Getting In The ZONE

Posted on 10 Jul 2009 19:07

Blog Home





We got to talking about "getting in the zone" here on the "So Many Good Programs" page. And I had promised to explore this further. During athletic events you've probably heard people say things like "he's in the zone". That is when an athlete is completely centered and everything seems focused and effortless. Many times there is a sense of quietness and calmness about them even though they are in the midst of a highly charged situation.

You know what I'm talking about, probably, and when you are at the gym trying to get that big PR, feeling all anxious about it, you've probably wondered how to get in that ZONE and if it's possible to learn.

Another term for this is FLOW which is the term that I particularly like and will use often from here on out. Flow is really a better description of what is going on and the word will also allow me to bridge with other discussions later on which will come from less a psychological direction and more a philosophical one.

What all this is not is "clutch". When we say, "he's clutch" or "has clutch" or speak of someone "with clutch" we usually mean the actual act of coming through under pressure or the ability to do that. Clutch is basically another word for awesome, dude. Being in the zone is the actual state that enables one to do that. So while some people use the word clutch to describe both the act and the state, I will not. Especially since I think it's a silly sounding made up playground word and I usually refrain from using adolescent slang in articles…usually.

And in regards to what direction to take when discussing this there are a great many because this is not really a simple subject. Plus there are many misconceptions regarding "the zone". Just because a ball player has a good game doesn't mean they were in the zone, for instance.

It is also more than just a state of being calm and anxiety free. In fact, a state of "calm" denotes a state of low arousal. And low arousal is the direction towards sleep not the direction towards superior performance. This kind of idea gives rise to all the "hypnotize yourself into the zone" offers on the internet. Achieving a state of flow is not going into a trance!

Meditation or deep relaxation can be a part of the process since these things teach us to regulate our arousal. But I must be clear that achieving flow is not the same as being relaxed.

With so many different ideas, misconceptions, and complexities, where to begin? I will go with my instinct and just get cracking at it..

So, can you learn flow?

Yes, I think you can to some extent. But some personality types will always be more able to achieve complete flow than others…even when preparedness and skill level are equal, in my opinion.

First, what does a state of flow look like?

A good set of elements comes from Mihaly Csikszentmilyi who in the 1990's was looking at what made certain tasks intrinsically motivating (ask if you're wondering about this). He is largely the originator of the 'flow' concept on the psychology end although he is NOT the first person to use this term both in a broader and task specific sense.

Csikszentmilyi's focus was on ACTIVITIES. But in terms of the kind of person who will react to this challenge by getting into a state of flow I think that a person with an intrinsic locus of control in the first place will be the most likely. Let's use common sense..if you are attracted to "instrisically motivated challenges" you just may tend to be an intrinsically motivated person.

The assumption is that a person that can get into the zone does not encounter stress. Quite the contrary. They just do something different with it than other people. It seems that people with an internal locus of control do better under stress than those with an external locus of control…the greater the pressure or stress the greater the difference in performance.

A lot of it has to do with anxiety and how people react to it.

So, those elements of flow, according to Csikszentmilyi:

1. Balance of skill and challenge

This may mean the reverse of what you think. It is the sense that the challenge is worthy of the skill, not that you have more than enough skill to handle the challenge. In other words, you need to be pushed toward your limits. Otherwise there is nothing to get really focused on. This should, in effect be obvious. You don't get in the zone for any easy set of 5 squats! Likewise if you are having trouble getting your head in the game for your 50 dumbell curls, then you may have bigger problems than this post, or any number of them, can address.

2. Merging of action and awareness

This is the heart of flow. You are aware of what you are doing but not in an examining way. In other words, you are aware but not aware of being aware. You don't think about it; you don't TRY. You just do. The awareness element of flow can be likened to a state of Zen awareness in that it is not a judgemental or analytical state. You do not seek to block or control thoughts but simply let them flow by without judgement or comment, completely aware without SEEKING to be aware.

3. Total Concentration

Outside distractions have no impact. All focus is on the task at hand. Similar to awareness, this element is natural. You are not TRYING to focus but focus is complete.

