When it comes to athletes being ‘in the zone’, few have ever put it as eloquently as the late, great Ayrton Senna. His qualifying session at the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix has gone down in Formula 1 folklore.
‘I was already on pole and I was going faster and faster. One lap after the other, quicker, and quicker, and quicker, and I suddenly realised I wasn’t driving the car consciously. I was kind of driving it by instinct, only I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel. I was just going, going – more, and more, and more, and more. I was way over the limit, but still able to find even more. Then, suddenly, something kicked just kicked me. I kind of woke up and I realised that I was in a different atmosphere than you normally are. Immediately my reaction was to back off, slow down. I drove back slowly to the pits and I didn’t want to go out any more that day. It frightened me because I realised I was well beyond my conscious understanding.’
Entering the zone may sound Zen-like and magical, but it is very simple. When you become immersed in achieving a goal in your sport or in your training, you are allowing yourself total trust and confidence. That will allow you to perform effortlessly where distractions are forbidden from entering your conscious mind.
If you’ve ever played in a game where you did really well, had a laser-like focus, and felt energized and relaxed at the same time, you may have been in the “zone”. In these situations, everything else outside of what you’re doing seems to disappear. Fans, parents, coaches, the amount of time left in a game- they all become a blur and your mind is completely absorbed by what you’re doing. By putting all your attention on what’s going on right in front of you, your mind is able to concentrate on only the thoughts and images that help you perform successfully. Some psychologists also refer to being in the zone as having “flow”.
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The term ‘flow’ was coined by Csikszentmihalyi as far back as the 1960’s.
Clyde Brolin became so enchanted with this notion of being in the zone that it inspired him to write two books on the subject, 2010’s Overdrive: Formula 1 in the Zone and 2017’s In the Zone: How Champions Think and Win Big. He described being in the zone as: ‘This sensation is paradoxical in that it is about total concentration, while at the same time letting go to allow your natural ability to take over.’
The important question is: How do athletes get into the zone?
Nine dimensions of flow characterised by Csikszentmihalyi :
Challenge-skills balance: When an athlete does not feel that he or she has the required ability in a race, anxiety will occur. This theory also says that when an athlete feels that his or her abilities exceed the challenges posed in a race (eg poor opposition) boredom will ensue. If the challenge posed is low among an individual with low ability, apathy will occur. Only when there is an optimal balance between the challenges of the situation and the ability of the athlete will the athlete get into the zone.
Concentration: When athletes have been interviewed about being in the zone, many described a clear focus on what they wanted to do, which often lasted for hours. Furthermore, when athletes experienced this concentration, they were aware of where their competitors were and the bigger picture of what they needed to do, but perceived these competitors to be of no negative influence. This is because athletes had complete concentration.
Action: awareness merging – When an athlete is in the zone there is a merging of action and awareness. That is, athletes are unaware of themselves as separate from their actions and experience a feeling of oneness with the activity. Athletes have reported that their actions feel effortless and spontaneous.
Clear goals: Athletes in the zone have a clear sense of what they want to accomplish during their races. As a race progresses, so does this clarity of this moment-to-moment intent. Athletes have also reported knowing exactly what they had to do before the race started, and how they were going to accomplish it.
Clear feedback: When in the zone, athletes often report experiencing immediate and clear feedback about how they are performing. Feedback usually comes from the activity itself, such as feelings about pace or feelings of leg fatigue whilst running. All feedback received when in the zone informs the athlete that he or she is performing successfully.
Control: A sense of control is experienced by the athlete without them attempting to exert control. Athletes feel as if they can do nothing wrong, along with a sense of invincibility. The sense of control frees the athlete from the fear of failure and results in a sense of power, calmness, and confidence.
No self-criticism: When in the zone, athletes do not criticise themselves, like they may sometimes do. Concern for the self seems to disappear during a zone experience, as do worries or negative thoughts. There is no attention left over to worry about the things in everyday life that athletes often dwell upon.
Time perception: During a zone experience, some athletes have reported that time speeds up. For instance, a marathon runner could say that the race was over very quickly, whereas other athletes have said that time slowed down and they felt they had so much time to make a decision.
Feeling high: The experience of being in the zone is extremely enjoyable to athletes. Some have reported feeling very high, which can last for several hours after a race has finished. Descriptions from athletes include “it felt great the whole way” and “it felt like such a rush.”
Tribute to Csikszentmihalyi
“Control of consciousness determines the quality of life.”
In tribute to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who passed away a month ago. He was the father of the theory of the "flow", this mind-body state where we feel at our best and we perform at peak.
Thank you Mihaly for putting context to such a simple, yet ineffable feeling.