It goes without saying that we are all tough on ourselves. That we want and expect to be able to rock up and perform, to be able to turn on that top performance whenever we want. In reality unfortunately, it is never that simple. This means we can often be annoyed with ourselves for not getting into the zone quickly. In my opinion this due to lack of or superficial understanding of what the zone actually is. Once you understand the moving parts, what influences what and what can you influence, then you can be more realistic in your expectations.
„Life is about expectation managment“
A wise person once told me, „life is about expectation management“ (and yes, that wise person is my girlfriend). When you expect more than you receive, you are frustrated, angry and sometimes you even feel cheated (although your reaction to this depends a lot on your level of agreeableness and self worth, but that is a whole other topic).
However, if you expect little and receive more, then you are positively surprised, motivated and happy from the extra reward. This goes into the philosophy of gratitude and being grateful, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have standards or even high standards; as the goal of training is to improve, it does this by raising the average success rate of each action.
So, from a statistical point of view, to increase the average means we have to be above the current average performance. However, it is impossible to always be better than our average, to always improve. Without realising the principles of making goals, sub-goals and reflection that we discussed previously in the „How to build your system“ blog you will be constantly frustrated as your expectations are not being meet.
Comfort zones and getting in the zone are the superficial layer that lots of buzz words are based around. These do not help anyone understand what to actually do. This would be like me teaching someone how to drive a car by telling them to drive. After a couple of times stalling the engine, this gets frustrating really quickly. Then comes the classic „calm down/relax“ , which also doesn’t help the person. So without advice on the steps needed we can get easily overwhelmed with all the information really quickly; compareable to when a microphone screeches from being over-amplified.
So let’s break down what we need to know and what we can ignore (like about our systems of success, high performing athletes know when to add and when to subtract). Knowing what to ignore is hugely important according to Mihaly Csikszentmihályi’s, In any given moment, there is a great deal of information available. Psychologists have found that one’s mind can attend to only a certain amount of information at a time, that number is about „110 bits of information per second„. That may seem like a lot of information, but simple daily tasks also have a lot of information. Just listening to someone takes about 40-60 bits of information per second. For that reason, you cannot focus on other things, when having a conversation with someone.
What is the zone?
Pixar just keep making amazing movies for both kids and adults, but even if you think the description in the video above is very vague and generic. In sports people also mostly talk about improved performances because of surreal bodily experiences. For example, the Formula One driver Ayrton Senna, during qualifying for the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix, explained: „I was already on pole, […] and I just kept going. Suddenly I was nearly two seconds faster than anybody else, including my team mate with the same car. And suddenly I realised that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel.“ quoted from „Senna’s Magic Monaco Lap“ Donaldson G (May 23, 2019).
So that has told us the what, not how to get there. For that, we need to look at two main theories linked to being in the zone, which are:
- Inverted U-Theory of Arousal (Yerkes Dodson law, 1908)
- Difficult Curve Theory + Flow State (Dynamic difficulty adjustment)
The Inverted U-Theory (graph below) is the most well known. The concept is that, as arousal level increases, performance improves, but only to a point, beyond which increases in arousal leads to a decrease in performance. This is a great starting point for anyone at the beginning stages of taking their mental approach to sport more seriously.
In a simple way it can be explain as low emotions (un-motivated/don’t care/bored) result in low performance, optimal emotions (focus/motivated/engaged) result in optimal performance and high emotions (anxiety/anger/stress) result in low performances again.
The Difficulty Curve Theory states that every activity you do falls somewhere on this chart (see below), depending on how challenging it is and how many of your skills it utilizes. The ideal place to be is, you guessed it, in the green „Balance Fun” zone although the yellow areas of „Challenged Fun“ & „Casual Fun“ can also be good depending on the expectations of all the players. The green and yellow channels are often also called the „Flow Channel“, meaning that when the challenge of what you’re doing is roughly equal to your skills, you get into the zone. Especially when you’re motivated to get something done, according to Csikszentmihalyi, this is where you’ll experience flow, and be the happiest.
Whose responsibility is it to make the zone?
With the above mentioned theories, the Inverted U-Theory is mostly based around the athlete themselves. Who then needs to find the correct level of emotions (focus/motivation) to be optimally ready for what is to come? The difficult curve theory, on the other hand, is the responsibility of the coach. The coach should develop the correct exercises and challenges appropriate for the individual players and the group as a whole.
There is a potentiality that these two theories link together. Australian Coach Mark Lebedew posted on his blog an article on „thinking about motivation„. He says „What if every player already has motivation when they arrive. And what if the coach’s contribution to a player’s motivation level is not what they add or cultivate, but what they subtract or destroy. In this understanding, players with high motivation are actually those whose coaches have not demotivated them. There are many, many coach’s actions that demotivate players; overtraining, playing favourites, excessive rules, ignoring injuries, pointless drills, disorganised, unplanned practices, excessive pressure and stress, inconsistent demands, unclear or unrealistic goal setting etc etc.“
In the same article from Mark Lebedew he also says „there is no disputing the fact that for maximum performance players need maximum motivation. Motivation to perform and to prepare is unquestionably a prerequisite for success.“
Maximum/optimal motivation is not the same for all players, so you starting point cannot be a responsibility for a coach. You need to know how to arrive at training or at worst during the warm up ready to go. This meanings knowing how to balance that line between under arousal and optimal arousal. Some tools that could help are:
- If you need to get more pumped up to reach the optimal area. Things like celebrating, being vocal/loud with communication and being physical/aggressive with you actions and plays can help you achieve this
- If you need to calm down to stay in the optimal area or come down from the over-stimulated area. Things like slowing your breathing and heart rate, combined with making inward actions (like imaging the next good contact, or decide what you want to do if it’s a good play and what you back up plan is if it’s a bad play before the next point starts)
Unfortunately nothing ever stays the same, no matter how bad you want it to stay the same. So to help you stay in the optimal area once you get there, here is a 4 step strategy that was developed by Dr. Larry Lauer called the „Green Light Routine„.
