Sports Shorts

On Psychology and Sport: Finding the Zone

What does it take to have “the perfect game?” Every athlete of any sport knows what those three words mean, and they may spend their entire career trying to have that one flawless performance. Many young athletes have trouble with consistency in sports performances, and have no clue why. They may come into the season in great shape, possessing the well-refined skills that there sport requires, having a solid game plan intact, having eaten well and getting antiquate sleep all week, but still having inconsistency during competition. What is the missing ingredient? The answer lies within the skull. Sports psychology is one of the most overlooked and underrated aspects of sports performances. Many psychological factors, such as memory, focus, arousal level, anxiety and stress can drastically effect a sports performance.

Attention in Sport

According to William James, attention is “the taking possession by mind in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneous possible objects or trains of thought.” (Huang & Lynch, 1992)

Memory can be held in one of three basic systems. The sensory regular system holds large amounts of information for a short period of time. Long-term memory holds smaller amounts of information for a long period of time, and the short-term memory system is the crossroad between the two. (Cox, 1998) To put these in perspective, the long-term memory would hold a skill, such as dribbling a basketball. The short-term memory would hold the scouting report of the opposing team. The sensory regular system would be responsible for in game awareness, such as the tempo of the game and adjusting to opposing player’s strengths.

Athletes must respond in some way to their environmental situation. The larger the amount of information being conveyed makes a situation more difficult to respond to. However, through careful analysis, the difficulty of a situation can be reduced. (Cox, 1998) For example, lets compare two baseball players with equal talent. Player A has done his homework on his upcoming opponent. He knows that the pitcher he will be facing is a lefty who loves to throw a fastball that reaches 85 mph. He also throws in a changeup at 70 mph and a splitter that breaks to the left. Player B shows up to the game having no knowledge on his opponent. The amount of information that player A will have to take in while batting is considerably less than player B. Naturally, he will have a higher rate of success, for he has a better idea of what to expect.

Information content can also be reduced with skill level. The more refined an athlete’s skill is in a game situation, the less information he or she must account for. (Cox, 1998)

Anxiety

Anxiety is another contributing factor in a sports performance. There are two basic types of anxiety that apply: somatic and cognitive state anxiety. Somatic anxiety is the physical component of anxiety. It is the butterflies in the stomach feeling before a game. A certain degree of somatic anxiety is perfectly healthy.

Cognitive anxiety on the other hand, can be costly. It is the mental component of anxiety that causes feelings of worry, self-doubt and loss of self-esteem.

Before a sports performance, certain levels of both anxiety types are to be expected, increasing in intensity as the event draws closer. During the performance, intensity should change. Somatic anxiety is best in the middle; levels that are too high or too low can hurt a performance. Cognitive anxiety can prove to be more costly at higher levels.

Arousal

Of course, each athlete perceives anxiety differently. The athlete must work to find his or her own optimal level of arousal. (Cox, 1994)

Arousal refers to the degree of activation of the organs and mechanisms that are under control of the body’s autonomic nervous system. More specifically, the sympathetic nervous system is primarily responsible for the changes in bodily functions associated with arousal. This system is activated by stimuli from the environment that are perceived as threatening.

Arousal level has a direct effect on attentional narrowing. Increased arousal has a narrowing effect on attention. Sports that require a broad focus must have lower levels of arousal. Oppositely, decreased arousal has a broadening effect on attention; therefore sports that require a narrow focus must have higher levels of arousal.

Finding the right level of focus depends on the sport being played or action being carried out. (Cox, 1998) If one has too low an arousal level, the may be easily distracted by things that do not apply to the game. If arousal level is too high, the athlete may be too focused on one aspect of the game, and will forget other important aspects. For example, a golfer may worry too much about hitting the ball hard that he forgets his mechanics, and hooks the ball far to the left.

