One of the most exciting components of sport and performance psychology, is learning how to get into the zone.
It is the holy grail of mental conditioning; because once you know how to get into the zone, everything else just seems to “click” into place.
The experience of being in the zone is one of being totally immersed in the task at hand. When we are in the zone:
- time seems to slow down;
- we function optimally without thinking about it – we simply see and do with an effortless clear head;
- we perform at our best;
- and we can experience a sense of enjoyment and elation during and after the activity.
Getting into the zone – also known as “being in a state of flow” – usually happens when we are:
- in a good mood and doing things we enjoy;
- and have some level of skill that meets the demands of the task.
It can happen in any area of your life – some people experience this state in religious contexts, some in music, business, sports, and some in family situations.
How to Get into the Zone – on Purpose
For most people, getting into the zone can seem to happen at random, leading to exciting experiences, gains in confidence and surprising levels of peak performance; but only once in a blue moon! It feels like we are coming out of a high-functioning trance after these experiences, and we may wish we could maintain this mindset more consistently in future.
The good news is, there are certain environmental and psychological predictors that can help us to get into the zone – on purpose. We can improve our chances of having this motivating, confidence-boosting state of consciousness, by understanding its ingredients. Consistently achieving this state in training and competition is every performer’s dream! There is a mixture of factors that contribute to this heightened state of consciousness, and can help you get into the zone.
How to Get into the Zone – the Ingredients
- Sharpen your Focus and Attention: When your attention is in the present moment and completely on task, you increase the chances of achieving flow. Doing exercises that increase mind-body connection (self-awareness), and present moment awareness (such as mindfulness), can also give you a heightened perception of your environment and presence/grounding in the moment, rather than thinking ahead or about what has just occurred. In this way, you can reduce the distractions, both environmental and internal (thought), that can get in the way of a clean loop between seeing and doing.
- Confidence: When you trust yourself, your training and your ability, you will worry less and experience less nerves. When you feel safe and powerful, not scared and threatened, you are much more likely to get into the zone. That confidence will help you to resist worry about ego-relevant information such as being judged, winning or losing, letting yourself or others down. Letting go of the need to consciously control everything, frees your automatic processes (such as skill execution) to do their job, and allows you to allocate crucial mental energy to the performance environment and task at hand. On the other hand, lacking confidence and trust in your ability leads to self-focussed attention, which has been linked to choking under pressure and anxiety.
- Match Skills and Challenges: You will increase the chance of getting into the zone when you train and compete at a level of demand that matches your skill – so success doesn’t come too easily, or seem out of reach. Matching skills and challenges in training situations leads to more chances of flow occurring; competing or performing at the right level for you can also increase your chances of getting into the zone.
- Emotional Wellbeing and Energy: When you are feeling stressed, tired and strung out, there are no stars that can align to get you in the zone! It is important to maintain a healthy work/life or performance/life balance, and manage your stress, so you can increase your resilience and energy for performance situations. Getting into the zone is associated with positive mood; improve your mood and improve your chances of experiencing flow! Music and imagery are a killer combo when it comes to quick mood adjustment. Developing your emotional intelligance can also help with regulating mood when needed.
The energy levels associated with flow are complicated. Some say it feels like a mix of being energised but grounded and in control; a calm powerful state where you can access energy without getting overwhelmed or drained. There are several grounding and energising techniques you can learn to determine your own combination of calm and energised, as there is likely to be individual differences here.
- Thoughtless Thinking: Once you know how to get into the zone, you can enjoy the benefits of a clear mind and efficient effortless mental processing. No longer do you have to “think” and deliberate on your choices; when you stop thinking, it opens up the time and energy to improve your perception and action at an automatic (or instinctual) level. It is as if there is a sense of “knowing” what you are doing; you can let go of mental control, which feels great! It is a pleasant surprise when you recognise that your training and experience has paid off with this autopilot-like feature.
“Thoughtless thinking” can be better achieved by practising mindfulness and self-awareness exercises, both in your performance setting and in everyday life, and learning to balance your experience of the observing and judging minds. Following your instincts more, and letting go in training and practice helps you to trust yourself and follow that sense of “knowing” that comes with experience. We all have an individual way and style, and when you follow your natural inclination and style, you think less and feel more. It is when you notice your language centres quieting and your perceptual centres amplifying consciousness, that you can feel confident that you are on the right track.
- Game-Sense: Highly structured rule-based drills and repetitive training exercises are sometimes necessary, but can reduce enjoyment and flow. When possible, replace skill drills with skill games that are more interactive, and much more enjoyable. People tend to operate in a more present moment attention state to meet the multiple demands of a game; the nature of a game is very different, mentally and physically, to a drill. Game-sense coaching principles are well documented, and worth taking the time to research.
- Social Cohesion: Positive relationships with the people in your performance world, can influence the likelihood of flow occurring, was well as increase your enjoyment and motivation. As humans, we tend to function optimally in socially reinforcing situations, especially supportive accepting groups. A positive social environment with positive communication also allows people to feel safe to be themselves, take risks, and reduces self-focussed ego-based thinking. To improve social cohesion, coaches can reduce the focus on winning and increase the focus on cooperation and improvement as a group. Although competition is important, I believe that all too often, winning and the most skilled people are praised, while losing is seen as toxic. If the training environment is not balanced between competition and cooperation, winning and improvement, people will struggle.
These are just a few tips to give you some ideas, but if you are serious about finding out how to get into the zone on purpose, I encourage you to seek out the services of a Sport and Performance Psychologist. With the help of a Sport Psychologist, you will discover the essential ingredients for YOU to find flow, in your performance world.
If you would like to discuss some of the points raised in this article, or are keen to find out more about how to get into the zone, you can make an appointment with me at either Loganholme in Brisbane, or Tweed Heads on the Gold Coast.