Walter Payton is widely regarded as one of the best running backs to ever play in the NFL. With 16,726 rushing yards and over 100 total touchdowns it’s easy to see why. Known for his dazzling stutter-steps and crushing stiff-arms, Payton amazed audiences with his performances.
When asked about his on-field feats of athleticism, Payton had this to say:
“When I’m on the field, sometimes I don’t know what I am doing out there. People ask me about this move or that move, but I don’t know why I did something. I just did it. I am able to focus out the negative things around me and just zero in on what I am doing out there.”
The athletic automaticity that he spoke of is what sport scientists call the ideal performance state, or what the general public commonly refers to as being “in the zone.”
This is when all of the physical, psychological, tactical, and technical components of a performance come together perfectly.
According to Baechle and Earle (2008), the ideal performance state is characterized by the following:
- Supreme confidence and the complete absence of fear.
- An absence of performance analysis.
- A narrowed focus/concentration on only the activity.
- The sense of effortlessness and personal control.
- The distortion of time and space, or events happening in “slow motion.”
The key to reaching this state is avoiding all negative interference, whether it’s internal self-doubt or an external factor, such as crowd noise. The individual must trust in his or her skill levels and let it happen naturally.
Getting in the Zone
Was there ever a time during a competition or performance when everything seemed to click for you? A time when everything felt smooth and automatic?
If not, knowing the characteristics of the ideal performance state can help with achieving it when needed. Positive self-talk, narrowed attention on the task at hand, and confidence in your abilities can put you in the right mindset.
Although being your own cheerleader in your head may sound cheesy, it could be the difference between your best performance or your worst.
If there was a time where you felt like you were in the zone, what were the circumstances surrounding it? Was there a certain playlist you listened to beforehand? Were there specific phrases that you repeated in your head? Was there a particular meal that you ate? Recognizing these factors and developing a pre-competition ritual can help you tap into that state of mind each time.
It’s important to note that attaining the ideal performance state will be different for each individual person. Identify the trends and patterns that work best for you. Reflect upon prior successes and failures to uncover the things that enhance and detract from your performance. Build upon the factors that help you and destroy the ones that don’t.
Visualization is the art of using mental imagery to create a complete mental experience of a given performance. When visualizing athletic success, “the athlete simulates reality by mentally rehearsing a movement, imagining visual, auditory, kinesthetic, olfactory, and even exertion cues” (Baechle & Earle, 2008).
The key is to mentally rehearse everything, not just the sights. The sounds, smells, series of events, etc. are equally important. US Olympic team sports psychologist Nicole Detling states, “The more an athlete can imagine the entire package, the better it’s going to be” (Clarey, 2014).
It may seem obvious, but it’s also imperative that your visualization features you successfully completing the given task. Failing a task during mental rehearsal sets you up for failure on stage. Detling recommends that if your imagery goes awry, stop and restart until success is achieved (Clarey, 2014).
Meta-analytical reviews of visualization literature provide convincing evidence for the effectiveness of visualization in enhancing sport skill (Baechle & Earle, 2008). When visualization is practiced on a regular basis, it can improve an athlete’s confidence in their athletic abilities.
With this in mind, it’s easy to see how practicing visualization can help you reach your ideal performance state.
The Arousal-Performance Relationship
There are multiple theories that explain the relationship between mental arousal and athletic performance. One such theory is the Inverted-U theory, which states that mental arousal facilitates performance up to an optimal level, beyond which further arousal increases are associated with a decrease in performance.
This theory is helpful for athletes and coaches because it can help them obtain control of and understand the appropriate level of arousal needed for the individual athlete. The athlete’s skill level, complexity of the task, and athlete’s personality all play a part in reaching the optimal level of arousal that leads to the ideal performance state.
For less skilled athletes, the optimal arousal point is lower than for those with higher skill levels. Knowing this, coaches and athletes should lower arousal and limit decision-making for unseasoned individuals to prevent attention overload.
Complex tasks that require conscious decision-making are most concerning when it comes to finding the optimal arousal level. This is because the action can become altered and inefficient if it is thought about too much due to changed neural sequencing. Simpler skills can handle higher levels of arousal because they require less task-relevant cues.
An athlete’s personality also has an effect on the arousal-performance relationship. Extroverted individuals typically need more mental stimulation than introverts. Therefore, it’s important for coaches to know the personalities of their athletes so that they can provide the correct type and amount of motivation for each individual (Baechle & Earle, 2008).
Applications for Strength Athletes
The literature shows that visualization has a positive influence on strength development (Munroe-Chandler & Guerrero, 2017). Taking this into account, it would be wise for any barbell athlete to implement a mental rehearsal practice as part of their program.
However, we need to remember that the ideal performance state can be different for everybody. Just like with training, what works for one lifter may not work for another. This is particularly important for coaches to consider.
The key is finding your ideal performance state. Just because your training partner inhales a pack of ammonia and blares Cannibal Corpse before a PR attempt doesn’t mean you need to.
Of course, life isn’t only about athletics. Getting in the zone doesn’t need to be exclusive to your next powerlifting meet or football game.
Musicians, for example, have reported improved performance when physical instrument practice is coupled with visualization. Further, studies have shown that medical students can improve surgical skill acquisition and decrease performance stress with imagery intervention (Munroe-Chandler & Guerrero, 2017).
Virtually any profession can be enhanced with the above information. Have a job where you give frequent presentations? Find your ideal performance state for that. Need a confidence boost to ask for a raise or interview for a new job? Visualize it in the days leading up to it.
Set your mind up for success and let your body follow.
Baechle, T. R., & Earle, R. W. (2008). Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning (3rd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Clarey, C. Olympians Use Imagery as Mental Training. The New York Times. February 22, 2014.
Munroe-Chandler, K. J., & Guerrero, M.D. Psychological Imagery in Sport and Performance. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Psychology. Oxford University Press; 2017.