Selective attention is another important characteristic of a successful athlete. Having the ability to weed out unnecessary information and focus on tasks in demand is a skill that can be learned. It is helpful to understand this concept with the focus chart. Imagine two perpendicular lines. At the ends of the vertical line lies external focus and internal focus. At the ends of the horizontal line lies broad focus and narrow focus. (Hatfield, 2004) As mentioned before, different sports require different levels of focus, and even within a sport, different positions may require different levels of focus. A quarterback would need to broaden focus in order to scan the field and see all of his receivers. A cornerback (defensive player who’s primary responsibility is to cover receivers) would have a narrow focus. A quarterback with too narrow a focus may throw a ball without seeing the defender in position to intercept the pass. A corner with too broad a focus would be susceptible to loosing sight of his man, and give up a big play. Finding the right balance of broad/narrow and internal/external focus for a particular assignment in a sport is key to success.

After suffering a setback during a game, it is important for the athlete to keep from loosing focus. Refocusing after a miscue, bad call, or any distraction can be the difference between a good player and a champion. First, one must displace the negative thoughts with positive ones. Second, they should center attention internally, and make minor adjustments in arousal level. Then, one must shift focus externally on the task at hand. At this point, the athlete has hopefully forgotten the distraction and is ready to execute. (Loehr, 1994)

Mental toughness is a term thrown around expendably by youth coaches and PE teachers. The fact is that acquiring the components of mental toughness is necessary to become a great athlete. Toughness can be understood by four categories. First, an athlete must be emotionally flexible. He/she must have the ability to roll with the unexpected emotional turns in a sporting event. The athlete must be emotionally responsive, being able to keep game awareness under pressure. The athlete must be emotionally strong, having the ability to exert and resist great force and keep striving for victory under pressure. Lastly, the athlete must be emotionally resilient, by bouncing back quickly from mistakes. These abilities can be learned. The best way to improve as an athlete is to recognize weaknesses, and practice correcting them. (Loehr, 1994)

The balance of stress and recovery are another component that affects an athlete. In our terms, stress is anything that takes energy, and recovery is anything that restores energy. There are three types: physical, mental and emotional. Stress can be from running, jumping and moving (physical), focusing, problem solving and thinking (mental) or anger, fear, depression and frustration (emotional). Recovery can be eating, drinking and sleeping (mental), decreasing focus and increasing fantasy and creativity (mental), or relief, positive feelings, fun and self-esteem (emotional). All three types of stress are interconnected. Excess in one area can affect all three. (Hatfield, 2004) This is why a balance is needed between stress and recovery. An athlete must push him/herself in order to grow in all three areas, but must also allow time for adequate recovery.

Reaching the Zone

Reaching the zone, which is also referred to as “flow,” is the most rewarding feeling for an athlete. There are several defining characteristics. First, it requires the ability to perform all necessary skills for a specific sport simultaneously. Second, there must be a merging of action and awareness. Third, goals must be clearly defined, which basically means knowing the sport and the game plan. Next, the athlete must receive clear feedback from coaches and teammates. Then, there must be a sense of control without trying. There will be a loss of self-awareness, as well as a loss of time awareness. The end result is referred to as an autotelic experience, a self-contained activity done simply because the activity itself is the reward. (Cox.1998)

It is in the zone that optimal levels of performance can be experienced. If an athlete can attain and maintain this state, the perfect game may be in his/her hands.

My Personal Journey

For me, the mental aspect of sports has been somewhat of a roller coaster ride. Naturally being a highly competitive individual, I learned early on that I was destined to be a jock. In my younger years, my extreme competitiveness and aggressiveness was a double-edged sword. I often fouled out of basketball games, and even got into a few scuffles during soccer games. My temper would rage when the ball was not bouncing my way.

Eventually I learned to curve my temper, and I found a sport that fit my personality, football. At first I was unaware of the psychological aspects of the sports. During games, it all seemed the same to me. The only thing I knew is that I would do anything to win. It was the mental preparation aspect that always troubled me. After a few seasons, I decided that I needed to obtain a certain mental state before the game to optimize my performance. Right before we hit the field, I would think about all of the things that angered me, and would work myself up to a state of rage. Sometimes this strategy would benefit (when it did, it was short lasting), and other times I would play out of control.

