The Zone

The Zone, also referred to as the "flow state" is considered the ideal mindset for optimal performance,whether on the playing field or in the gym. These concepts have received attention from sport psychology in the past. Getting in the "Zone" is the “ultimate state” of consciousness for many, and for those that have experienced it, it is a feeling that cannot be forgotten. I clearly remember feeling this state during grueling karate sessions and heavy lifting days in the gym. After sessions like those I had a smile on my face for days.

Being in the “zone” is often characterized as follows:

1. Having no fear

2. Not thinking about the performance

3. Being very focused on the activity

4. Not feeling the need to try to hard, i.e. being part of the activity itself

5. Feeling increased personal control

6. Seeing the event in slow motion.

Ancient warriors, regardless of country or ethnicity, have known about this state for centuries. Combat, or sports like boxing, football, mixed martial arts etc., replicate the need to stay in this state. When you are out of sync and not remotely close to being in the “zone’ you often get hurt. When you are in the “zone” everything just flows.

The Japanese often call it “Mushin No Shin”, or “mind of no mind”. It’s funny; I was watching “The Last Samurai” and noticed many a reference to this state. In the movie Tom Cruise’s character is getting his butt kicked by a seasoned samurai during sword training. The head Samurai’s son tells him “too many minds”. In other words he was letting too many distractions into his mind when he should have only been focused on the main task. That means no “ego”, no “if I do this, he’ll do that”, “my arms are sore” etc. This is a very valuable lesson for sports and life in general, think about it.

Many of us have experienced these feelings during an athletic activity, but aspects of this are possible during a focused, serious training session. This state can be fostered by connecting the body and mind during each session. While this may sound very esoteric or mystical to some I am referring to a focused state of mind. It is the difference between smoothly moving from exercise to exercise while bracing the trunk and squeezing the muscles through each repetition of a heavy lift or talking on a cell phone while sitting on the hip adduction machine.

Fitness professionals can help facilitate this "Zone" state by preparing their clients both mentally and physically. Teach them proper breathing, proper form and guide them towards taking responsibility for their own health. Once you lay the proper groundwork it is possible to keep your verbal cues simple, positive and few in number. Let the client “get inside their own head” while you guide them to an empowering training experience. It does not help to talk about everything under the sun during training if you want to get in the Zone.

In the past I have trained athletes and soldiers with the intent of facilitating the Flow State. I can not say that my methods were based on pure Western Science but they were effective. My goal was to “break” the athletes physically and emotionally, to some extent (all safe stuff-I know you must be thinking that I am a bit cruel). I would have them push past their comfort zones physically and also try to confuse them a bit mentally. The only thing they had to do was to shut out what I was saying in my attempt to “off-balance” them mentally, and focus on the exercises and movement patterns. The results were often dramatic. Facial expressions became calm and focused. There were no complaints. Movements became smooth and flowing, and the sweat was flowing like a river.

While you will not have to get as extreme as I did you can still help your clients achieve great things with focused intent and a clear mind. Encourage them to focus on each rep for as long as they can. Often giving them a set tempo is very helpful. Instead of performing a squat quickly, use a tempo based approach, for example 313. That refers to three seconds down, one second hold and three seconds up. This will force them to focus. Choose a tempo that will suit your client and see what happens.

Experiencing the “Flow” or “Zone” can come with repeated practice or it will come like a lightening bolt landing on your head. Either way, the result is positive and worth replicating. It could mean the difference between someone exercising infrequently or making health and fitness a lifestyle.

Now that I'm in the Zone take me back to the Sport Psychology home page