you would like to achieve in the near and distant future. Once you have the goals written, review to make sure they are real possibilities and rightfully yours to achieve. Avoid goals that aren’t real. Finally, to solidify the written goal, mental imaging will cement these visions into the subconscious. Grab a stack of magazines and find images that coincide with your written goals, cut out these images and make a vision board of what you what your goals look like. This practice helps achieve clarity and accountability. The process also allows for the brain to connect the goal and mental image into the conscious and subconscious.
This is a sample vision board; vision boards are a great way to help visualize our goals.
Whether working toward peak performance in a particular sport, extraordinary results at work, or improving one’s home life; using a medium, in this case golf, to drive change in one the aforementioned areas can be helpful to make mind and body believe in the things you can’t see. To find your own “zone” focus on the target, eliminate interference, learn from every moment, relax, and most of all, have fun.