How can Playing in “The Zone” enhance Sports Performance
Success is achieved by developing our strengths, not by eliminating our weaknesses.
-Marilyn vos Savant
Have you ever lost track of time while you were playing and felt “at one” with the game? Did you feel confident, focused, and unstoppable? You might have experienced what it’s like to play “in the zone”. This mental state is sought after by athletes, creatives, and entrepreneurs because it allows them to access their ultimate performance with little effort. In the zone, you don’t have to think about what you have to do next: your mind and body take the lead. While getting in the zone often happens spontaneously, this doesn’t mean that you cannot create this state of mind by yourself.
In this article, we are going to show you how to achieve peak mental performance by playing in the zone. Since we know that every athlete wants to play at their best, we will provide some essential information on enhancing your sports performance by getting in the right mindset.
Why does “the zone” enhance sports performance?
Learning how to get into the zone is one of the most efficient forms of mental training for sports performance. The reason it is so efficient it’s because it makes people stay in the present. When their mind is focused on what they have to do, they don’t worry about the future. As a result, there is little to no anxiety in the zone. This lack of fear and the complete immersion in the task is what creates that special mindset where everything seems effortlessly. Elite athletes know what high performance in sports is: they also know what playing in the zone feels like. Therefore, part of becoming a better athlete is mastering your mental game, which is possible by learning to enter and stay in the zone.
Therefore, getting into the flow and remaining there throughout the game entails working with your body, mind, and emotions to create a unified experience of peak performance. While you cannot force your mind to get into “the zone”, you can create the conditions for it to happen naturally. Here are some techniques for doing that:
One way to gain control of your attention is centering. Since performance anxiety in sports is common, entering can help you calm pre-game nerves and stay focused during critical moments in the game. To center, begin to breathe deeply using the diaphragm and then slowly exhale. While breathing in, focus your attention on a set point of focus behind the navel. Throughout the exercises, maintain your focus on the calming sensations that appear while breathing out and the tension appearing in the body while inhaling. When practiced regularly, centering can maintain calmness during the games and prevent the mind from getting scattered.
If your mind is very active during a game, try a sports performance meditation. Mindfulness training is one of the most researched tools in the context of mental performance and can be used to help young athletes focus their attention on the immediate game and manage distractions. It’s also a form of mental coaching for performance used by elite athletes and high performers outside sports. If you’ve never meditated before and don’t know where to start, look for online meditation tailored specifically to athletes — although this isn’t necessary. Any guided meditation that teaches you to observe your thoughts and discipline your mind will be useful.
Why does “the zone” enhance sports performance?
Knowing how to boost mental performance will also translate into better sports performance. You already know what mental performance is: focus, discipline, and emotional balance. When you have these three elements, you will prime your body for high performance.
Focus will help you deal with sports performance anxiety, apply all the skills you’ve been practicing, and respond to the immediate demands of the game. Performing in “the zone” is the result of aligning the body and the mind while deeply immersing yourself in the game.
Another method for mental preparation for performance is rehearsal. The idea behind it is to create vivid images of the game in your minds. Begin by running through specific sequences from your sport and immerse yourself in all the smells, sounds, and sensations that accompany a competitive environment. This technique can be also used to aid skills learning. For example, if you are a basketball athlete and want to practice your free throw, you can imagine yourself shooting out of a telephone box and feeling the motions and sensations you would be feeling in real life. Mental preparation can improve performance – so don’t be afraid to try this technique if you want to get in the zone more easily.
Obstacles to high performance
Struggling to get into a focused state of mind every time you’re playing or training can indicate some mental barriers to high performance. Perhaps you hold some fears or limiting thoughts about yourself that you haven’t become aware of. Or perhaps you’re stressed or suffering from a mental health condition that impairs your focus and performance. If this is the case, you need to take some time to examine these barriers before trying to play in the zone. As you know, mental health does affect performance — so don’t ignore signs of a potential condition.
Even if your mental health is good, you could still struggle to play in the zone because of other factors. For example, you could be stressed with school, which keeps you on high alert and unable to stay present. Stress and sports performance are not a good combination, especially when stress levels are high. If this is the case for you, make sure to take some time daily to practice rest and relaxation. This is important so that stress does not turn into anxiety or other mental barriers.
Other obstacles to high performance are internal mental barriers to success such as low confidence, fear of failure, and negative self-talk. These barriers create consistent ‘noise’ in your mind, making it even more difficult to enter the zone and perform at a high level. This is why mental preparation for performance is just as important for athletic success as training and coaching. To enter the zone, you need to trust yourself enough to let go of all inner negative talk and simply play from the flow that exists in the present.
Working on your ability to play from the zone means also working on your mental barriers. A present athlete is also a confident, focused, and driven one.
How to play in the zone
Getting in the zone while playing a sport is usually the result of previous mental and physical training which allows the athlete to be confident in their skills. There are three different phases that athletes go through before reaching a flow state:
1. Preparation stage: enter a mental state of readiness where you are ready to plunge into the game. In this stage, you will focus on warming yourself up, bringing your focus on how you’re feeling mentally and physically, and checking in with yourself to see if you’re experiencing any negative emotional states such as anxiety or nervousness.
2. Entering the zone: begin by setting a goal (e.g. to improve a technique, to reach a certain time score), and simply allow yourself to immerse deeply into the activity. Don’t think about what you’re doing — just allow your mind and body to take over. Keep your focus on what you’re doing and don’t make any judgments about your performance, as this will get you out of the zone.
3. Exiting the zone. Once you’ve been in the zone for a while, you will gradually begin to get out of it. You will know this happens when your mind will become active again or you will get distracted by physical sensations such as hunger or tiredness. At the end of your performance, you will feel a sense of accomplishment or mental relaxation as a result of the game termination. However, there is also a chance that you encounter negative emotions if the state of flow ended as a result of errors.
Wouldn’t you want to play from a place of deep focus, confidence, and presence? To give your best on the field without having to force yourself to sustain that level of effort? Playing in the zone can help you achieve that. It is no surprise that so many high performers, elite athletes, creative people, and artists are so fascinated with this mental state. While you cannot always force getting into that amazing state of flow, you can definitely create the conditions for it to happen. “The zone” might be the answer to how to achieve peak mental performance in sports. To experience it, learn it to tame your mind, practice being in the present, and trust yourself! Even if you won’t get there on the first try, you will make progress and grow into a better athlete.