Living Life "in the Zone"
Updated: May 31
Living Life "in the Zone"
Most of us remember either being in "the zone" ourselves or watching someone else performing "in the zone" at an athletic event, theater performance, or concert. It's when everything comes together, and performance is at its peak. Athletes who have been there reporting feeling invincible and incredibly focused on their athletic performance. Any athlete will tell you being in "the zone" is a transcendent experience.
Alas, entering "the zone" is not always something that can be predicted, though you can definitely prepare for it through readiness, attitude, reliance on training and practice, and internal motivation. Once there, the athlete, artist, or other person demonstrating his or her skills has a sensation almost of being moved by a current, and of time not really existing. Psychology professor Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, of Claremont Graduate University, named this state "flow" in his 1990 book titled Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Here's what you should know about recognizing, preparing for, and making the best use of "flow" as one of the most valuable life skills you can have. Challenge Is a Necessary Ingredient You tend not to get into the flow when you aren't being challenged. When you can "phone in" a performance, you're less likely to really give it everything you have. However, when you are presented with a challenge, yet are confident you have the skills to meet it, you're prepared for entering the zone. When you're either presented with an "easy win" situation or with a sure loss to a superior opponent, you're less likely to experience peak performance. You need to be challenged, within reason. Clear Goals and Objectives Are Also Necessary When you're sufficiently challenged, it's easier to define overarching goals and the objectives you need to meet to reach them. Athletic performance in the zone relies upon clear performance goals. Perhaps this is simple awareness of how many points are needed this quarter or this half in order to win, or maybe a running back is aware of how many yards he has to run to beat a personal-best rushing record. In other words, "This is my goal, and this is what I have to do during this play, this series, or this time period to achieve it." External Incentives Don't Put or Keep You in the Zone The feeling of being in control of a masterful performance is incentive enough. Interestingly, outside incentives aren't as powerful as you might imagine when it comes to entering and staying in the zone. In either the context of athletic performance or life in general, achieving a state of "flow" requires that you be internally driven and perform because of the love of doing it. A trophy, big paycheck, or recognition may be nice, but these are not the primary drivers of the most inspired performances. The performance itself, and being thoroughly engaged in it, is sufficient reward. Intense Focus and Absorption Keep You There As you might imagine, intense focus and being absorbed in the process are essential to being in the zone of peak performance. It doesn't matter if you're going in for a layup or approaching the most technically demanding section of a piano concerto. Being in the zone means being intensely focused on what you're doing. Whatever is going on outside is off in the distance. In fact, that's one of the best things about being in the zone. It can get you "unstuck" from worrying about problems or troubling circumstances for a time. Feedback Has a Place in the Zone Too Being in a state of flow doesn't mean you're impervious to outside influences, however. Watch a softball team or a basketball team that's in the zone, and you'll notice that there is intense communication and feedback going on -- sometimes only in the form of momentarily locking eyes to reassure your teammate you have his or her back. The best athletic coaches, too, understand that they have a role from the sideline when their team is in the zone, and this goes for professional team leaders as well. One of the most valuable life skills you can have is knowing how to prepare for and make the most of those times when you're in the zone of peak performance. You can't always control whether or not you enter a state of flow, but you can learn to recognize the signs and go with it when it happens. This will benefit you as an athlete, and if you're not athletic, it benefits you as an artist, musician, parent, partner, or professional.