The Zone vs Choking: The 4R’s to playing in the Performane Zone

Something we often talk about is the “zone”.  I'm sure you've heard, “get in the zone” or “find the zone”. It’s that special place where everything seems to work and we feel almost invincible, having control over the universe. Having said that, we are all probably a little too familiar with its counterpart “choking”, choking is just the opposite. Choking is when no matter what you do, nothing seems to work and it seems the universe is against us.

Oddly enough being in the “zone” and “choking” is the same thing. It’s very similar to “love” and “hate”. These are virtually the same emotions, just at other ends of a spectrum. To better understand my point, let’s start by defining “zone” and  “choking”.

Both are what psychologist call a “ASQ”. ASQ = Altered State of Consciousness. According to Sport Psychologist Robert Nideffer (1992) “…it all depends on the way you focus your attention. An altered state of consciousness occurs when you experience a change in your sense of time, perception of the world, or ability to think and remember.”

A perfect example of ASQ is “time compression”. An example of time distortion occurs when seeing an enjoyable movie and being surprised that two hours have just gone by. We often say “time fly’s when having fun”.

Another great example is “Perceptual distortion”. A perceptual distortion can occur when dreaming. During a dream, common objects can take on strange qualities, shapes and sizes.

The same thing can happen in football or riding. When you're playing well, everything seems more natural, every pass is accurate. When you’re not playing well, every pass is off and your body feels tense and out of balance. If you have ever played in the zone or choked, you have the ability to alter your state of consciousness…

To break this down, we will first begin by outlining the

The four different types of concentration or attentional focus

(1) Broad internal focus - This involves thinking, planning and analyzing. This happens when you are studying the opposing team. You are focused on making sense out of a lot of information.

(2) Broad external focus - This happens when you have to look out at what is going on around you. For example, when you run in the open field and you see the players around you, who is making blocks, where is there a seam, and the opposing players that have an angle on you. (pocket awareness)

(3) Narrow internal focus - This means rehearsing a performance before we do it. For example, while on the playing field, you think about what you will do if the ball is kicked to you.

(4) Narrow external focus - This is about reacting or performing. A special teams outside player runs down the sideline before angling in towards the punt returner. You attention narrows as you position yourself to shed the block and make the tackle.

Typically, you constantly move from one attentional focus to another. Playing in the zone happens when you're immersed in either an external or internal focus of attention. Generally, when playing well your attention shifts less frequently. Your focus is more external and you spend little time "in your head". Athletes often describe the experience as if they're not thinking, "It just happens". In contrast, a poor performance often happens when your focus is mostly internal.

  • Over thinking
  • Time outs
  • Stopping the rhythm

When your attention is external, performance seems automatic. As a result, you can stay focused on task relevant cues, which allows you to have a greater awareness of what is going on around you. At these times you feel more in control and almost as if you know what will happen next.

  • 1000 time rule
  • Practice free’s the mind
  • Preparation is the key

When you choke, your focus is probably too much inside your head. Things don't seem as clear, it's harder to anticipate well, and attention is difficult.

Keep in mind that these categories are not rigid boxes, but places on a continuum. Your goal is to move steadily toward a narrowing, external focus. Even when playing well or in the zone, this is not necessarily your upper limit.

In order to help you move along the continuum toward a narrow external focus, you need to develop ways to stay outside of your head. This involves identifying distractions and refocusing attention. No athlete is able to stay in the zone all or even most of the time. The goal is to help you keep your momentum toward the development of concentration skills and the ability to quiet distractions.

(Source: MENTAL TOUGHNESS TRAINING MANUAL FOR FOOTBALL John Lefkowits, Ph.D. David R. McDuff, M.D. Joseph W. Mullen, D.O.)

Now that we begin to understand the „why’s“what are the action steps that enables us to apply this knowledge? We use the 4R’s

In times of discouragement or frustration, I always pose the question, “what is the most important snap that you will ever play”? Answer: “The next one!”

Our past can only influence our future, if we allow it. So focus on the solution and the future vs the problem and the past.

Here are the 4R’s defined.

REACT - When you make a mistake, you get upset with yourself. Alright, don't ignore it, but don't let it become so big that it messes up every aspect of your game. Allow yourself the emotional reaction, just keep it in perspective.

  • Push Pause
  • Chose the outcome you wish to have
  •  Understand and excercise the „Power of Free Choice“

RELAX - Use one of the methods described earlier to help you settle down key words, breathing, imagery, centering, or muscle relaxation.

REFLECT - Figure out what interfered with your performance, and then move on. If the ball came faster or higher than expected, make an adjustment for the next play.

RENEW - Let yourself refocus. Imagine yourself getting out of your head and shifting to a narrow, external focus, like before you made the error. (Find your happy place)

                                                                              “One Play at a time, and focus on the next snap!”

I hope these simple exercises and insight will better help you play in the Zone vs. Choking.

Happy Trails,

Cowboy Phil