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Get In The Zone

“Mind is everything. Muscles = pieces of rubber.”


During a high-stakes competition, it’s normal to feel the effects of anxiety and adrenaline: your heart beats faster, butterflies flutter in your stomach, and your palms get sweaty. And although an adrenaline boost may sometimes help you to perform to the best of your abilities, anxious symptoms are not so helpful. If you find your head flooded with thoughts of past mistakes or ‘what ifs’ and are unable to keep your attention fully focused on your game, your performance will suffer. Maintaining control of the mind and staying focused are absolutely critical in sports success. It can mean the difference between winning and losing. Researchers at Coventry University tested the anticipation and coordination abilities of eighteen active and healthy young adults during two sets of identical physical tests: one set up as a practice, the other as a competition. Interestingly, the study showed that the participants’ ability to coordinate actions, such as catching a ball or striking a moving object, were significantly worse during the competitive scenario. In addition, the participants’ anxiety levels were found to be substantially higher during the competitive trials and likely to be related to worries about performance. The lead author of the study, Dr. Michael Duncan, commented that “heightened cognitive anxiety, brought on by the competitive scenario, really does affect performance abilities in physically active people—and the same is likely to apply even for trained athletes.” To excel in sports, it is just as important to devote attention to achieving an optimal state of mind as it is to developing fitness, speed and strength. The ability to be alert and maintain concentration is crucial.

As the great Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi said: “Mind is everything. Muscles = pieces of rubber.”

Athletes practice visualization, goal-setting and positive self-talk to improve their mental state. However, some theorists believe that such practices may adversely affect sports performance as they distract the athlete even further. The terms “in the zone” or “in the flow” are commonly used in sports to describe the ideal mental state for optimal sports performance. Being in the zone is a state of mind where complete attention is focused on the task at hand. An athlete in the zone will perform to the best of their ability, as mind, body and action become one. When you are in the zone, there are very few distracting or negative thoughts, and your attention moves simultaneously with time. In this state, concentration is not forced. Instead, the mind is effortlessly immersed in what is taking place at that moment. Concentration is the ability to hold one’s attention on an activity, task or event without distraction. To excel in any activity, concentration is vital. However, if the mind is easily distracted, then focus wavers and performance suffers. Nowadays, with the widespread use of smart phones, social media, email and text messages, the mind is in an almost constant state of distraction throughout the day. More and more, I notice my younger students unconsciously and repeatedly taking their phones out of their pockets to check for updates—an automatic and conditioned response similar to that of an addict. While internet technology has brought many improvements to modern life, it has also negatively impacted our concentration by creating so many distractions. If the mind is calm and in a state of concentration as you go about your normal routine, this should translate into optimum mental performance during competition. On the other hand, if the mind is all over the place during day-to-day activities and you find it difficult to stay focused, then your concentration is unlikely to be at its best during sports. 165CLASS 7 To determine how active your mind is, simply take a moment, relax, and try to stop “actively” thinking. Then see how long it takes for a thought to enter your mind. If this exercise is difficult and your mind is constantly bombarded with thoughts, no matter how relaxed you are, then it’s likely your concentration span is short as thought activity interferes with your capacity to focus. But just as advancements in technology have trained our minds to be distracted, it is also possible to re-train the brain to concentrate with focused attention. Since time immemorial, mankind has practiced focusing on the breath to tame and train the brain. By observing the breath as it enters and leaves the body, the brain is forced to focus exclusively on one task at a time. One cannot think while paying complete attention to the breath at the same time. With practice, the brain’s capacity to hold attention will gradually increase. When you first try to observe the breath, it is normal for the mind to wander. As soon as you notice this happening, gently bring your attention back to the breath. In time, and with regular attention to your breathing patterns, the mind will wander less and less. This is valuable feedback that your capacity to hold your attention on a task without distraction is improving. Having a greater ability to concentrate will lead to improved mental performance during all activities, including sports. Wearing a Sports Mask and practicing specific breathing exercises you will naturally bring your attention to the breath and this offers a unique way to improve concentration. With attention on the breath, the mind is not thinking of the past or the future. Instead, the mind is focused on present moment awareness. Since being in the zone involves complete attention on the present moment, regularly focusing on the breath throughout the day offers athletes a means to enter this coveted state at will. To date, a number of researchers have recommended the practice of present moment awareness as a means of reaching the zone and achieving peak performance. This technique of following the breath is at the core of most forms of meditation, including the oldest form of Buddhist meditation, Vipassana, which has been practiced for approximately 2,500 years. Psychology researchers investigated the benefits of meditation by studying the performance of meditators and non-meditators in a “Stroop” test, which determines how quickly and accurately participants can focus on a specific task while avoiding distractions. The test involves participants being shown a series of colour names. Each word is a different colour to the one it represents. For example, the word red might appear in the colour blue. Participants are shown a series of 120 mismatched words and colours over a period of two minutes, and the objective is to name the colour of the word, not the word itself. The study showed that people who meditated not only answered more questions, but they also made fewer errors. The paper concluded that “mindfulness is linked to reduced errors across measures, suggesting greater attentional control, carefulness, cognitive flexibility and quality of performance. These results support the hypothesis that mindfulness would correlate positively with task performance.” As I often say to my students, focused attention on the breath is never a waste of time. It is food for the mind, increasing awareness, improving concentration, and honing focus. Wearing a Sports Mask enables you to exercise while simultaneously experiencing greater present moment awareness. Follow your breath as it enters and leaves your body and take a break from the constant distraction of thought. Tame your mind and harness your true potential.

Credit to Patrick McKeown