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Breaking into The Zone

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Biology 202, Spring 2005
Third Web Papers
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Breaking into The Zone

Bridget Dolphin

The division of psychology which focuses on athletes is fairly new, with the majority of the most important discoveries being made in the mid to late 20th century. Pioneers include Rainer Martens, Terry Orlick and Daniel Gould, all of whom are still active professors, researchers and authors in the field of sports psychology. When they began their studies, athletes were quiet about their relationships with the psychologists and reluctant to admit they were receiving help to better their mental game. Today almost all professional squads carry a team psychologist and spend a great deal of time improving the mental aspect of the athletes' game. Many athletes who participate in individual sports also hire a sports psychologist or a coach who is dedicated to building mental as well as physical strength and skill. The psychologists use the athlete's character and the sport in which he participates, along with neurological discoveries to develop a plan to put the athlete in the optimal state of mind for every game (4).

Neurologists have discovered that brain activity can be measured in waves which vary from 0.5 cycles per second (cps) to 28 cps. The levels of brain rhythm have been divided into four phases which coincide with the levels of consciousness. The Delta phase (0.5-4 cps) refers to a comatose or unconscious mind in which the conscious has no control. The Theta phase (4-7 cps) is the "inspirational artistic imaginative phase." The Alpha phase (7-14 cps) is a relaxed phase which allows access to the subconscious and the ability to focus all attention on just one item or task. The Beta phase (14-28 cps) is the phase we are in during most of our time spent awake and allows seven or eight thoughts to be circulating at the same time. The Alpha phase is what athletes identify as "in the zone" and is that which they strive to enter for the maximum level of concentration and ability (8). It is an elite state of mind in which each athlete performs best, and with the help of a psychologist, each hopes to discover the best way to get there.
The phrase "in the zone" is used most often when referring to athletics, but every person is capable using his or her subconscious to perform at an elevated degree. Business men or women may enter "the zone" when presenting a new idea to superiors; actors may enter during their scenes; artists often enter while working on a piece. It means every skill that you need, which is already stored in your subconscious, is utilized based on decisions made by your unconscious (7). It's allowing your subconscious mind to "go on auto pilot" (2). Frequently when someone is in the zone, time goes by swiftly; all of a sudden the game or meeting is over and he or she doesn't know where the time went. He or she may not remember exactly what happened while their subconscious was in control (2). A person may have a similar experience by doing something as simple as replacing a credit card in her wallet after making a purchase and then later thinking she left it at the store because her subconscious was in control when she put it away.

I was interested to learn more about the athlete's subconscious because I have spent much of my life completely dedicated to soccer, and I always wondered why some days my game was "on" and some days I wasn't as consistent with my play. I didn't know psychologists had actually defined "the zone." I realized a lot of the time I was relying on my subconscious, but I wasn't sure how I switched from my conscious and how much other athletes used theirs. As with any activity that is eventually controlled by the subconscious, the actions demonstrated in each game need to be repeated a great deal until the brain can send signals to the body without the conscious mind being aware of carrying out the activity. In high school I began to notice I couldn't really remember certain moments of each game. These seemed to take place especially right before cheering and applause from fans and coaches. I would try to recall my most successful actions, but could only remember times I was resting on the side line, or when one of my teammates had the ball. In college I was more formally introduced to the notion of the conscious and subconscious regions or the brain. I paid more attention to how my brain worked during games.

I don't score a lot because I have a defensive frame of mind and I also often choke under the pressure of having the ball in front of the goal, but I have a strong shot and have been one of the primary players to take penalty shots (a free kick 12 yards from the goal line in an 18-yard box occupied only by the shooter and goalkeeper) on my teams since I was pretty young. My freshman year of college I played my first two intercollegiate games at a tournament in Maryland. We won on Saturday and got to play in the championship on Sunday, where we were tied with the other team through regulation time and two overtimes. As often happens in soccer tournaments, when the teams are tied after an extended period, each team chooses five players to take penalty kicks against the opposing team and whoever puts more of them into the goal wins the game. I was pretty anxious to be playing at all; college level soccer is very different from what I remember high school being like, and I was scared to death when my coach chose me to shoot second. I was also excited because I had never missed a penalty kick when it counted, so this was going to be my time to shine. The shooters sat together in the circle at the center of the field and watched as each took her turn. I remember watching the first two shots from the other team and the first shot from our team, and I remember how nervous I was. I don't remember standing up, or walking toward the goal, or placing the ball, or shooting, or walking back to the center of the field. I do remember when I got back to the circle everyone on my team was cheering and hugging me and, as my coach says, I "cracked the first smile she'd seen since I arrived for pre-season."

