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June 2017

Being “in the zone”

By | All articles, Sport Psychology | One Comment

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

Who wins?

By | All articles, Sport Psychology | 3 Comments

Have you ever won a race and wondered why? How did you do that? How did you manage to pull of that win? Or visa-versa when you’ve lost? What made you lose? It gets even more confusing when you follow the same routine and the race plays out similarly in 2 races, yet in one you lose and the other you win. It can play on your mind all day!

A question I’ve always been fascinated with is this: what makes an athlete win, or lose? What makes Peter Sagan so good? What makes Bradley Wiggins so unstoppable in a TT? And what makes Jason Kenney literally unbeatable at the Olympics? On the other hand, why do some athletes never make it to the top? It’s been a question plaguing sport psychologists, sport scientists and coaches a like since the dawn of high performance.

Is it genetics, is it training programmes, is it nutrition and supplementation, is it resources, is it motivation, is it the mind; the list literally goes on and on, and I think we are still far away from ever definitely answering it. I think it’s better that way though, as that’s what makes sport great!

Daira Schmeleva by UEC cycling

If you look at the tests in the lab, all world class elite athletes are very similar physically. They produce more or less the same wattage, have the same V02, have the same body fat percentage, etc. And here I’m talking about the handful of medal winners at world champs or Olympic Games, where the podium is split by fractions of seconds.

But there’s always the one who wins, the champion who has that little extra. With these athletes, all factors are covered and in place. For example, they all come from similar backgrounds, all follow similar diets, do the same type of training, use the best equipment, etc.

These athletes have reached the peak of what is physically possible in the current times.  Never before have we seen human beings in the shape they are, and capable of doing what these athletes do. They are the cream of the crop of the genetic pool, and were for all intents and purpose made for this.

It’s like looking only at the top sprinters from Jamaica; nowhere else in the world will you find better genes for sprinting. Of these top sprinters, they all follow the same training regimes (albeit individualized in the detail), diets, and receive the same support. Yet there are some of them who break world records, and other who can only make it into the team.

The only real differentiating factor, and based on the evidence that most top athletes are the same physically, is we are left with the mind, and the role an athletes psychological space and mental training plays in winning. But here’s a conundrum: what if the winners are all the same concerning that too? What if they receive the same mental skills training, see a psychologist from a young age to sort out personal issues, and have the same mental tool box available. They all have the “champions mind” in a sense.

Who will win then???

Well let me tell you something about the body first: the body is not made to do what these athletes do, it’s made to hunt for sufficient food, and protect themselves and their families, and that’s all. It was never made to see who could run the fastest, jump the highest, lift the most, or ride their bikes the fastest or longest! So when these athletes push themselves past that point, the body uses any way possible to tell them to stop and rest. Through excruciating pain, dripping sweat, loss of breath, thirst, and even blood – it’s literally begging them to stop!

If we look at it from that point of view, I would think the winner is the one who can ignore these natural survival instincts that tell them to stop, or not to dig deeper. Some can naturally ignore those signs from the body for longer than others. They can push past that. Others simply cannot, when the body says they’ve had enough and should stop, they give in, and go home; even though they’ve still got something left to give. Of course this is a combination of each athlete’s genetic disposal and unique life path of environmental influencers.

By Robert Ward

Can it be trained?  To an extent, yes, through putting yourself in that position and trying to go further (in a way like building the characteristics of mental toughness), but I think mostly it can’t. It’s in bred into our genetics, and possibly what separates the 3 athletes on the podium. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not in you, you might have more of it than you think, you must just convince yourself to actually go deep within yourself and get it! That’s where the mind comes in, only you can convince yourself to go harder and dig deeper, to push your limits and become a champion.

There’s a well-known quote that goes something like this: when you’re at your max, you can’t go anymore and you literally want to die.   Then my friend, you’re at 80% (unknown author)

I think this sums up what I’m trying to say, there are limits, but the best will undoubtedly ignore these, and go farther than ever before! I’ll let you make up your own mind on what factor is most important your own success, and what big of a factor you let genes vs environment play in your performance.

Think of that next time you’re in a really tough space, we all have more in us, you’re never really at 100%, you just need to convince yourself to dig deep and access it. Go harder!

 

Matthew de Freitas

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