Being in “the zone” is a universal phenomenon experienced by almost all elite athletes. So what is this “zone”? How can athletes find it? And how does it affect athletic performance? Read this article to explore how athletes can get in the 'zone' as well as some interesting and helpful conclusions about this “zone” and how it influences athletes.

What is the "Zone"?

In the simplest terms, the “zone” (or “flow” as some sport psychologists’ call it), is generally described as “the pinnacle of achievement for an athlete”, and characterizes “a state in which an athlete performs to the best of his or her ability” (Young & Pain 1999). It combines a balance of excitement and awareness, and is often associated with a relaxed yet focused high-level performance (Caruso 2005).

Ravizza (1977, 1984), Loehr (1986), Garfield and Bennett (1984), Jackson (1992, 1993, 1995, 1996), and Young (1999a, 1999b, 1999c, 1999d) are just a few of the researchers who have investigated the characteristics and dynamics of the zone. Obviously, the undeniable impact that flow has on an athlete’s game makes it a popular area of study. In the most recent examination of flow by Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi (1999), 10 essential elements of the zone were identified. Weinberg and Gould (2011) do an excellent job of summarizing each element. They are as follows:

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  1. Balance of challenge and skills: For flow to occur it is imperative that an athlete believes that he or she has the skills to successfully meet the physical, technical, and mental challenges faced.
  2. Complete absorption in the activity: The participant is so involved in the activity that nothing else seems to matter.
  3. Clear goals: Goals are so clearly set that the athlete knows exactly what to do. This clarity of intention facilitates concentration and attention.
  4. Merging of action and awareness: The athlete is aware of their actions but not of the awareness itself.
  5. Total concentration on the task at hand: Performers report that they feel like a beam of concentrated energy. Crowd noise, opponent reactions, and other distractions simply don’t matter. The focus of attention is clearly on the task at hand.
  6. Loss of self-consciousness: Performers report that their ego is completely lost in the activity itself.
  7. A sense of control: This element of flow refers to the fact that the athlete is not actively aware of control; rather, they are simply not worried by the possibility of lack of control.
  8. No goals or rewards external to the activity: The athlete participates purely because of the activity itself, without seeking any other reward.
  9. Transformation of time: Athletes in flow typically report that time seems to speed up, although for some it slows down. However, most individuals in flow report transformations in their perceptions of time.
  10. Effortless movement: This element refers to the fact that the athlete is performing well but yet is not really thinking about it and doesn’t appear to be trying too hard.

An athlete in the zone is not only able to suppress and ignore negative thoughts, but they are also found to have higher self-esteem and confidence (Carstedt 2003). Clearly, achieving flow or being in the zone gives an athlete a remarkable advantage. The ability to repress negative thoughts and focus on the task at hand is a crucial part of performing at an elite level. Getting in – and staying in the zone is a skill that all athletes should master.

How Can an Athlete Get in the Zone?

While most athletes have experienced flow, achieving it consistently is not an easy thing to do. According to Jackson and Csíkszentmihályi (1999), reaching a state of flow depends largely on your perception. If you perceive the challenge to be equal to your skill set, the chances of achieving flow increase. Studies by Jackson (1995) have revealed that while athletes cannot control flow, they can certainly increase the probability of it occurring. To improve your chances of experiencing flow, consider trying a few of these tips:

• Recall a competition or moment in your life when you felt completely absorbed in the activity. Remembering these states of flow will help you experience it again.
• Have a clear idea of what makes flow possible for you. Everyone is different!
• Try not to focus entirely on outcomes. For example, if you are too worried about winning, you may not be focused enough on your mental state.
• To achieve flow consistently, you need to keep increasing your skills. This is important because if your skills do not increase with the challenge, you will experience anxiety instead of flow.

Understanding how to achieve flow is critical, however learning the factors that prevent a disrupt flow is equally important. According to Weinberg and Gould (2011), the factors that athletes identified as preventing flow were less than optimal physical preparation, readiness, and environmental or situational conditions; the reasons the gave most often as disrupting flow were environmental and situational influences. Some examples of preventative factors are: injury, fatigue, unwanted crowd response, self-doubt, no goals, unforced errors, and poor technique. Disruptive factors can include: stoppage in play, negative referee decisions, lack of physical preparation, negative talk on the field, loss of concentration, and putting pressure on yourself.

As you have learned, flow is a very positive and performance-enhancing state that can be achieved by any athlete. Recalling previous memories of flow should be part of your mental training just as visualization or goal setting is. Increasing the probability of achieving flow will undoubtedly improve your athletic performance, and being aware of potential threats to flow will help you remain focused and in the zone when faced with adversity.

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  • Carstedt, R.A. (2003) Critical Moments During Competition: A Mind-Body Model of Sport Performance when it Counts the Most. New York City, NY: Psychology Press
  • Caruso, A. (2005) Sports Psychology Basics. Ann Arbor, MI: Reedswain
  • Jackson, S.A., & Csíkszentmihályi, M. (1999) Flow in Sports. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics
  • Kimiecik, J.S., & Stein G. (1992) “Examining the Flow Experiences in Sport Contents: Conceptual Issues and Methodological Concerns”, Journal of Applied Sport Psychology Vol. 4 Issue 2, p. 147
  • Weinberg, R.S., & Gould, D. (2011) Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics
  • Young, J.A., & Pain, M.D (1999) “The Zone: Evidence of a Universal Phenomenon for Athletes Across Sports”. Athletic Insight Vol. 1 Issue 3, pp.:21-3
  • Jackson, S.A. (1995) Factors influencing the occurrence of flow state in elite athletes. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology 7(2): 138-166
  • Jackson, S.A., & Csíkszentmihályi, M. (1999) Flow in sports. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics
  • Weinberg, R.S., & Gould, D. (2011) Foundations of sport and exercise psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics