You are about to give a talk on a stage podium or address a small crowd around a table at a dinner party. You have everything setup and well planned out. You know the script on the back of your hands and you have rehearsed the lines a hundred times over. The moment is now. The curtains are drawn, announcements are made and the spotlight is on you but there’s one problem. Those neat and coherent lines in your head got suddenly tangled up. The crowd seems to shrink in a blur, your mouth is all dried up and your pulse rushes to a frenzy. As you try to clutch to a note or reference in your head you think “What is happening? It was so perfectly smooth in my rehearsal!”
This is the beast that any athlete or stage performer has to tame over countless hours of practice. It’s the mind over fear. There’s no room for things to go upside down as in the above scenario. Whether it’s a 15 second sprint or an hour long performance, you have to be master of your own head from the second the shot rings out or the curtains are drawn. It is no surprise then that in the case of athletes and stage performers, a big chunk of their training is aimed towards getting in the zone. This of course, is besides having to learn and practice their art or their sport.
Any performance is psychologically driven. If you are not in the right state of mind, the performance will be sub-optimal at best. Many chess players are completely absorbed in the game as if being at one with it. Their mind will be projecting possible moves ahead and tracking how it will affect the progression of the game. They are totally centered. Their mind is not swaying and their breath and pulse is stable. The interesting thing is that these mental feats are not limited or exclusive to top performers. We can deconstruct what makes a performer perform at his or her best and apply those same principles in our day to day life such as for example at work, training and sports or dealing with high-stress situations.
Here are the best known mind hacks used by top performers to get in the zone:
Seeing it Happen:
There is no doubt that visualization is the number one factor that tops all the others in the list. When star athletes are asked what is their key to success, they will tell you how they ‘see’ it happen in their head before it actually happens. This idea has been studied extensively and it has been shown how visualization actually is a critical factor to success in performance. For example, in one experiment professional archers had their brains connected to an EEG device when practicing the sport. The aim of the experiment was to understand what happens in the brain when the ‘perfect shot’ is drawn and so understand what leads to peak performance. It turns out that in all instances where a perfect bull’s eye shot was made, the archer was already visualizing hitting the target perfectly clear a second or two before making the shot. He or she was ‘seeing’ it happen.
More and more data from studies show how visualization is crucial to perform better at anything. This is why there is such a growing interest in the practice of creative visualization – for example in this top rated programme, Lisa Nichols shows how to use creative visualization and hack the subconscious blueprint to achieve anything you set your mind to.
Being in the zone means having your awareness laser focused on one goal or action. At the moment before a player calls a decisive shot, his awareness completely wraps around the target. The second seems to stretch out to a minute , the crowd chatter is muted and the target pops out in full clarity. The mind and body are completely in sync with the sole purpose of reaching the goal.
But how does one get focused awareness? By default our mind drifts away like a buzzing bee from one thought to another. The untrained awareness is very lax and gets easily carried away into thoughts, fantasies and daydreams. Try not to think about anything for five minutes and see what happens. Of course there are remedies for this but it is not a quick fix – it requires some effort and lots of practice. Meditation is the most powerful tool known to Man to practice awareness. It’s like training a puppy to sit in one place for a few minutes. It will happen by time and practice.
Meditation scares off a lot of beginners because it seems too daunting. It need not be. One way of training focused awareness is by sitting down and keeping your sight in a soft focus fixed on an object (such as a candle) for around 3 minutes at a time at first, extending the time as you progress. This automatically stabilizes your focus after some training. Another way is keeping your attention focused on your breathing (a few short minutes will do). Thoughts will pop up but after some time and practice they will dissolve as quickly as they rise and instead of following the thought you stay anchored with your breath in a state of mindfulness.
The Power of Believing:
The art of visualization and seeing something happen in your mind’s eye before it happens is the biggest mover of all. Having your emotions aligned on the outcome as if it already happened is, however, the biggest shaker. The former is a projection of our mind, the latter is an opening of our heart which in short is referred to as believing by many.
Believing does not mean being uncritical or foolhardy. If visualization means seeing something before it happens, believing means feeling something before it comes to be. In more practical terms, it builds up confidence and all your energies and senses are receptive to your goal.
Believing that you CAN achieve something changes the whole story. That belief becomes a script which is recorded and played in your head. Your subconscious works on it and it prepares the stage for that belief to materialize.
At that critical moment, top performers are not only in the zone – they are in complete emotional balance. When under peak psychological pressure or physical strain, they do not flip or collapse emotionally. They keep a cool head, which in other words means that they maintain emotional equilibrium and nerves of steel. Panic does not kick in even when apparent chaos is in full swing. Their confidence is unscathed and their will power remains intact.
How do they do it? It comes from building or rather re-building some new layers of belief. First of all It’s learning to let go of certain old assumptions that were self-limiting or counter-productive such as these. It is then about creating a different mindset where mishaps or shortcomings are not seen as defeating or frustrating but part of the whole game.
Here are some pre-performance rituals that musicians use to calm their nerves before a performance
How many times have you read that you need to take a deep breath when feeling in the grips of panic? It’s almost cliché` but there is a very good reason why this is so.
By regulating your breathing you can regulate your body’s chemistry.
When under panic, the fight or flee mechanism kicks in which sets a certain biochemistry in motion such as adrenaline. Your breathing becomes shorter. On the other hand, when in a relaxed state of mind, the breathing is deeper and longer.
The logic is then to control your breathing so as to keep the biochemistry within an optimal range for performance. Many performers are trained to control their breathing and practice it moments before the performance. The first step towards practicing breathing is becoming more aware of it in the first place. Since breathing happens automatically we do not put conscious awareness to it. Therefore understanding how your breathing is connected to your actions is important to put it into practice. Once again an ideal practice would be meditating on your breath as described in the point about focused awareness.