the study of the kicking components within sports

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Mind Over Foot, part 4: Kicking in the Zone

Today, we enter The Zone. The following excerpts from several prior interviews discuss that much sought after state of mind. We begin with a clinical viewpoint from a sports psychologist, followed by thoughts on reaching the zone from several kickers.

The most special, joyous, magical moment that you can have in sport: when you’re ‘in the zone’. Most athletes have a memory of a particular game or race where they felt super-human, where everything clicked into place and they performed brilliantly. Athletes recall these as exhilarating moments, but for most, they’re completely mysterious ones. But there’s a field of sports psychology that’s now attempting to understand this special state, so that athletes might be able to replicate it at will.

Susan Jackson is a Brisbane-based sports psychologist who’s also interested in how and why sport can be joyful, and meaningful. Her research has involved talking to lots of athletes about their experiences of being in the zone, and she’s co-authored a book on the subject, called ‘Flow in Sports’. And ‘flow’ is how Susan Jackson describes this state of peak performance.
"What’s happening at that time is we’re in an optimal psychological state, so everything is work at optimal mind and body for the athlete, are working together, just perfectly. And so because of that feeling of perfection, that’s why it’s remembered as so special."
So what’s actually going on when an athlete is in this flow state? I mean it’s possible to describe what it feels like, but it seems to me to be much harder to explain what produces it. For example my own one really strong experience of what we’re talking about happened when I was a teenager, when I played a lot of hockey. And I got the ball on the half backline and ran it all the way to the goal circle and scored. And it was like this moment out of time, when all the obstacles, opposition players trying to get the ball from me, just fell away. But I’ve no understanding of how why that happened, just that once, and in that particular match.
"Yes, and it’s interesting just listening to your description, that was something that happened many years ago, but it’s still obviously very clear in your mind, and very special to you, and that’s what the flow experiences are for people. But how to get there is the key question, and one important principle is that the athlete needs to balance the challenges and their skills in a situation, so that there is a state of optimum confidence occurring. And when there is that state of optimum confidence, then the athlete is able to focus fully on the task at hand, and so what previously may have been obstacles, such as what you described, just disappear because your focus is complete and you believe that you can achieve your goal. And so you get this feeling of invincibility, of feeling you can do no wrong, and because of this mindset, your performance often is at an optimal level, and you are able to extend your limits."
But given that the experience of flow is for most, if not all athletes, quite mercurial and unpredictable, do you as a sports psychologist, believe that finding the flow, finding the zone, can be controllable?
"I believe that it can be controllable, however I don’t think that we can control flow fully on command, it’s not like a switch we can turn on or off, and we’re in flow and we’re out of flow. However we can set the stage for flow by firstly being aware of what the flow state is, and what makes up the flow state, and then focusing on the factors that facilitate flow for a particular athlete."
So what sort of conditions would you be talking about?
"Conditions such as the challenge/skill balance that I talked about, and that’s a critical balance, where your perceptions of the challenges and skills are high, higher than your average, but they’re also very close. So that it’s not as if there’s this huge challenge in front of you and you have no belief in your ability to meet it, or vice versa, that you’re very high skilled in your particular sport or activity, but you’re not placed in a very challenging situation. So it’s a matter of getting those two hooked up so that they’re very closely matched, but they are extending you. So that’s one key factor for facilitating flow, and there are other factors I can talk about as well.
The person needs to have clear goals, they need to know moment by moment what is expected of them, what they need to do, what they want to do in the situation. They need to be able to tune in to the feedback, and sport is a great environment for experiencing flow because it is a structured activity where we do have clear goals about what we’re trying to achieve, and also that activity gives us feedback if we are in tune with it, often we’re not in tune with it, we’re not listening to our bodies, we’re not paying attention to our environment. But if we do those things, if we pay attention to what the environment is telling us, what our bodies are telling us so that we can keep on track to our goals, and we stay fully focused on what we’re doing, then these are some of the things that can help us achieve flow."
"I believe it starts with your preparation during the offseason, and then during the course of the week leading up to a game. If your preparation is good and you’ve had a solid week of practice, that builds your confidence. And your confidence is where getting into the zone starts from. When you’re hitting the ball, striking the ball well, and things are starting to feel second nature to you, and you’re not having to concentrate on too many swing thoughts at once - things are becoming second nature because of repetition and because of success in preparation, then you enter the zone. It doesn’t happen by mistake and it doesn’t happen by coincidence. It’s through preparation and success and repetition. It’s a wonderful place to be, but it’s hard to stay in the zone because our bodies change and we don’t always feel the same from week to week. Sometimes we have to manage an injury, or manage being sore, or what not. That’s when you go back to your check list and make sure you’re doing everything in your preparation that you have control over, to be ready to go on game day."

"A lot if it is trying to take your mind out of it. You’ve done so much work and your body knows how you want to kick the ball. You just want to have a sound, simple routine, much like a golfer would have. I know a lot of the other kickers have it. Just something that you can put your mind on autopilot, and carry out the routine. I think the point of the routine is to get your mind as focused as you can be on the task at hand, which is kicking the ball. You don’t want other thoughts – about the wind, or the rush, or the snap, or the hold – to be coming into your head. You just want to be focused purely on kicking the ball. If you have that laser-like focus, you’re going to give yourself the best chance to make the kick."

"When you get to the position where you can just focus on the form and just be relaxed about it, then you’re in the zone because there’s no threat. There’s nothing you need to worry about. The only things that get you out of that zone, or get you intimidated, are things that you let bother you. Some guys over think kicking way too much. They think they have to have the proper shoe. They think they have to have the proper equipment. All that stuff – it’s just really over thought. I think the guys that are able to be in that zone, basically doing that same kick over and over and over again, that’s essentially, in my opinion, where the zone is. If you can do the same kick over and over again, and have that be your thought process, with out worrying about where the ball goes, once again, the ball’s gonna go where supposed to go according to what you do. If you don’t let the outside influences affect how you approach each kick, and do what you know is best and what you’ve done a million times in your career (not really a million), then you have confidence. That’s where it comes from really is the confidence. If you have confidence in your form and your technique, that’s where your zone is established. The confidence and the trust in your form."

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