Mindset to Help Athletes Perform in the Zone
There’s nothing better than athletes playing in the zone. You’re focused, in the moment, and everything seems to just flow. Have you ever experienced this for yourself?
If you have, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s the state you’re in when you perform your best. Athletes in the zone is so synonymous with performing well, that you’ll often hear athletes say, “I was just in the zone,” after a great game.
But something else also happens when you find yourself in the zone…it doesn’t last. What’ll likely occur is that in the next game you won’t have that same feeling. You may still be focused and perhaps just as confident, but something will be missing.
The zone has now become this elusive state that you hope to find yourself in come game time.
When you’re unable to get into the zone, this can reduce your confidence and create the idea in your mind that you are destined for a poor performance.
Luckily, you don’t need to go about hoping to be in the zone, leaving such an important state of mind up to chance. Through the use of sport psychology tools, you can learn how to develop the right mindset to help get yourself into the zone.
What It Means to Perform in the Zone
Being an athlete in the zone, simply put, means you have gotten yourself into the mental state where you perform your best. The zone is where you find yourself in the flow state. Where you’re one with the performance and every movement you make happens with an effortless fluidity.
The zone itself is difficult to define. How can we put words together to describe a feeling of oneness? That’s why, instead of seeking to define what it means to be in the zone, we can examine the mental traits that are on full display when you’re in such a state.
"Being in the zone, simply put, means you have gotten yourself into the mental state where you perform your best."
When You’re in the Zone You’re Focused
Nothing will distract you when you’re in the zone. No matter how many people are yelling, or insults the opponent throws your way, your focus will not be broken.
Focus is all about thought. When you lose focus due to distractions, it’s not the distraction itself that is causing your attention to wander. What happens is, your thoughts become fixated on that distraction.
However, when you find yourself in the zone, you are in control of your thoughts. You do not allow them to become attached to external distractions. Instead, you keep your thoughts focused in the present moment.
Being an athlete in the zone means you are completely focused.
When You’re in the Zone You Perform Freely
Confidence allows you to perform freely, without fearful and anxious thoughts filling your mind. But when confidence is absent, playing free from doubts becomes all but impossible. Every move you make is steeped in worry and concern over making a mistake.
When you’re in the zone, doubts fade, and confidence rises. You are focused, trusting, and free from the doubt that typically keeps one foot gently pressed down on the brake as the game goes on.
The trust and confidence you exhibit while in the zone allows you to play freely. You go about your performance, giving yourself permission to perform as you know how. No more holding back. You let all your talents shine as your mind is focused and in the zone.
"When you’re in the zone, doubts fade, and confidence rises. You are focused, trusting, and free from the doubt that typically keeps one foot gently pressed down on the brake as the game goes on."
When You’re in the Zone, Your Mind is Present
One of the leading mental game challenges athletes face is outcome-oriented thinking. Now, of course you are going to want a certain outcome. That’s natural. But what you can’t do is focus on the outcome as you perform.
Outcome-oriented thinking means that while you perform, you are worried about the end result. This can take the form of the score, making a mistake, what others will think of you, or your stats. In short, you are worried about the future.
The reason this form of thinking is harmful has to do with the fear and anxiety it drives. If you completely trusted in yourself and believed you would receive the outcome you wanted, would there be any need for worrying about it?
No. The only reason you are thinking about what may happen is out of concern. Typically concern over not wanting to end up with a negative result.
But when you’re an athlete in the zone, no such thinking takes place. Your mind is fully focused in the present moment. That means you are giving your complete attention to every action, no matter how large or small.
It is these actions which compile to form the result. That’s why focusing on the process is such a powerful mindset to adopt as an athlete. By doing so, you put yourself in a better position to achieve the outcome you desire.
Mental Training Tools to Create the Mindset You Need to Perform in the Zone
When you’re an athlete in the zone, your mind is focused, confidence consumes you, and your thinking is centered on the process. Each one of these traits is why performing in the zone leads to such incredible success.
It’s no accident that a state which happens when you’re focused, confident, and thinking about the process, leads to peak performance. It is these mental states, which make up the mindset known as the zone, which allow you to play at a high level.
Now the question becomes; how can you get yourself into such a mindset going into a game? Up until now, playing in the zone may have been something you experienced occasionally. A state that eluded you, even when it was what you most desperately wanted.
But you don’t have to hope to play in the zone. Through the use of mental training tools, you can strengthen your mind and work to instill the mindset that will help you perform in the zone on a more frequent basis.
"It’s no accident that a state which happens when you’re focused, confident, and thinking about the process, leads to peak performance."
Training Focus Through Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a state. It’s a state of awareness where you are completely focused in the present moment. Earlier I said that being focused was one of the main traits which helped you perform in the zone.
Through training mindfulness, you can strengthen the muscles within your mind, increasing your ability to focus.
Now, while mindfulness may seem like a complex topic, there’s no need to feel intimidated by the term. The act of training it is quite simple, actually.
All it involves is centering your attention on something, such as your breath. Then, when you notice your focus drifting, getting lost in the many thoughts filling your head, you gently return your focus onto your breath.
When people first start training mindfulness, one of the leading frustrations is feeling like they have no control over their thoughts. They seek to center their attention, but every few seconds another thought pops up and they become distracted. That’s okay!
