Be Comfortable with the Zone

Recently, a Jr. Golfer came to me frustrated about losing a recent tournament. He had been winning the tournament by one stroke for 36 holes and was playing one of the best tournaments ever until he missed a 4 foot putt on the 5th hole of the final round. Missing that putt caused him to lose focus, and he started to worry about whether he would be able to keep his game on track, grind it out and win. I asked him if he felt he was in the zone for the first 36 holes and he proceeded to describe his experience. It became clear to both of us that he had been playing aggressive confident unconscious golf and sticking to his game plan until his missed putt. He then became aware of his present state, lost focus, started to worry, and immediately went into a non-trusting state, and began playing in a comfort zone.

You hear athletes talk a lot about performing in the zone and the benefits of the zone. What is the zone? From a mental game perspective, the zone is an ideal mental state that allows athletes to perform their best. A zone experience is a unique and different experience for each athlete. For most athletes, the zone includes a focused mind, confidence, composure, loss of fear, the ability to become fully immersed in the process of the moment, and a loss of the sense of time.

The zone is simply an ideal mindset that helps you perform at your peak. But the zone is rare and happens on only a few occasions in an athlete’s career. Some experts in sports psychology would argue that the zone gets too much attention. Not only do I believe the zone does exist, but I also believe that one can prepare to enter a pre-zone state which is one step closer to the real thing. More on pre-zones states in a later article. The zone is not something you can turn on whenever you want to, but some athletes really try.

It’s difficult to predict when you’re going to play in the zone. A zone performance will sneak up on you when you least expect it. You also can’t will yourself to enter a zone state. Playing in the zone happens on its own when both your physical game and mental game peak. The zone happens when arousal levels and performance reach their optimal balanced state. The zone can show up at any time even when your recent past performances would not indicate such a thing were possible.

Since you don’t know when the zone will appear, it makes sense to be prepared for those times when the zone strikes. Since the zone is such a special state of mind and body working together at their peak performance many athletes don’t have the confidence or the composure to ride the zone out to the end. Golfers tend to slam on the breaks and perform more cautiously as in the case of this client.

Baseball teams with a big lead sometimes protect the lead. Basketball players who are aware of their personal or teams zone performance sometimes take their eye off the clock and before you know it they are behind with not much time left to recover. Tennis players who are winning big start to play a more defense style of tennis. Basically, athletes suddenly become aware of their zone state and change direction rather than simply going with the flow of of the moment and stay in the zone.

Five Tips for Staying in the Zone

To be mentally ready when in the zone shows look at these tips to keep you on top of the wave:

1. Don’t paralyze the performance by being to harsh on yourself. Stay connected with the present. As soon as you question if you are executing in the zone, it can almost instantly disappear. When you begin to question or become consciously aware of the zone, you’re no longer in the here and now.

2. Don’t change your game plan out of fear. Doubt creeps in, fear ensues and confidence starts to go south when you are aware of the zone. Stick to the original strategy that got you there. There is no reason to change the game plan.

3. Keep pressing forward! If aggressiveness got you here push forward with a little “extra” and go beyond what feels comfortable. It’s an unfamiliar feeling, but trust it and stay with it. Set a “next level” goal, and lead your team to a powerful close in the final quarter of the game.

4. Keep your eyes open for unrealistic expectations to show up because they can quickly take you out of the zone. For example, don’t let doubt distract your focus because of one or a few negative plays from the past. Some baseball pitchers when in the middle of throwing a no-hitter can’t close it out because they fear making the same mistakes they have in the past.

5. Remember, there is a beginning and an end to all performances. Enjoy the process every step of the way, stay grounded in the here and now, avoid thinking about outcomes, and above all enjoy the moment.

Want to learn more about the zone or how to create a pre-zone state? Sign up for the FREE Mental Toughness Network and get access to all the tips and strategies to help you be the best you can be. You can even Ask Coach John to help you out with a specific challenge.

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