My sophomore year I felt a lot of pressure going into the season. We had a new coach and I was upset at having to prove myself again and seriously doubted my ability and chances at reclaiming my starting position with all the new recruits. Our first games were again in a tournament, this time in Waynesburg, PA, and we won our first match, tied the championship game, and entered another round of pentalty kicks. I was shooting second again. I remember the first three shots and being nervous. I remember walking into the penalty box. I remember placing the ball in the correct location 12 yards from the goal. I remember backing up and thinking "this is gonna suck." I remember my foot striking the ball and I remember watching it ricochet off the post.

The previous two scenarios are prime examples of being "in" and "out" of "the zone." Obviously, being "in the zone" proves a great deal more productive. The question now is how to enter the zone. Ideally, an athlete would enter "the zone" at the start of each game, match, race, etc. but clearly that doesn't always happen. The greatest athletes are able to use their subconscious more than the average competitor, which, combined with their superior physical talent, makes them the best.

I am definitely not professional soccer material. I have a good defensive mind, as I previously stated, and have acquired decent ball skills in my 13 years of playing. I am comfortable with my defense, though, and not as sure of myself when the ball is at my feet rather than at the feet of my opponent. This became even more apparent to me during a game my sophomore year in college. I saw a girl dribbling toward me and went into "the zone." I don't know how I got the ball, but I left "the zone" and "woke up" moments later with the ball at my feet and people cheering excitedly. I was able to distribute the ball without any problems, but not until after a bit of pondering, nearly panicking, by my conscious mind.

I was able to experience a sort of maturing into being able to enter "the zone" after I became aware of it. I started playing lacrosse officially in February of my freshman year in college. My only previous experience was passing to myself against a wall. My subconscious wasn't able to direct my movements because my even conscious mind had no idea what was going on, and therefore I hadn't repeated any action enough to be stored there. I couldn't catch and I didn't throw very accurate passes, but fortunately I earned some playing time because there were several injuries and because my defensive mind allowed me to grasp that facet of lacrosse rather speedily.

I believe that once an athlete uses his subconscious for one sport, it becomes somewhat athletically inclined and can pick up other sports quickly. I say this because after only a few practices, I found myself entering "the zone" during certain drills. There is a certain technique to playing legal defense in women's lacrosse. The defender's hand is allowed to make contact with the player she is marking, but her stick cannot be horizontal across her body; the head must be raised so it is not parallel with the ground. She also cannot have her whole body right against her opponent's; there must be some space between them. I would often forget, so my coach spent a lot of time reminding me of all this. I would stand in line repeating to myself "at an angle, hug a tree... at an angle, hug a tree," and I always intended to keep repeating it throughout the drill, but I don't think I was ever able. I would stop sometime without being aware and then after I was done I would realize it wasn't going through my head anymore. I wouldn't remember when I stopped saying it, or if I had in fact held my body position and kept my stick at the correct angle.

Using the subconscious in sports helps eliminate the possibility that the athlete will make a mistake by thinking too much or making a poor decision in the conscious mind. It also increases action and reaction time. Research has shown that it takes a minimum of 100 milliseconds for the brain to emit direction for action, and longer (closer to 200 milliseconds) if a complex decision has to be made (5). More recent research suggests that becoming conscious of the decision takes up to ten times as long (1), increasing the amount of time by half a second. Hence, an athlete's reaction to a 100 mile-per-hour pitch or serve seems super-human to spectators. A baseball player has a very limited window of time to decide to strike a pitch. Because conscious processing would take longer than the time that is available, the subconscious must be responsible for making such a decision (5).

