The Inside Edge

Candace Webb
23 January 2012

Every athlete dreams of being “in the zone” or achieving “flow”. When you achieve this state, your skills, training, and mental discipline come together. There seem to be no limits to what you can do and everything goes your way. Angela Tanner, a native of Saskatchewan who rowed for Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, describes being in the zone in this manner: “You feel like nothing can stop you. Even though your muscles are burning with every stroke, you maintain your technique, your oar catches the water, and the boat hums along the surface [of the water]. You glide past other crews and everything you have been training for comes together in that moment. It’s definitely an adrenaline rush!”

Did You Know?
The term “flow” was introduced by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “chick-sent-me-high-ee”) in 1975. No one knows for sure who coined the phrase “in the zone”, although some people attribute it to the baseball player Ted Williams or to tennis player Arthur Ashe.

Certain characteristics are associated with being in the zone. You feel energized, yet relaxed, sure that you will be successful, and completely focused. Things seem to be effortless; you’re on automatic pilot. You also feel a sense of great enjoyment and feel completely in control. Another bonus is that you win more often if you’re in the zone.

There’s just one problem. You can’t put yourself into the zone. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. That’s where an appointment with a sport psychologist comes in.

Did You Know?
Sport psychologists study the mental factors that contribute to performance in sports and exercise. They apply their knowledge to help individuals and teams perform their best.

Sport psychologists help athletes to strengthen the mind-body connections that will get them into the zone more often so that they can deliver peak performances. Strengthening mind-body connections works because thoughts can have direct effects on your physiology. For example, if you think about something that terrifies you, like asking that cute guy or girl to a party, your heart might race.

Psychologists give athletes a set of skills and strategies for improving their chances of getting into the zone. These skills include goal setting, visualization, competition plans, coping and thought control strategies, excitement and anxiety management techniques, and concentration maintenance strategies.

Visualization works well because imagining movement causes a response in the muscles, a fact discovered in the late 1800s by physiologist William Carpenter. More recently, the Harvard psychologist Stephen M. Kosslyn has shown that both imagining and doing a movement activates the same areas of the cerebral cortex. This means that repeatedly visualizing a movement or skill in your mind can improve your ability to actually do it. That’s great news if you’re a couch potato!

Did You Know?
The cerebral cortex, often referred to as our “gray matter”, plays a central role in memory, attention, awareness, thought, and language.

But one size doesn’t fit all. Sport psychologists have gone further by tailoring programs to match the personalities of athletes. They can use emotional profiling to determine which emotions are associated with both the best and worst performances of an athlete. With this information, the psychologist can help the athlete achieve the correct balance of positive and negative emotions associated with peak performance prior to a competition. Now that’s scientific!

Next time you’ve been in the zone, take some time to reflect on your pre-competition routine. Did you do anything differently? Were you happy? Angry? Nervous? Any of these things might be what gets you into the zone. And maybe that MVP award!

Learn More!

Ayan, Steve J. The Will to Win. Scientific American Mind - April, 2005.

Cooper, Andrew. In the Zone: The Zen of Sports. Shambala Sun – March, 1995.

Harmison, Robert J. (2006) Peak Performance in Sport: Identifying Performance States and Developing Athletes’ Psychological Skills. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 37(3): 233-243.

Park, Alice. Getting and Staying in the Zone. Time Magazine, Jan. 8. 2006

Sugarman, Karlene. Peak Performance.

Young, Janet A. and Michelle D. Pain (1999) The Zone: Evidence of a Universal Phenomenon for Athletes Across Sports. Athletic Insight: The Online Journal of Sport Psychology, Vol. 1, Iss. 3

Candace Webb received her Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Ottawa in 2006, but now lives in Southern California. When not writing, she spends her time volunteering, hiking, painting, and hanging out at the beach

Candace Webb

I graduated from the University of Ottawa in 2006 with a PhD in Biology. I am now a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA, studying the funky circadian rhythms of plants. Besides science, I love to write, hike, paint, bike ride, and hang out at the beach.

Une diplômée de l’Université d’Ottawa, j’ai reçu mon doctorat en biologie en 2006. Je suis présentement boursière postdoctorale à l’Université de Californie à Los Angeles, où j’étudie les rythmes circadiens des plantes. En plus des sciences, j’aime écrire, passer du temps à la plage et faire de la peinture, de la randonnée et du vélo.

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