Z is for The Zone

        Z is for The Zone.  Many of us have experienced it at some point or another.  We know it when we see it.  It's The Zone.  The Zone is Klay Thompson' 37-point quarter.  It's Carli Lloyd's goal from almost mid-field in the World Cup Final to seal a hat trick only sixteen minutes into the game.  The Zone is when Daniel Murphy, someone known for having average power, goes off for 7 home runs in 9 playoff games (6 in 6 straight).  The Zone is a concept that fascinates but frustrates because it is difficult to explain.   So much of psychology is about explaining behaviors and brain function, but The Zone "just happens."  For whatever reason, I am reminded of the Forrest Gump running scene where he accidentally comes up with the "Sh*t Happens" slogan while on his big running trip.  The Zone's explanation is that maddeningly simple.  Dr. Jack Curtis, whose name has come up several time in the past, recommends athletes, "Enjoy it and ride it out as long as you can," withou attempting to explain what is going on.  I can remember one particular streak in college (easy to remember because they were so infrequent) where I was really hot at the plate.  Rather than enjoying the ride, much of my time was spent wondering when it would end or obsessively going through my pre-game routine.  I teetered very much on the edge between comfort and ritual.  I also remember really feeling myself and deciding to just try to put on a BP show instead of staying with my approach.  Sure enough, The Zone, was "He gone!"  As a former average college player, that is what makes Daniel Murphy's postseason run all the more impressive to me.  Daniel Murphy was doing it on the biggest stage possible, under the scrutiny of everyone.  He was asked constantly about it by the media.  What mental discipline to be able to weather all of that and continue to "enjoy the ride" for as long as he did.

        While "The Zone" can't be necessarily be taught, Dr. Curtis discusses how the way to increase your chances of entering The Zone is to play in "Flow State" more often.  Flow State is another concept of great interest in psychology.  Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is the most widely-respected expert on flow and certainly deserves a reference here.  Flow State is described as being fully immersed or engaged in something.  "Energized focus," "enjoyment," and "process" are all words that also come up with Flow.  Flow isn't limited to sports.  It can happen with most any activity.  Dr. Curtis's idea is that mental preparation can increase your focus and help you enjoy the process, thus increasing flow.  Karl Kuehl, co-author of Mental Toughness:  Baseball's Winning Edge, says to, "Immerse yourself in the routine of playing the game."  That full immersion is where flow happens.  What makes this difficult is everything that keeps you from immersion.  One specific obstacle is judgement.  Judgement, both real and imagined, from ourselves, from coaches, teammates, and parents holds us back from letting performance happen.  I bring this up because The Zone would seem to be absent of those judgments.  Klay Thompson's epic performance includes contested, long jumpers early in the shot clock.  My soccer knowledge has plenty of limitations, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say midfield shots aren't encouraged often.  Daniel Murphy's home runs came in a variety of counts, off of at least three types of pitches, and against some STUDS.  He probably wasn't thinking about how his swing looked.  Those are just three examples, but my guess is most Zone experiences include moments like those.

        So, the question then would be, "How can you get to this judgment-free zone?"  A common answer in the three examples included would be to prepare.  All three are well-known for their hard work and dedication to the craft.  The preparation involved in getting ready for competition can be a great source of confidence.  If you are prepared, both mentally and physically, you have earned the freedom of one less distraction to deal with that could you from being immersed, focused, and enjoying the process of playing.  They trained for countless hours to prepare to play in that "big stage" moment with the appearance of it being just another moment.  Another way to play freely is to be conscious of the feedback we give.  Limit the "good" and "bad," and focus on the specific movements or decisions instead.  This is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to The Zone.  People have written entire scholarly articles and books related to the topic.  My hope, like for the ABC's in general, has been to give you an introduction to a topic or something to think about.  It's up to you to determine whether that has happened or not.

This concludes the ABC's of Sport Psychology series.  I wanted to address some different topics that I haven't written about in the past and have enjoyed doing so.  Harvey Dorfman's work has been an inspiration to me so this is kind of a tribute to him as well.  Hopefully he would approve.  

The process has allowed me to stay sharp and to grow so I appreciate  you being a part of that.  All in all, I wrote 26 of 28 days.  Christmas and the day I drove back from New York were the two missed.  Some of the entries are probably better than others, but I hope you enjoyed them and are just a little more informed than you were prior to reading.  Thank you for reading and for all of the great feedback throughout.  

A special thanks again goes to my friends/editors Brent Walsh, Jeremy Plexico, Chris Carrara, and David O'Neal.  Having great people I trust to bounce ideas off of and get honest feedback from is something invaluable both as a writer and person.  Thank you again!

-Ben

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