4. A sense of control

This is again similar to action and awareness and to me is somewhat a misnomer because "a sense of control" implies that you are thinking about being in control. That is not the case. When you flow, then control is a given. There is no sense that control is a thing up for grabs, that can be lost or found. It is just there and the outcome doesn't matter. Only the thing.

5. It is not about winning or losing anything….

This is what people mean when they say "it's just me and the bar". You are not considering any external rewards you get for lifting the weight..the reward is in the doing itself.

6. Effortless movement

This is a biggie. You see a lot of guys dancing around, approaching the bar, wiggling with it, smacking themselves, screaming…etc. They are 'psyching themselves up' or getting keyed up. Don't mistake this for having achieved flow. Flow doesn't mean it takes 5 minutes to get worked up enough to maybe setup the lift! You do it. It ain't nothing but a thing.

Hesitation is not usually a signal that you are READY for something. You may be prepared but there is anxiety there. When someone is in flow, there is not outward manifestation of nervous energy such as this.

I've no doubt that such antics works for the people who use them and it's the results that count. But it is not the same thing I am talking about.

Yes, arousal or getting keyed up can be a part of it. But this kind of striving is not focusing energy as much as diffusing it. Think of it like a car engine.

You have many different states with an engine depending on how much gas you give it. From idling to pedal to the metal. But this energy must go somewhere. Be organized and focused. When you push the gas..the car doesn't try to go..it goes. If not it's broken. Flow works the same way. Like I said at the beginning, someone in the zone appears to perform EFFORTLESSLY. That is what we are looking for here, or as close to that as possible.

Task oriented versus outcome oriented

One clue to how people achieve this may come from looking at "outcome oriented" individuals compared to "task oriented individuals". Internally controlled people tend to be, you guessed it, task oriented individuals. If someone tells you, I do better under pressure, you can almost bet they are an internally controlled person. This is the difference between a person who feels more focused and in control when they take a test and a person who freezes up from the stress…even when they KNOW the answer.

It can be counter-intuitive, I know. Externally controlled people think that their life is largely controlled by external factors outside of themselves. So, in bad times or stressful times you'd think this would almost be a coping mechanism. Hey, if you're already 'resigned to fate' there is nothing to be upset over…you already new you had no control.

But this doesn't seem to be the case. The differences are not huge but they are significant. And like I mentioned..the greater the stress, the bigger the difference. Some theories suggest this may be the difference between innate and primitive reactions to stress and more advanced cognitive strategies.

When it comes down to it, a sense of fatalism does not by it's very nature help you DEAL with stress when it happens. If that were so..stress wouldn't be stress, would it. Being IN CONTROL means reacting to stress more effectively. So feeling less control simply means less coping ability.

There's a point to all this.

So back to what I was saying about outcome oriented individuals and task oriented individuals.

An externally controlled person will feel no sense of control over the outcome of the task. They will tend to point to outside factors more. Say a racer will focus on the condition of the running surface rather than focus on his performance.

That does not mean that this person will not tend to point to internal factors when they are successful. When they succeed it is because of their efforts. When they fail it is because of factors beyond their control.

This outcome oriented individual will be more likely to obsess and get over anxious about the outcome of the task and feeling less control over it's execution, will be much less likely to be able to ever achieve flow. So this person will have to make major changes in their thinking and coping strategies.

A task oriented individual who is internally controlled, tends to divert all energy onto the task itself rather than it's outcome. So, as should be clear by now, this person is much more able to achieve flow. This doesn't mean that all internally controlled people will automatically be able to "get in the zone". None of use are all one thing or the other and we all have to enhance and perfect even those things we are innately suited for.

Getting in the Zone II: Don't Dwell on Failures

Related Posts:

Getting in the Zone Series


This page created 10 Jul 2009 19:07
Last updated 23 Oct 2015 05:17

© 2016 by Eric Troy and Ground Up Strength. All Rights Reserved. Please contact for permissions.