How Do I Get in the Zone?

ExcellenceYou know the feeling. Everything is going your way. The ball goes straight down the fairway every time. Before you hit your shot you KNOW it’s going to be good. The words are rolling off your tongue during the speech or presentation. You have the audience on the edge of their seats. You close the deal–effortlessly. You know what it feels like to be in The Zone but how do you get there consistently?

Prepare, Prepare, Prepare

Many people say they want to be the best in their field but do not put in the work it takes to get there. The best in the world do more than their coach, team or boss asks of them. They put in extra time after practice, in the offseason or after everyone has left work to go home. For example, the Miami Heat won the last two NBA championships. Their unquestioned leader is Lebron James. He was already acknowledged as one of the best, if not the best, player in the league when he came to Miami for the 2011 NBA season. He joined Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade to form a threesome of superstars. Anything short of a championship would be viewed as a failure with the accumulated talent in South Beach. Yet the Heat lost in the Finals to the Dallas Mavericks that year.

It has been written that after the Heat failed to deliver the championship despite the arrival of the big three Lebron took this loss extremely hard.  He sequestered himself in his home for two weeks. After this period of mourning and reflection he took stock of the pieces of his game he believed needed improvement in order to lead his team to a championship. He is quoted as saying “I lost touch with who I was as a basketball player and a person.” In the offseason (while many other pros were partying, taking vacations and generally kicking back), Lebron returned to his roots with a passion to develop the necessary skills to lead the Heat to a championship.  He felt he needed to improve his inside game as well as other skills. He traveled to Houston to spend three days with one of the best inside players in NBA history, Hakeem Olajuwon, and consistently reviewed videotapes of these workouts thereafter. These lessons were rehearsed in private training sessions. He worked with a high school teammate to improve his ball handling skills. He put in extra hours after practice with his assistant coach working on inside power moves. In the words of James’ head coach, Erik Spoelstra, James entered the 2012 NBA season “looking like a new player in terms of his offensive skill set.” When playoff time hit in the second season with the Heat, Lebron found The Zone often.  He led his team to the title; a feat repeated the following year. Lebron was able to achieve this level of excellence due to a disciplined, focused and committed preparation schedule (Understanding Process & Outcome & Sustainable Excellence Through Process, Discipline & Focus).

In the business realm, many executives desire to be great speakers. However, when I ask them if they rehearse their speeches out loud prior to delivery most indicate they do not. They rely on reviewing PowerPoint decks in their head, often at the last minute or on an airplane. You simply cannot be in The Zone if your preparation doesn’t warrant the level of desired performance. I often tell my clients you have to earn the right to be confident. You earn this right by proper preparation (Prepare, Perform, Evaluate).

Welcome Anxiety

Your big time performance can come in many forms such as a Board presentation, playoff game, dance show or musical concert to name a few. Prior to the performance you will be nervous. That is good. Anxiety is your body’s way of telling you “this one matters.” There are two types of anxiety, somatic and cognitive. Somatic anxiety consists of physical symptoms, which differ for everyone. Some typical examples are sweating, increased heart rate, going to the bathroom often and “butterflies” in the stomach. Some great performers even describe vomiting prior to big time events. Somatic anxiety typically goes away shortly after the beginning of the performance. If you interpret somatic anxiety as a sign your upcoming performance matters and you know you are up to the task it is a welcome friend. On the other hand, if you interpret these symptoms in a different manner it can result in cognitive anxiety that will be detrimental to your performance and prevent you from ever getting in The Zone.

Cognitive anxiety is the result of self-talk. Self-talk is unconscious until performers receive some training in this concept. Our self-talk consists of the things we say to ourselves to explain events that happen to us. An example of healthy self-talk which would not result in cognitive anxiety would be: “I’m going to the bathroom a lot and I can feel my stomach turning—that’s great. It means this one matters. That will go away once I get going in the performance. I’m thoroughly prepared and up to the challenge. I can’t wait to get started.” An example of unhealthy self-talk resulting in cognitive anxiety detrimental to performance would be: “Oh my gosh I’m nervous. I’ll bet no one else is nervous like this. They look so calm. I hope I don’t blow it and let people down.”

Understanding how to interpret anxiety is key to your performance ending up in The Zone.

The Balance Between Challenge and Skill

In academic circles, The Zone is known as flow. The foremost researcher of this concept is Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. He believes The Zone can only be achieved when the challenge is great but within your capabilities if you perform at your highest level. This relates to the concept of interpreting anxiety. If the challenge is great you will experience some anxiety. If you do not feel any form of anxiety, that’s a sign the challenge is not great enough to get you pumped to perform at your highest level. The result is you will be apathetic or bored. The task at hand is simply not challenging enough to get your attention. You cannot get in The Zone without a significant challenge.

If the task at hand is beyond your current capability, you will consciously or unconsciously realize this. You will sense you are in over your head. Regardless of how well you perform you will not be successful because your skill set has not been developed to the necessary level for the competition or performance expectations you are currently facing. I see a lot of this in junior athletes. Parents put them in leagues in which they are not ready to compete under the premise that playing better competition forces their children to “up their game.” The same dynamic occurs with executives who are genuinely attempting to develop high potential talent. While this strategy may be successful for some performers, my experience is it more often shatters confidence. Put yourself in situations that force you to perform at your highest level to succeed but are not out of reach.

A final thought. Many performers do not understand that truly being in The Zone is a relatively rare phenomenon. Remember, this is when everything is clicking at the highest level. By definition this will not occur every time. Your goal is to do everything possible to give yourself the best chance to be in The Zone during every performance. If you do that you have done your job–regardless of the outcome of the performance. You will find that by preparing to be in The Zone every time your overall level of performance will elevate during all performances. In the words of Vince Lombardi: ” Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.”

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