Athletes often talk about “being in the zone” when they play their best. Being “in the zone” refers to a special state they achieve where everything seems to go their way, nothing stops them, things go smoothly and they perform well. In fact, often the best performance, or what some might call “peak performance” occurs when they are “in the zone”.
While being in the zone allows athletes to perform at their peak, unfortunately, for most, being in the zone does not happen often enough or very consistently. Often, it occurs by chance – things just happen to fall into place and the athlete performs well. So is it possible to increase the chances of getting in the zone? And if so, how??? The answer is yes. There are ways to increase the likelihood of getting in the zone. To do this, you need to know what the characteristics of the zone are, and then to try and achieve these.
1. Optimal level of arousal. It is important that you have an optimal level of arousal – not too much and not too little. With too much arousal, you feel jittery, anxious and out of control, while too little arousal means you are so relaxed that you just can’t muster up energy to do anything! An optimal level of arousal ensures that you are not so anxious that you can’t play, but anxious enough to remain alert and energised. Achieving this balance is important.
2. Mental Focus and Present Awareness. You have complete concentration or mental focus on the task at hand. You are in the “here and now” and are not listening to any thoughts that may try to drag you into the past or future. You are completely absorbed in the moment, oblivious to anything distracting around you. Your senses are heightened. You feel and notice every movement.
3. Confidence. You not only feel confident in your abilities, but you look confident. You behaviour exudes confidence and those around you are aware of it. Negative thoughts cannot penetrate this. There is no fear. No matter what you are up against, or how far behind you are coming from, you know and believe that you will perform well. You are prepared and have complete faith in yourself and your abilities. You will be successful.
4. Automatic. You seem to be operating on autopilot. Things don’t seem effortful. Your actions are governed by instinct rather than by your thoughts and feelings. While they are there, you don’t seem to be intensely listening to them. There is no struggle with what you are thinking or how you are feeling. You just are. Your thought process and emotional state are not hindering you.
5. Enjoyment. When you are in the zone, performance does not seem like a chore. You are enjoying yourself. You love it. You are wholly connected to the sport you are playing. You feel completely fulfilled and satisfied by it – you know exactly why you are here and all the effort and hard work you have put in prior to this seems completely worthwhile.
Knowing what the characteristics of being “in the zone” are, you are now able to use certain strategies to increase the likelihood of experiencing each one. For example, ensuring an optimal level of arousal and building your confidence can be achieved through cognitive behavioural strategies (e.g., cognitive restructuring, behavioural experiments, relaxation). Using and practising mindfulness mediation techniques can help you maintain mental focus and present moment awareness. These strategies help you learn to recognise and avoid struggling with any negative thoughts or feelings that inevitably arise. They also help to create the sense of performing on autopilot. Finally, to increase the chances of enjoyment in performing in your particular sport, it might be useful to do some value clarification exercises. These exercises help you determine what you love about that particular sport, what you get out of it, and how it enhances your life experience. In essence, this helps you identify the purpose – why you do what you do. With purpose, comes meaning, and the more meaningful the activity, the easier it is to maintain your focus and determination, and enjoy it!