Higher states: how to get into the zone and maximise performance

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Coaches, athletes, and commentators often attribute episodes of excellent performance to athletes being in a psychological state known as the ‘zone’. Professor Adam Nicholls , explains what this psychological state is, and provides proven techniques for accessing the zone

Being in the zone is an extremely positive mental state, in which an athlete is completely and totally connected to his or her performance, and perceives that all challenges can be overcome during a particular competition or on a particular day1. Being in the zone is particularly desirable for endurance athletes, because it represents a mindset that is associated with superior performance. There are a number of terms that are also used to describe being in the zone, which include: ‘being in a bubble’, ‘performing on autopilot’, or ‘being in complete control’.

The nine dimensions of flow

Sport psychology researchers have studied the zone for over 30 years, in an attempt to understand more about the workings of this construct. These studies have revealed and confirmed that flow consists of nine dimensions (see Figure 1)1 2. It is important to note that not every athlete will experience each dimension of the zone, as there is often individual variation.


*Challenge-skills balance – According to researchers from the University of Queensland the most important factor that determines whether an athlete will get in the zone or not, is his or her perception of something called ‘the challenge-skills balance’1. When an athlete does not feel that he or she has the required ability in a race, anxiety will occur. This theory also says that when an athlete feels that his or her abilities exceed the challenges posed in a race (eg poor opposition) boredom will ensue. If the challenge posed is low among an individual with low ability, apathy will occur. Only when there is an optimal balance between the challenges of the situation and the ability of the athlete will the athlete get into the zone (see figure 2).

*Concentration – When athletes have been interviewed about being in the zone, many described a clear focus on what they wanted to do, which often lasted for hours. Furthermore, when athletes experienced this concentration, they were aware of where their competitors were and the bigger picture of what they needed to do, but perceived these competitors to be of no negative influence. This is because athletes had complete concentration.

*Action – awareness merging – When an athlete is in the zone there is a merging of action and awareness. That is, athletes are unaware of themselves as separate from their actions and experience a feeling of oneness with the activity. Athletes have reported that their actions feel effortless and spontaneous. For example, endurance runners have reported sections of a marathon that felt completely effortless2.

*Clear goals – Athletes in the zone have a clear sense of what they want to accomplish during their races. As a race progresses, so does this clarity of this moment-to-moment intent. Athletes have also reported knowing exactly what they had to do before the race started, and how they were going to accomplish it.

*Clear feedback – When in the zone, athletes often report experiencing immediate and clear feedback about how they are performing. Feedback usually comes from the activity itself, such as feelings about pace or feelings of leg fatigue whilst running. All feedback received when in the zone informs the athlete that he or she is performing successfully.

*Control – A sense of control is experienced by the athlete without them attempting to exert control. Athletes feel as they can do nothing wrong, along with a sense of invincibility. The sense of control frees the athlete from the fear of failure and results in a sense of power, calmness, and confidence.

*No self-criticism – When in the zone, athletes do not criticise themselves, like they may sometimes do. Concern for the self seems to disappear during a zone experience, as do worries or negative thoughts. There is no attention left over to worry about the things in everyday life that athletes often dwell upon – for example relationship issues, work problems, or worries about body image.

*Time perception – During a zone experience, some athletes have reported that time speeds up. For instance, a marathon runner could say that the race was over very quickly, whereas other athletes have said that time slowed down and they felt they had so much time to make a decision. However, this is the dimension for which there is the least evidence in the scientific literature, and many athletes do not experience a transformation of time3.

*Feeling high – The experience of being in the zone is extremely enjoyable to athletes. Some have reported feeling very high, which can last for several hours after a race has finished4. Descriptions from athletes include “it felt great the whole way” and “it felt like such a rush.”

Concern for the self seems to disappear during a zone experience, as do worries or negative thoughts. There is no attention left over to worry about the things in everyday life that athletes often dwell upon



Case study: Phil Latter – a runner’s account of being in the zone

“Why did my fastest race feel the easiest?” Phil Latter was a university runner when he experienced being in the zone5. During a 3000-metre race he reported feeling speed, lightness, and wondering how fast he could run. His mindset was completely different during this race. As he describes: “For once, the usual negative feedback loop of how many laps do I have left and how much longer must I hurt was replaced with, ‘I wonder what I can do today? How fast can I run?”

Phil also experienced other aspects of the zone, such as knowing he was performing well, enjoyment, and a sense of control. “What overwhelmed me was how enjoyable the whole thing had been, from the crack of the gun all the way across the line. Never before had I felt more in control of my body, like I could respond to any and all challenges the race presented.” He summarised his feelings thus: “Everything came together when it mattered most, and that felt indescribably good.” Phil was undoubtedly in the zone, and reported some of the common characteristics. Everyone experiences the zone differently and some of the dimensions will be more prominent for some athletes.


Assessing your zone score

Researchers from the University of Queensland have developed a questionnaire to measure zone experiences6. Table 1 is an adapted version, so you can assess your own scores and monitor whether this changes over time after trying out some of the strategies recommended in this article.