Step 1: The Response Stage (Focus externally)
As soon as the point has ended, you will respond. It will be positive, negative or neutral. The goal is to stay as positive or neutral as possible. Go celebrate with you partner after a point, tell them how good the set or pass was. Even if you lose the point, clap the hand of your partner at worst this shows unity and trust. Sometimes even in the difficult moments a smile makes a big difference.
Step 2: The Recovery Stage (Focus internally)
After pushing for the last point and responding to it, we need to do our best to start from the same place. Usually our intensity or frustration increases after a point and it can be all to easy to let the rhythm of the game take over you. So after ever up and down, take deep breaths and let go of the last point. You want to slow your breathing and heart rate, this will allow you to think clearly.
Step 3: The Re-focus Stage (Focus internally)
Now that you are calm, you do something bring you out of the environment of the court. This is done by focusing in-wards again. Some people like to brush the sand of their arms, ask the referee to clean their sunglasses, walk outside of the court take a breath and come back in. While you are doing this action, take the time to think what you want to happen in the next point. Before you come back into position you should believe fully what you are going to do in the next play.
Step 4: The Ready Stage (Focus externally)
This is where your own sporting routines come into play. Something you always do, and afterwards you are in a place where you full commitment to the next point and knowing how you want to play it. As an example, a service routine where you spin the ball in your hand twice and then slap it. You have now made up your mind to serve the ball on the line. Take a deep breathe, throw the ball, lock you focus on it, you are no longer thinking just trusting yourself to do.
Lastly players are reasonable to give feedback and to communicate with the coach when they have problems. Not just technical and physical problems but also in terms of motivation and mental zones. Below is a more player detailed graph of the Difficult Curve Theory, this is important for players to know as it can help you reflect better. Once you and the coach know where you currently are on the graph it allows both to work together through their own responsibilities to get closer to the flow in training.
The coach has to decide which system of coaching philosophy to follow either a „Project 1st, principle just-in-time“ or „principles 1st, then project“ (see the graph below). Translated for us, project 1st is to concentrate on game like trainings, so the player knows what demands the game requires from them and then work on the specific principle (technique) problems as weakness are identified. Whereas, the principle 1st concept is more to work on isolated exercises with just 1 contact, line drills where players take turns and once there is a level of competence then to open up to the project of not just playing the ball successfully but playing the game successfully.
Project 1st, just in time principles are lost of small sided games and that a partner, net and some sort of competition is always used. The just in time principles is the addition of specific rules to focus attention and technical development in real time. An example of this would be, out defence the team can only score using a shot (line/cut) or the 1st set in Sideout must be a hand-set. In theory the focus gives players a chance to get repetitions on these skills that need to be improved in the exact environment they play in.
I would say this sort of training is better for people who have general skills and want to improve their effectiveness in games. It takes a top down approach of what i needed to win, then players need to find the areas they need to improve on. If the players ability is not good enough to perform the skills it can be a problem, as they do not get as much concentrated repetitions at weaker skills. This can lead to moving into the anxiety area and even result in the player become avoidant or risk averse with that particular skill in a game.
Principle 1st, then project approach, this is based around individual contacts and being what many refer to as achieving textbook technique. For example a coach tosses a free ball over the net and the player passes it to a target player to catch, they make 10 repetitions of this action and change. It allows the player to get many contacts in a short period of time with instant and direct feedback from the coach. This can create quick development in players of lower skill levels. Once the skill level has improved it should then move towards more game like exercises like in the project 1st style.
This sort of training style is better for player who are newer to the game and still need to learn the fundamentals. The problem shown in the difficulty curve is that, the better the players become the more challenging/intense the small exercises have to be. Otherwise, the players will find the training boring and become un-motivated. Another possible issue is that, training makes you better at what you train. So you can get really good and efficient at doing these exercises doesn’t always translate onto success in matches. This is where a coach has to understand the challenges and demands of the game, so, what you need to use often in a game to be effective and win.
For example, a player can be the in court and a coach can throw balls around the court, which the player has to defend into the air. They case multiple balls all over the court, and after 10 balls they are done. With training maybe they go from 6 out of 10, to 9 out of 10 balls defended. The question is the coach is throwing the ball, usually in many different ways to trick and make it hard for the defender (as the intensity has to increase so it is not boring). Although, is it really helping the defender learn where to look and how to find the correct timing when facing an attacker who is jumping to a live set?
Thanks for reading, I hope this will help you all be ready to take responsibility of your own development and gain knowledge on making sure the coach is also getting the best out of you. I hope you join me again next week, as we start to look at systems of success from coaches around the world.