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Being “in the zone”

In this 2 part series, we will be looking at getting “in the zone” as it’s commonly called, peak levels of arousal, as well as using focus to get there.

The phrase “in the zone” is thrown around quite often in sporting circles, and if we understand it the same way, then we’ve all been there. Smooth pedalling, tactics just flow, and the muscles are warm and elastic just ready to fire; we’re excited to race and everything just goes right. If we could write a script of the race, this would be how it plays out.

I remember one of those days on the track; it was a keirin race at a Grand Prix at my local velodrome a few years ago. The race came and I just felt unbelievably good, everything was just going great. I remember being thrown into the race by my holder, and I was in 2nd or 3rd position behind the derney. I even remember thinking to myself, “I can win this, I’ve got this”. It was a great feeling, when the bike pulled of and the race started, I just went to the front and did a usual tactic of mine – ride from the from and control the race, I did that and with about a lap and a half to go I just started picking up the speed and the more I saw guys coming from behind the more I picked it up. I ended up winning it on the line, but that race literally everything went well! I’m sure most of you have a similar story, regardless of whether it was the world championships or the local derby, we’ve all been in this illusive zone at some point.

max Levy by Jean-Marc Wiesner

But what does it mean to be “in the zone”?

Well the terminology in sport psychology is slightly different and most refer to this “zone” as the IPS (ideal performance state) or peak arousal. Arousal refers to the psychological levels of being awake and ready to react to stimuli. It’s based on instinct or autonomous decision making and the resulted action.

Often this zone lies in an area in between too relaxed and over excited. It’s a fine line to cross either way. Too relaxed is never really a good idea except for more psychological sports like chess or target shooting, but for cycling we need to be highly aroused or pumped up. Of course, only to a point, too much and it also can be negative. Too pumped up means too alert, too angry, etc. and it can easily lead to basically being out of control. Look at some rugby players or boxers!

The ideal is to start and finish at your peak level of arousal; so not starting relaxed and finishing too psyched up, it should be a continuous period in this peak zone to perform at a high level. If we have too many erratic spikes along this period, it’s not good or manageable, and has negative side effects in the long term.

Of course this peak arousal level is highly individual and differs from person to person, some athletes peak zone is more towards the relaxed and others are more towards high levels of arousal, either way both are in an ideal state for their own psyche, not too relaxed and not too psyched up. This state even differs from discipline to discipline; an example is a road rider or time trialist vs a track sprinter or BMX racer. The one has to maintain a stable level for hours, while the other has to activate an extremely high level for a brief period of 15-30 seconds!

Now of course all this knowledge is nice to know, but how is it practical to improving performance in sport?

Well, we are all able to regulate these arousal levels ourselves. This technique is known as self-regulation.

by Rob Ward

Clarifying this ideal state is an individual act, and can be done using a basic criteria below, which you can think about when trying to formulate your own ideal state. In your best performance when you were “in the zone”, how did you act concerning each of these? Try and remember and when you’re in the zone again, take note of it. A good athlete is someone who knows and understands their own mind and body, and knows how to fire it up for peak performance at any given moment.

The 3 factors are:

Attention: what are you focused on at any given moment?

Ideal: being focused on the moment, on controllable factors and only yourself.

Psychological state: the state of mind influencing your breathing, heart rate, muscle tension, etc.

Ideal: muscles relaxed and breathing under control.

Behavioural aspects: basically anything that is visible from an external view, i.e.: how you are riding, how your form is looking, etc.

Ideal: confident, purposeful and precise actions toward the goal.

To be in this state, like any practical aspect of sport and life, takes consistent practise and time. If you’re too relaxed, you need to learn how to psyche yourself up, and if you’re too psyched up, you need to learn to calm yourself down.

But how? Well here are some basic tips on how to do it:

Calming yourself down:

  • Rational thinking. Think and focus on the controllable factors that are in place, like your preparation.
  • Take deep breathes to centre yourself.
  • Rub your muscles gently to relax them (if you’re on a big budget you could ask your masseuse, or you could ask your girlfriend)
  • Imagery. Imagine the positive outcome of what your about to do, or imagine any situation that would calm you down (you’ll need to practise this!)
  • Self-talk. Tell yourself vocally to be calm (in a calm way of course!), tell yourself what to do and what you require at this moment, and that is to be calm (again this comes through practise).
  • Music. Put on any music that calms you down and centre yourself.
  • Just relax! Don’t do anything unnecessary that can distract you.

Psyching yourself up:

  • Listen to a motivational talk, from anyone. YouTube is filled with them, or ask your coach or dad. If not, look at the next point.
  • Self-talk. Vocally tell yourself what you require, and that is to be psyched up, scream and shout if you have to!
  • Imagery. Imagine yourself winning and being in the zone, whatever that is! (Again this needs to be practiced).
  • Music. Listen to any music that gets you going! We all have that song!
  • Rational thinking. Think of the controllable factors that are in place, which in this case must be your goals. You’ve done the work, now act on it to achieve them.
  • Get aggressive! Whatever gets you pumped up, do it! Some hit themselves, some jump up and down, whatever it takes.
Jolien d’Hoore

It’s helpful to some to create a pre-race routine. However I’ll address that in a separate article. What’s important to remember about that is it must only be a guideline, and if you use it for racing, it must be used in training as well.

I hope you can see that most of these are very easy to use effectively, but it takes practise and awareness to the task. Being “in the zone”, at peak arousal levels or in the ideal state is a highly individual task, and with consistent practise you can learn to regulate yourself and get into that state at any given time to produce a champion performance!

Be sure to keep a look out for part 2 on this topic, where we will be exploring the details of focus and how it helps you to get into the zone.

Matthew de Freitas

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