The ineffable state known as “The Zone” is the Holy Grail of sports. Every athlete seeks it. Any athlete who has played in the zone remembers the ease, joy and satisfaction of finding this special place.
The dictionary defines “The Zone” as “An area or stretch of land having a particular characteristic, purpose or use, or subject to particular restrictions.” In sports language, The Zone means “Being completely unaware of what’s going on around you as you are into what’s going on in front of you.”
The first definition implies that The Zone is a special, unique and distinct psychological space separated from the normal. The second definition implies that, when in The Zone, one’s focus is so keen that one is oblivious to all but the task at hand. Any one athlete who has found The Zone knows this to be true.
So how does one find this magical place and how does one stay there? Virtually all of my work with elite athletes will eventually culminate into an effort to build a path to The Zone.
I would suggest that standard sports psychology and/or pop psychology used by coaches has had little success in helping athletes find The Zone. Deep breathing and some positive self-talk will not do the trick. The Zone is that rarified place where the athlete is playing up to full potential, doing so in a confident, relaxed and near effortless manner.
To find The Zone, you need to employ the following psychoanalytic techniques that enable the following two things to occur:
1. The building up of mature defenses
To find The Zone, the athlete must learn a very specific set of defense mechanisms … defenses which work against the athlete include turning against the self, fantasy about winning, acting out and hypochondriasis. Defenses which can help include the mature defenses of suppression, dissociation, isolation, asceticism, displacement, sublimation and humor. Prior to and during a tournament, intense emotions will be felt. These include anxiety, the shame of mistakes, the anger when someone makes an off-handed remark, noise from the crowd, a bad call by a referee, etc. All this and more must be managed throughout a tournament. Good defenses include suppression where the athlete is taught how to temporarily push down emotions. Affects like anxiety, sympathy, compassion, anger and shame all must be suppressed during play.
Another example of a good defense is humor. Novak Djokovic uses humor all the time to let off steam. Displacement is the defense of turning anger into aggression. Steph Curry, the star basketball player, described his use of displacement when he said the criticism he faced as a rookie made him mad and that he used that anger to improve his game. However, all these defenses are only useful when the player is consciously aware of how they work.
2. Overcoming separation anxiety
The building up of esteem in order to separate from the opponent is the second step in teaching the athlete how to find The Zone. We build up sufficient self-esteem and teach them how to psychologically separate from their opponents. This process is especially important in individual sports like tennis, golf, swimming and track. One-on-one sports involve a tremendous amount of social interaction with the opponent and the expectation of being a ‘good sportsman.’ But connection to the opponent is not useful if you want to find The Zone and win. The more you can dissociate from and distance yourself from these social expectations, the more likely you are to enter The Zone.
Strong defenses, self-esteem and permission to separate and become silent are the keys to finding The Zone. The Zone is one of life’s peak experiences, and it’s something that can be taught.