Jun 272011

Performing In The Zone

When you’re “performing in the zone,” or “treeing” as it’s sometimes called, it’s almost as if you can do anything. In business, sports or any other pursuit that requires skill and concentration, when you’re “in the zone,” it’s as if the action slows down in front of you. In that state of mind, you’re more focused, you can better anticipate what’s coming next and as a result, your performance is at a much higher level than you typically experience.

In sports we’ve all seen the seemingly magical performances where someone was “playing out of their mind,” like Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant putting in 50 points or more in key playoff games and hitting buzzer-beaters to win crucial games. Where do these “in the zone” moments come from? It’s easy to say, “Well, that’s just Michael Jordan, or that’s just Kobe Bryant, or that’s just ___________[insert name of exceptional athlete],” but anyone who has played sports knows, it’s not just the big name superstars that get in these zones. Furthermore, these big name superstars are not “in the zone” all the time.

So, how does it happen? This will not be a post about how the brain works or other technical physiological jargon or concepts. Rather, let’s keep this to trying to think through how anyone can get “in the zone” or “tree” more frequently in their performances. What is the necessary ingredient or precursor to such “in the zone” performances?

The key ingredient typically present in “treeing” and other peak performance experiences is pressure. There is usually some significant pressure or stress present that causes the peak performer to enhance their focus and play at another level. If nothing else has changed in the physical or mental preparation or state of the athlete or other performer, what other than increased focus could be a major contributor to getting “in the zone”?

If stress, pressure and potentially fear are typically present in peak performance, “in the zone” or “treeing” scenarios, what else can be done in order to maximize the probably of a great performance instead of a dismal failure in such situations? In my opinion, it boils down to a couple of concepts we’ve covered elsewhere in the GAMES Approach to overcoming fears, particularly mental rehearsal and positive self-talk. Beyond the Michael Jordans and Kobe Bryants of the world, almost all top performers I know and have observed in business, in sports, and all other performance domains, use mental rehearsal (visualization) and positive self-talk to enhance their performance. This “virtual preparation” is in addition, of course, to the extraordinary physical and other iterative preparation they put in on the field, in the boardroom, or wherever their actual field of play may be.

Let’s review what the GAMES Approach to overcoming fears and maximizing performance entails. Here are the elements, which focus in on how the Navy SEALs are trained to overcome their fears in situations that could, instead of eliciting an “in the zone” performance, cause a panic response, which undermines and potentially destroys performance:

[G]oal-setting: This involves creating very short-term and achievable goals, so that you are not overwhelmed by a bunch of extraneous thoughts and concerns and can remain focused on the task at hand. So, for example in the case of the SEAL Underwater Pool Competency Test, when you were underwater and the instructor tangled your breathing apparatus, you wouldn’t think to yourself, “I wonder what he’s going to do to me next…”, or “I’m not sure how much more of this I can take…”, or “I wonder how the candidate next to me is doing…”. Rather, you would say to yourself, simply, my goal is to untangle these knots – nothing more and nothing less. You would then say to yourself: I will employ the knot untangling procedure we learned in training step-by-step. Then you would execute step one, step two … etc. In other words, you would block out all extraneous thoughts and factors and focus totally on the task at hand, step-by-step. Can you see how you could use the same approach with any fears you may have in business, sports or life?

[A]rousal Control: This element focuses mainly on breathing. Taking deeper breaths with longer exhales simulates the body’s relaxation response and helps to mitigate some of the effects that the Amygdala’s panic response can create. So, in the Pool Competency example, when the instructor tied your hoses or pulled your mask off, rather than immediately starting to try to breathe rapidly (which you couldn’t anyway if what the instructor did interrupted the air supply), you would calm your mind with a decent exhale and then calmly get to work on accomplishing your goals and following procedures to address the issue, step-by-step. The relaxed breathing is harder to do in this example underwater, but can you see how breathing in a more relaxed fashion in business, sports or the rest of your life, and remaining calm rather than immediately going into panic mode, could help your performance?

[M]ental Rehearsal: Often referred to as visualization, mental rehearsal involves running through in your mind whatever it is you are trying to accomplish, envisioning all the steps, then a calm reaction to any stress and ultimately, a successful outcome. Mental rehearsal is seeing yourself doing it over and over again successfully, as if in a movie. You can visualize the scenario from a first-person perspective, where you are seeing it through your eyes as you perform the actions, or from a third-person perspective, where it’s as if you are seeing it through the eyes of someone else who is watching you perform the task successfully. You should visualize the scenario in as much detail as possible, so it looks and feels as realistic as possible. There is a great deal of research out there that indicates that your mind has a hard time differentiating between a scenario vividly visualized and one that actually occurred. As one SEAL psychologist says, by performing this step of mental rehearsal, the first time you do something “in real life,” as far as your mind is concerned, it won’t be like the first time at all and you may have greater success controlling the panic reaction that typically would occur. While the process of mental rehearsal has been of great assistance in enhancing SEAL performance, can you also see how doing this could help you perform better in all your endeavors?

[E]ndurance: This element is a recognition that this pro-active approach to mastering the fear response is not something that will happen quickly. It is a war of attrition against your Amygdala’s fear response. You will have to have a great deal of endurance and determination as you do as many iterations as necessary to conquer your fear response(s) in your particular endeavor. You will need to commit to stay at it as long as necessary, bravely confronting and conquering your fears head-on, knowing that by doing so, you will greatly increase the probability of achieving greatness in your chosen endeavor. Your mantra should be: As long as it takes, as many times as it takes. It’s a marathon not a sprint. Commit ahead of time. Be brave. Do not give up until you conquer your fears and reach your objectives.

[S]elf-talk: As has been discussed and proven in many other contexts, the Navy SEAL commanders came to the realization that in becoming an effective Special Forces team member, what you say to yourself, particularly in times of stress, is very important. You can say as many as 1,000 words to yourself in a minute, but at a minimum, you are likely to say several hundred words. If you are filling your mind with negative thoughts, you don’t increase your chances of success; instead, you increase your probability of failure. Discipline yourself to focus on positive self-talk. Repeat encouraging phrases to yourself. Find specific phrases or words that are particularly calming for you, or particularly motivating for you. Use them constantly to prepare for scenarios and use them during scenarios that occur, in the “heat of the battle”. Be your own best fan. Be your own cheering section. Prove by your self-talk that you believe in yourself and in the probability that you will succeed. This will help you keep the stress response under control and it will help you succeed in every aspect of your life.

Use the GAMES approach to maximize the likelihood that in stressful performance situations, you will perform “in the zone,” rather than allowing the fear response to take over and “choking,” as so often happens to those who are not adequately informed and prepared.

I look forward to your comments and questions.

Paul Morin

  • Alaina

    Great post! I have never really thought about the whole “in the zone” idea being used in business but you are right the same principals would apply. Thanks for the post.

  • Thanks, Alaina. I do a lot of work with both athletes and executives and I’m constantly surprised how many close parallels there are between “peak performance” in sports and other endeavors such as business. In the end, we’re all humans doing the activities, so the same physiological and psychological mechanisms are involved.

  • Darleana McHenry

    Paul, this is a great article. It is nice to be able to read about controlling the process and operating in the zone of peak performance.

  • Thanks, Darleana. I’m happy you enjoyed the article. Peak performance is not something that most thing about too often, at least not consciously, but as you know, for achievers, the concept is always present, at least subconsciously. Paul