Have you ever attempted to perform a simple act and completely failed? From completely mistiming a shot to losing balance at a crucial moment, the outcome may have fallen short of our intention and expectation. In contrast there are times when everything goes just right, every act is carried out to perfection with little perceived effort. Why should this be the case? If we are capable of achieving feats of brilliance one moment, why do we fail so comprehensively the next? What condition is present one moment and gone the next? Athletes refer to the later as 'The Zone ' and spend their lives trying to reach this subliminal level.
The elusiveness of the zone gives us a clue into its nature. Athletes experiencing these moments cannot explain how they came to be there, and report that the state is lost as soon as they become aware of being in it. From their observations it appears that 'being in the zone' involves integration of the conscious and unconscious aspects of movement, that is the voluntary decision to act and the reflex that facilitates the action. Becoming conscious of the moment seems to destroy it. A comparable situation is the act of falling asleep, as soon as we become aware we are about to fall asleep we interrupt the process. We cannot do anything to directly make ourselves fall asleep. All we can do is to stop doing what may be preventing the process. At an early age I learnt you do not fall asleep any quicker on Christmas Eve by closing you eyes tighter.
The zone is described in a paper titled: The Achievement Zone as: -
"... a special place where performance is exceptional and consistent, automatic and flowing. An athlete is able to ignore all the pressures and let his or her body deliver the performance that has been learned so well. Competition is fun and exciting. (Murphy, 1996)"
Sport Psychologist, Kenneth Ravizza, conducted one of the first studies into the zone in 1977 called: 'A subjective study of the athlete's greatest moment in sport'. He studied the experiences of twenty top athletes during their moments of glory and found that the experience was: - ... temporary and of relatively short duration; non-voluntary and not induced at will; and unique. He found that it required many years of practice before they could enter the zone. He defines the common characteristics of the experience as: -
"... focusing on the present moment, effortless merging of action and awareness, loss of personal ego, sense of control, clear feedback, and an intrinsic reward system."
A study conducted at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, questioned athletes from a number of sports about their experience in the zone. In a paper titled: 'The Zone : Evidence of A Universal Phenomenon for Athletes Across Sports', by Young and Pain (1999), the conclusion drawn was that regardless of the sport, athletes appear to experience the same 'heightened state of consciousness'. The participants used words such as "peak", "perfect moments", "mindfulness" and "flow" to describe their time in the zone.
The words "let", "flow" and "mindfulness" are not generally associated with effort and pushing to the limit. Could being in 'the zone' involve a state of non-interference with movement? A balanced state that promotes optimum integration of the postural reflexes, consciousness and appropriate use of learnt patterns. This could explain why it requires years of practice before the zone is experienced.
Unfortunately because we are unaware of how we interfere with the natural mechanisms, time spent in the zone is rare and brief. If we learn to first identify what it is we do to interfere, and then how to prevent it, we may increase our chances of making the zone.
One of the best methods to experience 'being in the moment' is The Alexander Technique, a much undervalued thought and movement system. Using these technique sports people regardless of ability can learn to develop awareness skills that can help identify performance-limiting habits. It is only once we have become conscious of these habits can we then start to change them. Athletes who have trained using The Alexander Technique include Matthew Pincent and his gold medal UK rowing crew at the Athens Olympics 2004.
For further information see www.artofperformance.co.uk
Roy Palmer is a teacher of The Alexander Technique and has studied performance enhancement in sport for the last 10 years. His new book 'Zone Mind, Zone Body' looks at how you can take your fitness and performance to a new level by doing less. This doesn't mean putting your feet up, it means learning to train smarter. More information about his unique approach to training can be found by clicking Peak Performance Training Program.
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