In my continuing rant about how movies these days don’t compare to the ones I grew up with…allow me to introduce For the Love of the Game. This classic baseball movie is second only to Field of Dreams in Kevin Costner’s movie resume. The premise is an aging pitcher named Billy Chapel dealing with a whole bunch of stuff as he is reaching the end of his career. While he is in the midst of pitching a no hitter, he is flashing back over different scenarios in his life. Romance, recovering from a bad injury, and lots of other stuff is floating through his head. Then comes one of the critical moments of the movie, in my opinion. He takes the mound and prepares to throw; takes a deep breath, and tells himself:
“Clear the Mechanism”
Suddenly the crowd noise disappears, and he sees only the catcher’s mitt as his target. It is a great representation of what a moment “in the zone” is like. I have experienced a lot of moments like this on the court and in other activities. It is amazing, and as an athlete it is moments like this that you live for. Everything is quiet in your head, you are singularly focused on the task at hand. There is no concern for the immediate future, there is no dwelling on the past. There is here and now and nothing else. You are immersed in that moment in time, that activity, focused on only what is necessary to achieve the result. In most cases, getting out of our own way is the secret to performance under pressure.
For me personally, it is like being in The Matrix; everything is slower, it is as if I have a deeper understanding of things relative to what is going on. Like I have the only advanced copy of the script. I am bigger than normal, larger than life. Tasks that I sometimes struggle with I now do with ease. Whether it is playing racquetball, which is one of the fastest sports in the world, or fly fishing, which is a calm and serene pursuit, the feeling is the same. And it is addicting, believe me. THE ZONE…That state of mind is what people pursue in lots of different formats; yoga, meditation, illicit drugs, skydiving, and many others. In my opinion, it is the epitome of the human experience.
How do you achieve this state of mind? Well, that is a tough question. Obviously everyone is different; some have had this happen and want to experience it more often, others have yet to have a moment in time like this. I can tell you what worked for me, and maybe that will be a good place to start. First things first, you have to be prepared, physically, mentally and emotionally, for the task at hand. As a Pro Racquetball player, I knew without a doubt, that I was physically prepared at all times. I worked very hard on and off the court to be ready for tournaments. Mentally I streamlined my life to focus primarily on this as my job, and everything else aligned behind that. This singular focus makes a lot of decisions easier, and limits the distractions. Emotionally I was ready to win, ready for the battle, willing to fight to the bitter end.
In preparation for a match, I had a specific routine that helped set the tone for what I was about to do. Whether it was a match I expected to cruise through, or someone I knew would really test me, I did the same thing every time. It was time to go to work, and I prepared accordingly. I listened to the same song or maybe couple of songs at the most, while I rode the exercise bike, jumped rope and stretched out. Aenima by TOOL is not a happy, cheery song, it is dark and heavy and intense to say the least. But it got my mind in the right competitive mode so I could go do my thing. I still get chills listening to it today, and my Pro Racquetball career ended twenty years ago. That song is embedded in my mind and my soul.
As soon as I could get on the court, I would walk around the floor and feel the court with my feet. I would listen and feel for creaky spots in the wood, dead spots that might affect the bounce of the ball, etc.
Since I traveled all over the US for tournaments, I frequently found myself on a court I had never played on before. Even though every racquetball court has the same dimensions, they ALL have their own feel, and I wanted to immerse myself into that little microcosm of a world as best I could. I would start hitting forehands, going through a specific routine of shots before moving over to the backhand side and repeating the process. With the song blasting in my ears, I would be breaking a sweat and peaking in my physical readiness just at the match was starting. The key to me sliding into the Zone was really two things from this point forward:
- Not OVERdoing it in the beginning, allowing the adrenaline get the best of me.
- Making some good shots but not OVERreacting to them, playing to the crowd, showing off, etc.
I needed to stay contained within myself, focused inward and not outward. The better job I did of focusing on the very next thing I need to do, the better chance I had of finding my way into my optimal performance zone…into the Matrix. I need to focus on the NEXT THING, not worry about what just happened, or what is about to happen next. Just. Right. Now…that is all that matters. While none of the above is a guarantee for a trip into The Zone, you are increasing your chances of it by having a set routine and following it religiously.
Interestingly, this is exactly what I do in sales now. Playing Pro Racquetball was the perfect precursor to my sales career. Today, I travel around to different cities, I have about 60-90 minutes to go execute my craft in front of people I’ve never met before. I need to be on my game, ready to perform, and when my time arrives, I have to be warmed up and ready to hit the ground running. Sometimes I am up on stage in front of a large crowd, and the adrenaline is flowing. I need to stay in control, don’t overreact to get off track by interacting with the crowd too much. I follow a tried and true routine, trusting it is the right approach for the task at hand. When it is done, I fly home, do more work, polish, and prepare for the next time.
I have had many moments in The Zone in sales meetings too. I want to be fully engaged with the people I am speaking with; I want to listen with undivided attention, focus on the task at hand, and in a controlled manner, execute the plan as I bend things in the direction I want them to go. It is a very suitable substitute for the feelings I used to get through racquetball. Many an athlete struggles to ever find a pursuit that comes close to replacing the feelings they used to get from their sport; I consider myself very lucky that I get that out of my job.
So the takeaways out of this blog are going to be very different for whoever reads it. You’ll have to fill in the blank spots and tweak this to fit your life and your pursuit(s). But there is some magic to be found in the basics and the routine. You have to be properly prepared, that is a given. Then, you need a routine to follow to help get your body and mind integrated, and in the right place to execute. As your learn to still your mind among the chaos going on around you, the Zone will go from a nebulous term to a more and more familiar destination.
I wish you luck in your pursuits.