Entering “The Zone” : A Guide for Coaches

Ask any champion athlete whether their state of mind is an important component of sporting performance and the answer will always be the same – a resounding “YES!”. At the highest level, mindset is the crucial factor that separates winners from losers. The ideal mindset enables the body to function automatically with little conscious effort. In this optimal state, complex tasks appear to be easily accomplished and time can either stand still or rush by as the performer is completely immersed in what he or she is doing.

Coaches and sport psychologists often refer to this optimal mindset as “The Zone”. For some athletes, performance in the zone is achieved only a few times in their careers; however, with systematic training using sport psychology techniques, the zone can be entered almost at will. The aim of this article is to outline the theory, which underlies optimal psychological state, and to provide 10 techniques that can safely be recommended to athletes.

Theories of optimal performance

There have been two pioneers in sport psychology research who have devoted their lives to the investigation of optimal psychological state. First, the Hungarian Prof. Mihalyi Czikszentmihalyi introduced the concept of flow state in 1975 while the Russian, Prof. Yuri Hanin, proposed the zone of optimal functioning theory in 1980.

The concept of flow entails a state in which there is a perfect match between the perceived demands of an activity and the abilities of the performer. During flow, a performer loses self-consciousness and becomes completely immersed in the task at hand. This engenders a state in which performance is very pleasurable and intrinsically gratifying. Hence, Czikszentmihalyi refers to flow as being an autotelic experience. The term autotelic is derived from the Greek word auto which means self and telos which means end. Hence, an autotelic experience is one which is an end in itself or intrinsically rewarding. The concept of autotelic experience serves to highlight the need for emphasis on the enjoyment one can derive from participation rather than extrinsic rewards such as medals, trophies and public recognition.

Hanin’s theory is slightly different as it states that each athlete has an optimal zone of anxiety at which he or she performs at her peak. If an athlete’s anxiety leaves this zone, performance levels will invariably decrease. Prof. Hanin, who leads the Finland Research Institute for Olympic Sports, has published a great deal of empirical evidence in support of his theory. My opinion is that Hanin’s theory is useful in terms of establishing the right level of mental and bodily anxiety for peak performance to occur, while Czikszentmihalyi’s theory is useful in identifying key psychological components of flow. Once a phenomenon can be identified, it is easier to manipulate. In psychology, we refer to such manipulations as interventions and here are ten examples of interventions that you should find useful.

10 Techniques to attain optimal psychological state

Centering

Centering is an attentional control technique, which helps to calm athletes and get them focused at critical moments during their sport. It is typically used in sports which involve continuous breaks such as volleyball (during side-outs), and tennis (in-between games and sets). Centering can also be useful at the start of a short duration event such as a 400m sprint or a downhill ski race.

Instruct the athlete to begin by standing with his or her feet at shoulder width with arms at the side. The athlete should breathe deeply using the diaphragm and exhale very slowly. On breathing in, the athlete must focus attention on the area behind the navel. He or she will notice that on each in-breath, the tension in the upper body increases slightly, while on each exhalation, there is a calming sinking feeling. Once mastered, centering is a quick and effective way to attain calmness and counter the destructive effects of over-arousal.

Mental Rehearsal

Creating a mental blueprint for success is one of the best ways in which to enter the zone. Athletes should be encouraged to practice key aspects of their sport in their mind’s eye both prior to competition and, given the opportunity, during breaks in competition. Britain’s top 400m runner, Iwan Thomas, sees himself performing the perfect race before getting into his blocks. This is one of the ways in which he manages to maintain consistently high level performances.

The secret of high quality mental rehearsal involves bringing all the senses into play and using them to create life-like images. The effective combination of senses is called synaesthesis. Encourage athletes to run through sequences from their sport as if looking out through their own eyes noticing all the shapes, colours and textures. They should immerse themselves in the smells, sounds and general feel of their competitive environment. These images should be in real time and it is a good idea to play through a series of “what if” scenarios; for example, when something does not go to plan. Visualise different situations involving poor conditions, tough opponents, late starts and minor mishaps. Preparing mentally for any adversity ensures that athletes will not be stifled in competition when such situations arise. Failing to prepare is preparing to fail. Mental rehearsal is a cornerstone of success in sport.

Error Parking

Sometimes making a silly mistake or getting frustrated in competition can lead to a complete loss of concentration and a departure from the zone. To regain a state of flow after an error, you should advise athletes to “park it” by wiping it away on their shorts or on their playing implement (e.g., racquet, bat, club, etc.). Some sports people like to spit the mistake away although this is clearly not the most hygienic option! Parking an error is a way by which the error can be forgotten to enable athletes to focus on the here and now.

There are many examples of sports stars getting caught up in their mistakes or frustrations and allowing a momentary lapse of concentration to bring about a collapse in their game. A fairly recent example involves the Manchester United and England soccer star, David Beckham. Beckham was representing his country at the 1998 World Cup Finals in France. England had made it through to the second round of the finals and faced formidable opposition in the form of their old adversary, Argentina. Having been brought down by the Argentinean striker Simione, rather than wipe his frustrations away into the turf, Beckham lashed out at Simione with his heel resulting in a red card and an early departure for England from the Championships. The control of anger and frustration is an important lesson, which Beckham needs to learn. Such psychological control would be a perfect compliment to his abundant technical skills.

