• Daniel Bowman PhD

Peak performance: How to get in "The Zone"

Athletes, musicians, and others achieve their greatest performances when they are in the "zone." Therefore "the zone" is the ideal mental state that performers seek.

Almost everyone has been in the zone at some time. The zone is a unique mental state in which one has deep clarity, with no sense of self. It's a mental state without ego (the "I" that wants to achieve things to impress others). In the zone, people have incredible awareness, without self-awareness, and time often seems to slow down, giving them seemingly more time to react. Perhaps you have experienced this state when losing control of a car. I know I have. Once I hydroplaned and became incredibly aware of the feeling of my car on and off the road (it felt like I was skiing when I was off the road, sliding through grass at over fifty miles an hour), and time seemed to slow down, so it was very easy to dodge a speed limit sign and several trees.

I also entered the zone as a receiver in college. The spiral of the football would appear to spin extremely slowly, so it was easy to see and catch the ball, and I was highly aware of my body and defenders and could cut to avoid them; I could not hear the crowd until the moment the play ended. The zone is sort of a hypnotic state, yet there is great awareness.

Research suggests the zone has three key elements: Confidence, alertness, and calmness. The last two elements seem contradictory, but they don't have to be. In fact the last two elements must both be present for you to be in "the zone."

So how do you achieve this unique state? Most of it (being alert yet calm) is achieved by knowing how to control your arousal, and the other part of achieving the zone is is about letting go of your ego. I believe there are ways to rid yourself of ego without being confident, but confidence helps. Confidence means you trust your body and trust you can perform the way you want to.

The parts of the zone that relate to confidence are also described as trust and optimism. Confidence, optimism and trust are fantastic traits that are highly correlated with success, yet I think they help performers achieve the zone by allowing them to focus on the act they are performing, without worrying about failure. When there is no fear of failure, the ego can rest because it feels protected - it does not fear being exposed as less than. Another way to let go of ego, without necessarily having confidence, is simply practicing mindfulness, which by definition is a state of being in the now, without judgement. By definition, mindfulness is an egoless state. See my earlier blog/vlog on this website, "Using Mindfulness to Improve Your Performance," to learn how to become mindful. The more often you practice mindfulness, the more likely you are to enter the zone.

The main way to reach the zone is to learn how to control your arousal. Arousal is the readiness of your mind and body for action. When your arousal is extremely low, you fall asleep. And when arousal is at its most extreme high, you panic. The zone requires a very high degree of arousal but not so high that you are panicking. Panic destroys performance and can even kill people in extreme sports, such as big wave surfing or auto racing. Panic could have killed me when my car hydroplaned, as I discussed earlier.

In 1908, two researchers, Yerkes and Dodson, discovered that mice performed best at navigating mazes when they had a strong level of arousal but not an extreme level of arousal. They proved this numerous times in what became known as the Yerkes-Dodson law, which tells us to perform at our best, we must control arousal. You can't be sleepy, and you can't panic.

Although entering the zone requires a high degree of arousal, and some performers may need caffeine and loud music to get there, most performers tend to get overly aroused for big performances. In order to get into the zone, most people need to learn to use breathing techniques and mindfulness work, provided in my earlier blog/vlog, "Using Mindfulness to Improve Your Performance." So that's it: get a good night's rest and get juiced up with music and caffeine if necessary, but once you are out there performing, let go of your ego and be in the moment, using your breath to keep you calm, and you will find yourself in "the zone."