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Just Stop Thinking

How athletes (and everyone else) can get “into the zone”

“Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical.” –Yogi Berra

Although Yogi Berra’s math was flawed, his insight into the game was 100% correct: one’s mentality really is a huge component of sports performance. “Thinking is horrible,” one of my athletes once jokingly told me—and he was absolutely right. The more we can help athletes not think, the better they perform.

Ever since then, I’ve realized that part of my job as a sport psychologist is helping athletes not think, or as many like to call it, getting them “into the zone.” This is the state when an athlete is relaxed and focused solely on the present moment, and thus better enabled to achieve peak performance. I often teach my athletes helpful techniques to reach “the zone” like relaxation exercises. One example is this breathing exercise. Give it a try:

Slow your breathing down. Rather than breathing through your chest, dig just a little bit deeper and focus on taking breaths start from your belly. Breathe in and out through your belly six times trying to measure your breaths into 10 seconds each (six per minute).

Others find great success with mindfulness meditation. Researchers at Brown University propose that mindfulness and meditation practices have shown to enhance sensory focus on particular areas of the body and can help overcome persistent negative thoughts or pain.

Many of the athletes I work with think that mental skills training is something you do just once and forget. I tell them, “Developing mental focus is like working out… if you stop exercising you’ll be out of shape!” In other words, practicing the skills mentioned above once won’t boost performance. The brain is a muscle, and you have to work it like one. It takes disciplined, routine practice with these mental skills before they translate into an increase in performance. The best athletes understand this: it’s what separates the stellar athletes from the mediocre ones, the household names from the also-rans.

Remember that at the professional level, every athlete is capable of performing well. But many of them simply fail to reach their potential because they lack confidence in their abilities and because they overthink their performance. Many people aren’t born with confidence; they have to work at it. Like anybody else, athletes have to practice confidence in order to embody it.

Another common obstacle to getting in the zone is fixating on failure. When athletes experience a failure, they can often ruminate on their shortcomings when they should be breaking it down. A more helpful measure is retraining the thought process to think adaptively. Psychologists like to call this process self-talk. We might think “I’m a failure,” or “I’m not good enough,” but practice replacing those with thoughts like “ I am making progress in ________,” or using it as inspiration to try even harder. It can be something as simple as replacing “I’m a failure” with “I’ll get em next try.”—and use it as incentive to rise above it, as you know you can. There is also interesting research that suggests that using your own name rather than, “you” or “I” when practicing self-talk is most powerful. In other words, “Jonathan, you are trying your best, and you’ve made progress in writing this article” will hit home in a more useful way than, “I’m doing well”.

Practicing this style of self-talk will make you more resilient to slumps in the future and more adaptive to those high-pressure moments where a lack of proper mental skills conditioning might lead to “choking.” Everyone is going to have unwanted results at some point; it is how we view those moments, either as shortcomings or room for improvements that matters.

But above all else, just remember for your next big game: work on not thinking!

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