Losing Self-consciousness

Many sports people report that they become very distracted by the presence of spectators, officials and other competitors. The anxiety provoked by onlookers at competitions is induced by a natural fear of evaluation. Some competitors are able to turn this to their advantage, while others are completely debilitated by it. If an athlete finds it difficult to distract his/her mind from the fact that people will judge them, suggest these three simple strategies:

First, consider that any attention given to onlookers is wasted mental energy, which can be channelled into sporting performance. Channelling attention into performance will ensure that physical capabilities are maximised. Second, just prior to the competition, withdrawal from the other competitors and avoidance of communication with them is a sound strategy. This will demonstrate appropriate focus and may even cause the other competitors to feel anxious. Finally, use of a self-affirmation statement, which reinforces the required positive mindset. For example, “Fear is negative. Desire is positive”, “When the going gets tough the tough get going” or “Be cool like the Fonz”. Remember, if you can talk the talk you can walk the walk!

Using Keywords

As well as using self-affirmation statements, the use of keywords to reinforce what it is that you are trying to achieve can be very useful as part of an armoury of sport psychology techniques. For example, the world champion canoeist, Britain’s Steve Harris uses the phrase “Keep it smooth” to emphasise the smooth entry of the paddle into the water. Many golfers report using a swing thought just prior to striking the ball such as “fluid”, “relaxed” or “loose”. You should advise athletes to find one word which encapsulates what they are trying to do and to use it at critical times just to get them completely focused on what they should be doing. Hence, sprinters may use “explode”, swimmers may use “glide” and cyclists may use “spin”.

Self-hypnosis

Self-hypnosis can be used as an effective way of calming pre-competition nerves. It promotes activation of the right hemisphere of the brain and limits the conscious mental activities of the left hemisphere. Thus, self-hypnosis has a prophylactic effect against the disruptive influences of cognitive anxiety and negative self-talk.

Once mastered, hypnosis can be implemented very quickly to bring a calm and relaxed state. It simply involves focusing attention on one thought at a time. For example, you could focus on the regularity of your breathing and concentrate on breathing slowly from the diaphragm. Alternatively, as in centering, you could focus on your mid-point — the area just behind your navel. Further ways of attaining a hypnotic state involve continuously repeating a mantra such as “relax” or “easy”. Some athletes enter a trance-like state by listening to music. This will be covered in detail later, however, it should be noted that Prof. Czikszentmihalyi contends that flow is a “semi-hypnotic state”. In a sporting context, self-hypnosis is about taking control of yourself so as not to be vexed by the demands of competition.

Simulated Practice

An easy way for athletes to learn about the rigorous demands of competition so that they are able to enter the zone at will is through the use of simulated practice. This involves contriving situations, which accurately reflect what goes on in competition. Simulated practice helps athletes by once again creating a mental blueprint for how to react in particular situations. One method which we have found to be effective with young tennis players is to have one member of the group serving while the remainder attempt to create as much noise and disruption as possible. This forces the server to focus intently on the task at hand, and, over time, greatly improves their powers of concentration. I like to call this drill Mr or Ms Concentration. Crowd noise can also be played through loud speakers to simulate a competitive environment. Similar practices are useful for sprint starts, football kicks and basketball free throws. In fact, in any situation where there is emphasis on an individual, distraction practices such as this can be helpful. Other types of simulated practice involve practicing with 10 vs. 11 in team sports to emulate situations in which a player is sent off. Also, rather than practicing indoors, having sessions in cold and wet conditions builds mental toughness. Being strong mentally increases the chances of successfully entering the zone. The opportunities for simulated practice are only as limited as your imagination.

Pre-event Routine

Having a routine that is standardised but also flexible enough to adjust to differing competitive conditions can put athletes in control and make them feel both psyched and confident. For some athletes, the pre-event routine will start from the evening before a competition; however, being in control of the three minutes just prior to the start of competition is absolutely essential. You could suggest that athletes write down their pre-event routine, indicating what they do, what they are thinking and how they should feel in the hours and minutes leading up to competition.
Such routines involve the following checkpoints:

  • What is eaten and how long before competition it is consumed
  • What is packed in the kit bag
  • What mode of transport is to be used
  • How long before competition to arrive
  • What are the reporting-in procedures
  • What exactly does the warm-up routine consist of
  • What will the psych-up consist of e.g., imagery, self-statements, music etc.
  • What actions will be taken in the minute prior to start of competition
  • What is the ideal mindset on commencement of competition

The Winning Feeling

Ask athletes to think about their most successful performance ever. Encourage them to see themselves performing ……..; what were they wearing?; who were they competing against?; what was distinct about their movements? It is important for them to recreate exactly how they felt inside during their best performance and to write down every detail so that this feeling can be recreated at will. For some athletes, time speeds up when they are performing at their best and the performance is over before they really have a chance to appreciate it. For others, time will slow down and they will feel as if they have all the time in the world to perform. Either way, the winning feeling will be a unique experience which, once identified, can be recreated at will.

The Power of Sound

Music has the ability to inspire, motivate and relax the competitive athlete. Choosing the “right” music is dependent upon what you wish to gain from the listening experience: if your goal is to psych-up, it is advisable to select upbeat music with a strong driving rhythm and lyrics that reinforce what it is that you are trying to achieve. For example, “Eye of the Tiger” (Survivor), “You’re Simply the Best” (Tina Turner) “A Kind of Magic” (Queen). Conversely, if you want music to control your pre-competition anxiety it can be both sedative and inspiring at the same time. For example, “One Moment in Time” (Whitney Houston), “My Heart Will Go On” (Celine Dion) or “Easy” (Lionel Richie). Either way, rather than have specific pieces of music imposed upon them, athletes should be encouraged to make choices which reflect their own musical preferences.

Author’s note

Dr. Costas Karageorghis is a BASES accredited scientific support and research sport psychologist. He is a member of the British Olympic Association Psychology Advisory Group and is head of sport psychology at Brunel University’s Department of Sport Sciences. Further, Dr. Karageorghis is an alumnus of the USSA MSS program and acts as the United Kingdom academic representative.
E-mail: costas.karageorghis@brunel.ac.uk.

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