“The Zone” or Just a Fantasy

Posted by on Feb 1, 2019

Kevin Costner in “the zone” in “For the Love of the Game”

Imagine a mystical state where everything just falls into place. You hear some version of bells or chimes, or even a perfect silence, signaling complete relaxation. You see only your target, everything else simply and easily blurs or fades to a background, signaling complete focus. You feel effervescent, if that is something a human can feel, but you do, and it is because you are having an out-of-body experience as you systematically kick ass on whatever performance task you are engaging in. Kevin Costner’s For The Love Of The Game (1999) depicts a baseball pitcher entering “the zone” beautifully on film. He has a cue, “Quiet the mechanism,” and when he says this to himself, all noise disappears and we see through his eyes, only the glove of the catcher with all other distractions blurred out, leaving him in the zone. Watching it is mesmerizing and makes us forget this is fantasy and that entering this state is not so easy. Or is it?

In the 1980’s, “the zone” was the talk of the sports world. There were books and authors and consultants all pedaling this high-performance state they promised to teach you to regularly and reliably obtain. Coming off the spirituality movement of the 70’s, this seemed entirely possible and so everyone was looking for this magic bullet for performance. Perhaps my angry tone is a reflection, or even a lingering on, of my historical relationship with the improbable promise of the zone. I swam many races, not as many as some, but enough to have a decent data base and I had exactly TWO swims in “the zone.” When I talk with other former high-level athletes (Division I or International or Professional), they report not many more than that, if any. So, what’s the deal with this zone and why was and is it still something we chase so blindly?

It was my first qualifying swim meet and I was “shaved and tapered” in a planned effort to peak at an exact time, swim my life-time best time, and qualify for Junior Nationals in a single shot. No pressure. It was my first real year of swimming and I was already a senior in high school, so I was an old rookie. I didn’t come up the ranks in swimming, I had to cover them all in one year so I could get fast enough to swim somewhere in college. But I was happy, and I loved swimming and so I wasn’t really thinking about all of that junk. I was goofing around in the warm-up pool with two friends, completely unaware that my heat was being called to the blocks, total rookie move. I remember it like it was yesterday. All of a sudden, I could hear my coach, Larry, yelling my name. This is when the slow-motion began. My eyes found the origin of the noise as I saw him waving his arms frantically and pointing to the blocks. “Jenny, your heat is up!” I jumped out of the warm-up pool, ran towards the starting blocks where my heat was being called to “take your mark.” With incredible luck, I ran to the only empty block and as the starter pulled the trigger, I was off with my heat, just in time. It was an indoor pool and there was a giant electronic scoreboard at one end of the building. Because the pool was set up for yards (not meters), the scoreboard was on my right as I headed away from the blocks and towards my first and third turns in my 100-yard freestyle. Burned into my mind was my necessary “split” time, or my time for the first 50 yards of the race. I had to be on pace in order to have a chance to make the cut time. Still in slow motion, as I came off the turn at the 50, I took a breath and could see the giant scoreboard. I was way out in front without realizing it, so my time was the only one on the board so far, 24.50. That was it! That was exactly my goal time for my first split! I now had plenty of time to do my second 50 and make the cut time of 53.79. Still in slow motion, it was if I was hovering over the pool, watching myself swim. I hit the wall for my finish and as I looked to the scoreboard, there it was, 53.73, I had just made the qualifying time. My team was going crazy, screaming and cheering for the oldest swimmer on the team to make a first cut, and it was this noise that brought me back to real time. Larry was shaking his head and should have been clutching his heart, truth be told, but he simply smiled and put his arm around me in a relieved congratulations. That was my first and most powerful experience with the zone.

For years, I cajoled, prayed, and begged for that feeling to return. There was one more fleeting moment in practice when I was instructed to focus only on the bubbles from my exhale under my body as I raced and again, for a few moments of intense focus, felt my mind melt away and my body take over, but it was never to return again after that. I have spent many years reflecting on those moments and what was the common denominator facilitating that power. One thing that was clear was the level of distraction was actually so high, I didn’t have time to think about anything else, creating an intense but accidental level of focus. I was late for my race and might not make it at all, leaving me zero room to think about anything else. I missed all the pre-race jitters in warm-up and standing behind the blocks trying to have my best game face possible. There was no pause before my race, that minute that lasts for hours when you get to second guess all your preparation and worry you will fail. All of those opportunities for doubt to seep in were eliminated in my mad dash for the starting blocks. What was left was me and my race, my preparation and my execution, and that place of “not thinking” every athlete or performer longs for. Unable to reproduce those ingredients, the quest then became how to create the best state of focus to get as close to that zone as possible. I became a Sport & Performance Psychologist to help people perform at their best, really, to find that illusive zone, whether it be on a field or in a board room. There are many tools and strategies for this and with the rapid advancement in science and our understanding of the brain, these are being streamlined every year. I love the challenge of getting to a state of high-performance and the way it feels to help someone else find that power.

In 2004, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s TED talk on Flow, The Secret to Happiness, went viral. Rightly so, it is a great nineteen minutes and highly motivational. His book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, is also quite good and moves “the zone” into a science of flow instead of a fleeting moment of luck. Producing a state of flow takes years of practice and committed action. Those describing this state surpass the 10,000-hours to expert rule handily. The part that stuck with me was the creation of the ability to reproduce this state of high-performance at will. The part that most miss is the amount of work it takes to get there. I guess that is why we love to fantasize or watch movies about some magical moment reserved for the special and the few, but really the truth is that high-performance comes on the other end of the right kind of hard work and for long enough. It has taken me many years to acquire my flow state, but it has been well worth the journey. The blessing and curse of it is that once you get to a good place, the next level seems to open up and call you forth. Perhaps it is the challenge that creates the magic upon arrival. One of my favorite quotes is from Ben Franklin, “There are no shortcuts to anyplace worth going.” May you enjoy the ride, and even the bumps, a little more today.