Typically when we see an elite athlete perform at their best we marvel in awe of the skills they display. When interviewed, these athletes will refer to the much sought after mental state of ‘being in the zone’. Well, what does ‘being in the zone’ actually mean? Generally people who are in the zone are not thinking about anything whilst performing and concentrating on a single cue (watching the ball etc…) and remain in the present. If you think about the reverse of the zone, when you are struggling for form what does that look like? Commonly, athletes will have several thoughts flying around their head, cast judgements of themselves (e.g. I can’t play that shot…) and forget to concentrate on what’s important (the ball, opponent…) and stay in the here and now. Ok, so you are probably wondering…. how can I get into the zone? Well as I have alluded to when someone is in the zone they are not thinking about anything. Or put simply they are ‘concentrating effortlessly’ and their brain is working in perfect symmetry with their body.
Lets’ break this down a bit further……
‘The Two Selves’
You can think of the brain being composed of two selves; self 1 and self 2. Self 1 can be thought of as your egotistical mind, whereas self 2 is your body (nerves, muscles, brain….). Lets’ demonstrate what happens to self 1 when playing golf. Recently you’ve been having trouble executing a consistent golf-swing. Several coaches have told you; you’ve got to change your grip, your feet need to be wider, do this with your arm and then follow through. All these cues filling your mind clutter your thoughts and after a while you start to doubt yourself and self 1 (the egotistical mind) starts casting judgements e.g. ‘I’m so bad at playing golf, ill never be able to play it’ or ‘come on you idiot watch the ball and hit it hard’. With these judgements cast, your muscles tense up, your skill execution worsens and you get angry. Ok, so you have seen the harm self 1 can do. Let me demonstrate the power of self 2 (the body).
Trusting the body (self 2) and letting go of judgement.
At the time of reading this article your body is doing something amazing. Without thinking about it, your body is working in perfect unison your heart is beating, your eyelashes blink, your breathing, your eyes are moving following the words that are written and so on… all without thinking. Therefore, why should this been any different in a sporting context? Why can’t we trust our bodies to execute the skill? Because self 1 the ego keeps casting judgements and preventing our body unlocking its’ full potential. Let me demonstrate an example in golf where we can learn by using images and learn to trust our body:
I was playing golf with a friend the other day who happened to be a beginner and I advised he learnt through the use of images. From a very young age we learnt through images. Our parents never coached us to walk, rather we watched our parents walk and then took our first steps that way. Therefore, back to the golf example. Here we were on the second hole. My friend had taken 9 shots on a par 5 and could not get the ball off the floor and his ego mind (self 1) was making judgements ‘I am so bad at golf’. I said ok, just imagine for a second a professional executing the perfect iron shot and picture it in your mind several times, now imagine yourself hitting the ball, picture how it feels. Once he rehearsed this picture I said ok now aim for Titleist make on the ball. Much to my surprise the ball went perfectly straight and my friend reproduced the result quite a few times throughout the round. After the round this got me thinking… I asked him ‘so what did you do differently with your swing’ he replied ‘Nothing, I was not thinking about it, I was just watching the ball’. What happened is self 1 the ego did not interfere (make judgement), there was channelled concentration and the body was trusted to execute the skill.
You are probably thinking that must be too good to be true right? Give it a go, let go of judgements during sport. Use images to help you learn then simply trust your body; you might be surprised of the results!
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About Tom Young
24 yr old, studying a masters in psychology of sport and exercise at the University of Gloucestershire, love sports psychology and cricket.