During my first or second lacrosse game, I remember I was covering the woman who had the ball and I ran with her for some length of a sideline of the field, right near my team's bench. That was the first time I felt like I was playing real defense in lacrosse. I knew I was doing well because my coach was running right along with us yelling about what a great job I was doing. I was able to hear what she was saying, process it and think "yes, I am with her, my stick is right, my arms are ok..." I felt like I was running with her for 30 seconds or a minute, and I have to admit I was very pleased with myself. Later that week we watched a tape of that game and when it reached that portion of the game I saw that I was running next to the girl for two, maybe three seconds. My subconscious was working a great deal more quickly than my conscious mind ever had, but it seemed to me as though my subconscious had actually slowed time inside my brain.

How to get an athlete to enter "the zone" depends a lot on the athlete herself. Because each competition and each athlete individually is so different, and also because "the zone" is a moderately recent notion, there is not a lot of literature available on how to enter it. There are some basic instructions available from multiple sources. They consist of positive self-talk, visualization, excitation, relaxation, confidence and physical ability or physiology. Each breathing regimen or visualization exercise is tailored specifically to the individual athlete or team to best improve their game specifically (2), (3), (6). The objective is to get the athlete as focused as possible, yet relaxed enough for the conscious mind to yield control to the unconscious. Some athletes feel they must be "psyched up" to enter "the zone," others feel they must be "psyched down." Psyching up consists of increasing the amount of mental and physical arousal and activation before participating in an athletic event (4). Former world champion track and field participant Steve Backley used breathing techniques because he was "under aroused [I]and needed perking up" (4). Psyching down means relaxing mind and body in preparation for the competition so nervousness doesn't hinder an athlete's performance. World record holder and Gold Medal winning hurdler David Hemery spent time relaxing and slowing his pulse before each race (4). The best methods depend on what is most effective for the athlete, and also what kind of focus is ideal for the athlete to achieve. An athlete who participates in an individual or closed skill sport, such as track or golf, works to focus on the event itself; the athlete can center all his attention on each race or stroke. An athlete who participates in a team or open skilled sport such as soccer or basketball must divide her attention between auditory and visual stimuli. These include verbal communication from teammates and the positions of each teammate and opponent. The concept of "focused attention" refers to the filtering of stimuli and deciding which should be acknowledged and which should be ignored. Several different models suggest how this process might operate. All consist of a bottleneck filter which allows the subconscious to swiftly process one stimulus at a time sequentially, thus avoiding the congestion that might thwart an athlete's decision-making and action time (4).

The concept of "the zone" seems very complicated, and coupled with the variablity of each athlete's unique mentality, almost impossible to achieve. It is one of those things like your car keys or true love that you can never find unless you stop looking. Thinking too hard about "the zone" or putting too much pressure on yourself almost always has destructive results. It is the precise balance between being totally focused and completely relaxed, and allows the body to accomplish amazing tasks. Also, when athletes learn how to break into "the zone" for athletic competitions, they are gaining a better understanding of their own subconscious, which may make them more comfortable with what is happening in the part of the brain they can't consciously control.



1)In a Zone: Psychologist Smith suggests in book that visualizing positive can change your game

2)3 Keys to Enter the Zone Everyday!

3)In the Zone: The Zen of Sports

4) Hardy, Lew, Graham Jones, Daniel Gould. Understanding Psychological Preparation for Sport. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 1996:114, 121, 176.

5)Reading the game

6)How to Reach Your Achievement Zone

7)An Introduction to Mental Training

8)The Right Wave Length



Comments made prior to 2007
There is no real "secret" to "entering the zone". It simply entails a prolonged period of time pushing ones reflexes and coordination to the maximum. When using hand-eye coordination and "twitch" like reflexes for enough time, you essentially "enter the zone". You can feel it like a runners high, and in some cases can even feel more of your brains regions active as it happens (at least that's true for me). After a while you'll notice that the said activity which is ordinarily blazing fast starts to slow down for you. The activity or sport needs to demand that kind of constant rate of speed for it to happen. I've never experienced it in baseball for example. But things like ice hockey, table tennis, and competitive FPS video games online usually do the trick ... Brian, 16 April 2007