“The Zone”. It’s one of the most fun areas we see athletes go. Athletes love playing in the zone and fans love watching it.
- Jordan hitting six three-pointers in the 1992 NBA finals
- Tom Brady leading a comeback in the 2017 Super Bowl
- TJ Oshie’s 2014 Olympic shootout performance against Russia
- Tiger Woods in the 1997 Masters.
The list goes on.
You know “The Zone” when you see it, and when you or someone on your team is in the zone, it’s AWESOME. On the other hand, playing against a team or player in the zone isn’t quite as fun.
While finding the zone has been studied, it’s difficult to find a manufactured formula to help athletes achieve this element of success.
And although it can’t be manufactured, you can create an environment that helps to facilitate getting there. Getting there first means understanding what it is.
First, we’ve given “the Zone” a more official name, calling it The Optimal Performance Zone, or OPZ.
Research shows that the OPZ has a few important conditions present:
- Sense of Control and Confidence – You believe you can influence the outcome.
- Focused on the Moment – You stay in the moment and focus on what is important now.
- Loss of Self Consciousness and Time – You are focused only your thoughts about yourself and not anyone else. Time flies.
Now, how to find it. I’ve broken it into 3 steps.
Step 1. Own Your OPZ
Anchor Words: Identify three or four times you have played in your OPZ. Identify four words that describe you playing in your OPZ. Start consistently visualizing playing in it and notice all of your senses and how your body feels when there. Visualize your past performances, your next performance, and in an important performance or performance situation. Visualizing it wires into your brain. Use the anchor words you identified to fuel your performance.
Step 2. The Default Zone
Everyone has a default zone that they likely revert to when uncomfortable, stressed or under pressure.
- Too Tense: This is characterized by a lack of confidence, muscle tension, frustrated energy, and an athlete being stuck in their own head. They miss important information, and mistakes and depleting emotions spiral out of control.
- Too Relaxed: Others play in the too relaxed zone. Athletes in this zone are overconfident, disengaged, lack energy and focus. They are overlooking their opponent and the task at hand. They go through the motions and it shows in their play.
- Flip Flop : Others may go between the two motions above. They move from caring too much to not caring at all–from one extreme to another. This leads to be consistently Inconsistent and searching for answers.
Awareness and acceptance in these different elements will help you to move back.
Step 3. Have a plan
Sometimes it is important to know the signs that you are triggered, and it’s even more important to know how to transition back. Don’t let your emotions cloud your view. They are unreliable bettors. Emotions that become feelings keep us stuck. Focusing on your feelings and create forevers.
Transition back with the following exercises:
- Use a physical calming skill such as eye movements or fist squeeze:
- Move your eyes back and forth without moving your head or alternately squeeze your fists. This activates all parts of your brain and allows them to work together.
- Count. Count back from 100 by 7’s.
- Centering Breaths – Breathe in to the count of 5, hold for 2 and out for 7.
- Normalize = Neutralize: You’re triggered. Accept it. Take away its power
- Change One Thing: Interrupt your habit pattern. View yourself in the third person and give yourself a positive self talk.
Learning how to return to your OPZ involves using and mastering a variety of different mental skills. Because successful performance in sports requires a high level of emotional engagement, great athletes need to be able to manage their psychophysiology of their thoughts and their emotions.