Find Your Zone

Dr. Rob Bell
Ball State University


There are instances within all of sports where everything is perfect. These are times when there are no thoughts, movements are effortless, and time is transcended. Csíkszentmihályi (1990) characterized this state as “flow,” although it has become popularized by the more common name of being “in the zone.” It is essentially losing oneself in the moment of our activity.

Throughout the history of sports, there have been numerous examples of athletes being in the zone. A perfect illustration of this state was Michael Jordan during the 1992 NBA championship series against the Portland Trailblazers, hitting seven 3-pointers in a row and scoring 35 points in the first half. Jordan was so shocked by his performance that after his seventh 3-pointer, he just threw up his hands as to say “I can’t explain it.”

David Toms also epitomized the “zone” or “flow” during the 2005 Accenture match play. During the week, he hit 74% of greens in regulation, made 37 birdies, two eagles, and only four bogeys throughout six matches and 118 holes of play. During the final 36-hole match against Chris Dimarco, Dimarco played the match 3-under par despite losing the match being 6 holes down with 5 to play. In fact, Toms at one point held a 9-up lead with 10 holes to play. Toms play epitomized losing oneself in the moment; “I can’t explain why I felt like I did all week,” Toms said “I just felt very, very comfortable with myself and the golf that was in front of me. I don’t know that I’ve ever really felt like that in an event.” (LA Times, Feb 28, 2005)

The beauty of this flow state is that it is not limited to athletic endeavors; painters, musicians, writers, surgeons, and chess masters have described similar feelings. We can even encounter “flow” during everyday life. Whether we are totally immersed in conversation, shaving, or daily chores, a lot of activities present the opportunity to experience “flow.” The key ingredients that provide the best opportunity to experience our zone are to structure our activities accordingly.

To work toward flow state, we must merge our actions and awareness. The universal experience for the zone is that our performance becomes automatic. Everything is so effortless that we do not even recognize our total concentration on the task at hand. However, since lapses in concentration can hinder these states, we must learn to eliminate outside distractions, self-critiquing, and/or thinking about the outcome. Here are a few ideas to help:

  • Eliminate outside distractions such as cell phones or iPods. It is easier to focus on the task at hand without these devices.
  • Have clear goals that balance our skill level with the challenge. If we set too high a challenge, then we will become anxious, and if we set too low a challenge then boredom will result and we won’t improve.
  • Approach every practice as an opportunity to improve. Avoid self-critiquing yourself with language like” I messed up again”, or “I can’t get this right.” Instead, view every moment as a challenge to improve.

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