TABLE 1: ZONE QUESTIONNAIRE

It is important to complete the questionnaire after a race or training session. The questions relate to your thoughts and feelings that occurred during that race or training session. Think about your feelings during the race or competition, and complete the answers accordingly by circling the appropriate number for each question.Strongly disagreeDisagreeNeither agree of nor disagreeAgree nor disagreeStrongly agree
1The race or training session was challenging, but my abilities allowed me to meet the challenge 12345
2 I made correct movements without having to think about it12345
3 I knew exactly what I wanted to do12345
4 I knew very clearly that I was doing well12345
5I was completely focused on the race or training session12345
6 I was in total control during the race or training session12345
7 I did not think about what others might have thought about me12345
8 Time altered – either speeding up or slowing down12345
9 I really enjoyed the race or training session12345
10 My abilities met the challenged I was faced with12345
11 I trained or raced without having to think12345
12 I knew exactly wanted I wanted to achieve in my race or training session12345
13 I knew whilst training or racing how well I was doing12345
14 I had complete concentration during the race or training session12345
15I had a sense of control12345
16I was not bothered about what others might be thinking of me12345
17 Time altered during the race or training session12345
18The race or training session was great12345

Scoring the zone questionnaire

It is important to note that your score represents just one race or training session. In order to get an average, it would be ideal to complete the scale on at least three occasions. Your score will range between 18 and 90.

  • If you scored between 18 and 42, it would suggest that you struggle to get into the zone, or at least you did on that particular race or training session.
  • If you scored between 43 and 66 you experienced elements of being in the zone during your race or training session, but the intensity of these feelings was not significant.
  • If you scored between 67 and 90 you were in the zone for most of the session.

Getting into the zone more often It is evident that flow is a desirable psychological state that enables or pushes athletes to the limits of their sporting capabilities. The good news is that research suggests that people can learn to get into the zone more intensely and more frequently. Based upon the recommendations from researchers at Queensland University of Technology1, table 2 outlines what you can do in order to experience the different components of flow more often.

TABLE 2: STRATEGIES ASSOCIATED WITH THE NINE DIMENSIONS OF FLOW

Flow dimensionStrategies
Challenge-skills balance• See stressful sporting events as being challenging, and identify what you can gain from each challenge (eg winning, competition).
• Set your own challenges (eg to place in top ten).
• Relish the challenges you face in sport.
• Believe in your own skills to meet the challenges you are faced with.
• Muhammad Ali once said “It’s the lack of belief that makes people afraid of meeting challenges, and I believe in myself.”
Action-awareness merging• Forget about yourself and let go of any concerns of what others may think of you. The greatest obstacle to achieving the zone is the self. Achieve this merging by not being self-critical when performing.
Clear goals • Set goals in advance of each season, competition, and training session.
Unambiguous feedback • Take advantage of all feedback you receive and use it constructively.
Concentration on task at hand• Let your competitors worry about themselves - you should focus on what you want to do.
• Accept the environment you are in. If the environment is not conducive to optimal performance, say to yourself “the other competitors have to put up with the same conditions.”
• Stay in the present by focusing on the process of what you are doing (eg maintaining good running form or holding an aero position on the bike).
Sense of control • Reducing your desire for control will actually result in greater feelings of control. Forget about the outcome and focus on what you are doing during the competition.
Loss of self-consciousness• Negative thoughts have the potential to stop you from experiencing a loss of selfconsciousness. Stop these negative thoughts by using thought stopping. Say “stop” to yourself and focus on your goals.
Transformation of time• Strategies to encourage a transformation of time are somewhat under researched. However, if you are an endurance athlete who wants to experience this dimension of flow, one such strategy could be to not to look at your stop watch as often.
Autotelic experience • See the fun in competition and remember why you started playing sport in the first place.

Factors that facilitate flow

Using the strategies presented in table 2 will help you experience flow more often and more intensely. There are however a number of other things you can do, and things that you should not do to enter this state on a more regular basis. Researchers at Eastern Illinois University and Queensland University of Technology have examined the factors that facilitate flow and found that there are nine factors that can make flow more likely to occur among athletes (see figure 2) 1 2 3 4.

In order to experience the zone more often, you should:

  • Develop a plan of what you are going to do during the competition in response to different scenarios. For instance, “If my opponent tries to jump past me on the bike, I will be prepared and ready to respond”.
  • Know your optimal level of arousal. Are you the type of athlete that performs better when you are psyched up, or an athlete that plays better when you are relaxed? If you are better when you are psyched up increase your levels of arousal prior to competition, starting by remembering previous competitions where you
    were pumped. Alternatively, if you perform better when relaxed, engage in deep breathing exercises.
  • Enhance your motivation prior to competing by deciding what you want to achieve in the upcoming competition.
  • Earn the right to be confident by preparing properly.
  • Make sure your training and diet leading up to the competition is correct.
  • Use your experience, by focusing on successful past achievements.
  • Concentrate on what you want to do.
  • Focus on the elements of your performance that have gone well.

SUMMARY

Being in the zone is associated with superior and more enjoyable performances; it allows you to reach your full potential in a way that may be less painful during endurance races or training sessions. There are a number of strategies you can employ to get into the zone more frequently and intensely. These include developing a plan, focussing on what you want to achieve, preparing well, and believing in your ability.

See also:

References

  1. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 7, 138-166, 1995.
  2. Journal of Sport Behavior, 24, 83-107, 2001.
  3. Flow in sports. Champaign IL: Human Kinetics, 1999.
  4. https://www.runnersworld.com/racing/locking-into-flow
  5. https://www.runnersworld.com/racing/locking-into-flow
  6. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 18, 17-35, 1996.
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