Finding “The Zone”
Every athlete is in pursuit of ‘the zone’. But what exactly is it and how can you achieve it? Read below to find out everything you need to know.
When you’re in that zone, there’s nothing really the defense can do. It doesn’t matter who’s sticking you because everything looks good.
– Gilbert Arenas (3x NBA All-Star)
Finding the zone
Whether you’re a student athlete or an NFL starting quarterback, there is no greater feeling than finding “the zone”. It is a sporting phenomenon that every world-class athlete experiences but struggles to explain in any great detail, and that’s because it’s because they are living fully in the moment without any hint of outside distraction.
While mental toughness and emotional intelligence are highly sought attributes that can consistently improve sporting performance, the ability to regularly find ‘the zone’ and stay in it for a prolonged period of time is what separates the best from the rest.
What exactly is ‘the zone?’
While it is very difficult to explain what “the zone” feels like, it is a state of mind and performance that is impossible to miss when it happens. Commentators will regularly point out when an athlete is “in the zone” while the individual will certainly know when they have been in it.
The concept of ‘the zone’ is fairly straightforward. SportsPsychologyToday.com explains it as “The ‘zone’ is a state of supreme focus [that] helps athletes in all sports perform at their peak potential… When you’re in the zone your mind only processes the thoughts and images that help you execute your task successfully.”
To put it another way, it is the ability to remove all outside distractions and focus fully on the game to unlock a period of increased precision and control. In turn, this can unlock optimal performance levels while simultaneously removing any threat of choking under pressure.
It could manifest itself as a basketball player hitting every shot they take, a batter hitting the sweet spot, or an Olympic gymnast hitting every step of their routine without even thinking. Once in ‘the zone’, every decision and action just flows naturally, almost as if they are on autopilot, leaving the athlete to feel at one with their sport and almost unstoppable on the court or playing field.
The quantifiable results of staying ‘in the zone’
Anecdotally, every athlete from amateurs to elite stars has heard themself say “I was really in the zone there” at least once in their life. And it normally comes after their best performance. While it’s difficult to quantify what constitutes ‘the zone’, its impacts on sporting activities are clear.
Finding ‘the zone’ can be described as a state of mindfulness. Research has shown that a group of rowing athletes who underwent active mindfulness training as a part of their routines improved their timed trials.
Meanwhile, additional studies have found that mindfulness can translate to improved performance across a plethora of sporting activities like darts, running, and team sports like hockey. An ability to find ‘the zone’ is naturally a central feature of this as it allows athletes to;
- Fall into a natural flow where sporting success just happens.
- Step up in big moments without fear – known as clutch performance.
- Feel more confident and capable of taking on actions that they usually would not,
- Influence their team members for the better and opponents for the worse.
Researchers have studied ‘the zone’ for decades and broken it down into nine features. They are; Action, Challenge-skills balance, Clear goals, Clear feedback, Concentration, Control, Feeling high, No self-criticism, and Time Perception. When all of those features run simultaneously, the athlete will be in ‘the zone’.
How to find ‘the zone’ more frequently
Every athlete appreciates what finding ‘the zone’ could do for them. It makes everything fall into place and can be the key to setting a PB marathon time or finally scoring the points needed to be your rivals in the big showdown game.
The million-dollar question is, how can you reach that desired state of performance? Given that even elite-level athletes cannot simply turn it on and off like a tap, there is no guaranteed recipe for success. Nonetheless, there are several steps that have proven to help athletes of all levels find this moment and prolong its duration.
Practicing mindfulness both in and out of sporting contexts should sit at the heart of those endeavors. It leads to calmness in high-pressure situations and a deeper connection with the ability to let situations flow. Additional steps can include;
- Training with coping skills like goal setting and self-calming in mind,
- Spending more time practicing your sport and various scenarios,
- Reminding to focus on enjoyment to avoid the weight that the need to win brings,
- Identify habits, rituals, or instances that trigger the desired state of mind.
Ultimately, you cannot guarantee that you will ‘find the zone’ on any given day. However, building confidence in your physical ability and mental state of mind will make a huge difference. Moreover, when it arrives, you’ll be ready to ride the wave for longer by allowing your decisions and movements to flow.