In fact, that is providing you with an incredible opportunity to train. The state of mindfulness happens when you are fully focused in the present moment. But the training of mindfulness occurs when you notice your attention drifting and then bring it back into the present moment.
In doing so, you are gaining control and strengthening your ability to regulate your focus. Controlling your focus is what you need in order to create the mindset to get yourself in the zone.
Now, training mindfulness is simple enough, but remembering to do so is often the challenge. Which is why, there are activities you can do that facilitate the training. Here is a list of some great ways you can begin training mindfulness for yourself:
- Mindfulness Meditation: choose an amount of time to meditate for and set an alarm so you know you’re finished. Get into a comfortable position, close your eyes, and begin focusing on your breath. As you lose focus, recenter your attention. Continue to do this over and over until the time is up.
- Mindful Walk: get into the rhythm of walking and start bringing your attention to your breath. Breathe deeply, in a calming manner and watch as your breath goes in and out. Then, refocus yourself each time your attention drifts.
- Mindful Task: choose a task that doesn’t require much thought. Think of something like washing the dishes or taking a shower. While you perform the act, focus on your breathing. Feel yourself completely in the moment. Once your attention drifts, recenter it on your breath.
Through a daily practice of training mindfulness, you will strengthen your ability to focus. As you do, you will be instilling the mindset you need to get yourself in the zone going into a game.
Increase Confidence Through Visualization
To build the mindset you need as an athlete to perform in the zone, confidence is a huge factor. You must develop the belief within yourself that you have the skills necessary to succeed. By cultivating self-confidence, the ability to perform freely becomes available to you.
Now, confidence is a tricky trait, as it thrives off experience. To build confidence, you must repeatedly see yourself succeed. The success doesn’t need to be large, but it does need to be present.
Think about a sport you’ve never played. If I were to ask you to go try out for a professional team in that sport, how confident would you be? You may not have many expectations, but you’re also unlikely to have any confidence either.
That’s because you don’t have the experience of seeing yourself succeed. The reason I say confidence is a difficult trait to cultivate is because of this very principle of requiring experience.
When you lack confidence, performing well is not always easy, since performing well happens when you’re confident. This leads to something known as the confidence crisis. However, we can work around this through the use of visualization.
Visualization involves creating a scene within your mind. The beautiful part is that you can make this scene as real as possible. In doing so, your brain will respond. It will create memory just as it would if you were to perform the skill during a game.
So now, instead of having to perform well in games over and over, you can start to see yourself succeed in the safety of your mind. Here’s how to start a visualization technique for yourself:
- Step 1: find a quiet location and get into a comfortable position.
- Step 2: close your eyes and breathe deeply for a couple of minutes.
- Step 3: once relaxed, imagine yourself playing. Go into detail, seeing yourself go through a game.
- Step 4: bring emotion into the scene by feeling confident while you perform and successful after you see yourself succeed.
"To build confidence, you must repeatedly see yourself succeed. The success doesn’t need to be large, but it does need to be present."
The last mental trait that helps you get into the zone is being focused on the process. Now, how can you get yourself to focus on the process when there are so many outcomes tempting you? You set yourself performance objectives, also known as process goals.
As a game begins, the natural tendency will be to start thinking about the outcome. The scoreboard starts to move, mistakes happen, and all of a sudden your aim to focus on the process is forgotten.
To help keep your attention placed on the process, there needs to be concrete objectives or goals that you focus on. Think of these as a focal point. Your mind needs to focus on something, and so you must give it a target.
Performance objectives come in two forms: mental and physical. You want to set both before you begin a game. The only real rule when it comes to process goals is that they must be completely within your control.
This means you have the power to control whether or not you stick to your goals. For example, setting a goal to win the game is not within your control. There are way too many factors playing into the outcome.
Setting a goal to stay balanced during your swing or follow through on every shot, on the other hand, is within your control.
For mental performance objectives, think about your attitude, focus, and thinking. For physical performance objectives, think about your mechanics and the process you control within the game.
Once you set your performance objectives, you now have a target to focus on during the game. This target keeps your attention on the process, and as a result instills the mindset you need to perform in the zone.
You need to get yourself in the zone. By doing so, you greatly increase your chances of success. Not because there’s something magical about this state, but due to the mental traits required to find yourself in the zone.
Being in the zone means you’re performing focused, with high levels of confidence, and your mind is centered on the process. All of this eliminates thoughts of doubt, fear, anxiety, and many other mental game challenges that keep you from performing your best.
To build the mindset you need to perform in the zone, begin training mindfulness, use visualization to increase confidence, and set performance objectives going into each game.
By doing so, you will strengthen your mind and help you perform in the zone.
If you are looking for a more direct approach to creating the mindset you need to perform in the zone, 1-1 mental game coaching can help.
Through our twelve week program, we’ll identify your main mental game challenges and put together a customized mental training plan to strengthen your mind.
If you’re interested in learning more about mental performance coaching, click here.
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.
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Please contact us to learn more about mental coaching and to see how it can improve your mental game and increase your performance. Complete the form below, call (252)-371-1602 or schedule an introductory coaching call here.
Eli is a sport psychology consultant and mental game coach who works 1-1 with athletes to help them improve their mental skills and overcome any mental barriers keeping them from performing their best. He has an M.S. in psychology and his mission is to help athletes and performers reach their goals through the use of sport psychology & mental training.eli's story
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