It wasn’t until my senior year of football that I really began to focus on mental strategies. Before each game, I needed to reach the most gratifying mental state: the zone. My body would feel loose and powerful. I would react without thinking about moving. I would have an intense focus on the task at hand. Lastly, my emotions would be under control, but ready to explode at any minute, in other words, a controlled rage.

Through trial and error, I found that there were a few things that I could do to reach the zone. The morning of the game, I would be sure to wake up with a little bit of anger. Throughout the day I would carry an edgy demeanor. I would avoid having conversations with people, and would stay relatively low key. As the game approached, I would gradually focus my thoughts. I would visualize myself doing my assignments. When we hit the locker room, I would find a quiet corner and listen to music. During warm-ups my focus would shift to my body. I ensured that every joint and muscle was as prepared as possible for the battle ahead. During the game, my mind would naturally focus solely on the game. I noticed that my pre-game anxiousness would usually subside after the opening kickoff. I would keep myself focused mainly on my assignment, but was always conscious of the game time, down and distance, and what the opposing team was doing. I can vividly remember many altercations I had with teammates and opposing players, but I would could completely lose consciousness of external events.

Looking back, I cannot remember ever hearing the crowd, the band or the announcer. During the game I was usually very critical of my performance. I would usually talk to myself, referring to myself in third person. If I did something good, I would yell out “ that a baby, that’s the way you play.” I would also yell at myself if I made a mistake. A few times I got into trouble with referees for yelling out profanities. I would also yell at myself if I felt lax, or if I felt I was losing focus. After big games, I could remember being emotionally drained. A few times I could not even put together sentences because of the amount of physical and emotional stress I had endured. Looking back, I now realize that most of the emotional stress was self-inflicted.

After researching this topic, I have come to realize that I had many weaknesses in my psychological approach to sports. My main struggle had to do with dealing with failure. I had always considered myself a mentally tough athlete, but according to the definition, I am not completely resilient. I was never good at forgetting a mistake. Instead, I would become angry, and my arousal level would become so high that I would sometimes focus on causing physical harm to my opponent, and lose sight of my assignment. Fortunately this strategy worked a few times, for I would become more physically imposing than usual, but other times it got me into trouble.

I also wish I had understood the concept of arousal level. I always thought that the more fired up I was, that the better I would perform. Looking back, I can recall a few instances in which my intense focus led to disaster. In a game against our cross-town rivals, I became extremely aroused after having made a big hit. The next play I was so focused on stopping another run play, that I forgot about the receiver I was covering, and he caught a ball over my head for a first down. If I had broadened my focus, it would have been an easy stop. Overall, I can relate my experience fairly closely to the material I have researched. I had never thought about game mentality in terms of something that could be studied. However, reading through the concepts was an enlightening experience; many of my theories had been confirmed, and the reason for many of my struggles became clear.

The contents of this essay described several aspects of sports psychology. Topics included memory as it relates to athletic performance, anxiety types and intensity of anxiety, arousal levels and focus, the benefit of selective attention, refocusing, defining mental toughness, balancing stress and recovery, defining components of “the zone,” and lastly my personal experience with the mental aspects of sports. Like any other scientific field, sports psychology is ever changing. What may hold true today is susceptible to revision at any time. What is without question, however, is the impact that mental state and emotion can have on an athlete’s performance.

Works Cited

Cox, R.J. (1998). Sport Psychology, Concepts and Applications. St. Louis: McGraw Hill Hatfield, F.C. (2004). Fitness, the Complete Guide. Carpenteria, CA: Txul-157-866 Frederick C. Hatfield

Huang, C. & Lynch J. (1992). Thinking Body, Dancing Mind. Bantam Books: New York

Loehr, J.E. (1994). The New Toughness Training for Sports. Dutton Books: New York

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