In sports it is axiomatic that to play your best you should be physically and mentally prepared, focused, positive, and confident. Maybe you have some experience with this and have a sense for when you play your best. Your body feels natural and ready; the game slows down and you’re in supreme control; you’re clear about the task at hand and confident you will nail it; you’re calm but alert, relaxed but energized, unself-conscious, confident, and ready to perform. However it was for you, that is your zone. Every athlete has a unique, personal version that fits his or her personality, experience, and training.
While the zone is usually described as a mysterious, spontaneous experience that cannot be forced, it’s not completely out of your control. You need not passively wait for it to happen; you can train yourself to get into your zone. The zone is not an all-or-none experience (which you are either in or not); rather, it is comprised of mental and physical qualities that you can learn and regulate.
The key is to identify the elements of your personal zone. Once you know your zone, you can be more active in creating the mental conditions that support playing your best. There are two ways to familiarize yourself with your zone. First, recall and examine when you play best; what frame of mind were you in? What kinds of thoughts were you having, or not having? What feelings and sensations did you experience? Second, when you do find yourself in the zone, acknowledge it and pay close attention to what it’s like. While becoming self-conscious may seem a sure way to snap out of the zone, bringing awareness to the flow experience helps integrate it with your strategic mind. Once you have been there, you know what to expect; that knowledge will forever be eagerly waiting to re-emerge in the favorable mental conditions you create. The more familiar you become with this experience, the more often you will allow yourself to slip into it and to stay in it without self-consciousness. You will come to expect it, welcome it, settle into it easily. Your zone gradually becomes a more natural part of your game.
Instead of trying to force yourself into the zone, use your energy to create the mental conditions for it to happen: learn to focus, let go of stress-producing thoughts, and relieve tension; joyfully embrace the challenge of playing your best, fill your mind with positive thoughts about yourself, your game, and the moment. Each of these skills can be learned, strengthened, and whether or not they add up to flow experience, they will help you play better. And if you trust them to work for you, you can stop forcing the issue. That’s when you’ll find yourself in the zone.
This advice is more or less applicable in any sport or performance situation. Recently, Court Tennis Professional Barney Tanfield addressed this topic in his Tips from the Pros piece, The Zone (January 2014 edition of the United States Court Tennis Association newsletter):
[excerpt]“The ability to change your mind about itself is provocative at the very least and a revelation if fully realized. “The key is to create a mentality that approaches what we experience in the zone”. If we can transform our emotions successfully, we can mimic the zone and essentially create or at least fabricate it at will. Even if players are able to successfully achieve this transformation, twenty percent of the time the results will be astounding. No longer is the zone your four minute mile or perfect game, it’s a time and place accessible to you on a regular basis. Perhaps envisioning our zone as our neighbor and not our Narnia is where we should start our search.”