How do athletes find that transcendent place commonly referred to as ‘The Zone’? Sports psychologist Alex Titkov talks about how sports teams worldwide are embracing both science and spirituality to enhance their athlete’s performance capacity.
Like many concepts, mental toughness or mental resilience vary in definition, but one way to look at this concept is through the ability of an athlete to regulate their own mind and body (thoughts, feelings, emotions, & body sensations) and the environmental stimuli around them (teammates & opponents, missed opportunities, stadium atmosphere, etc.).
The best of the best, whether it’s Zinedine Zidane or Michael Jordan, are not immune to pressure or anxiety but rather are better adapt at concentration on the task at hand by accepting internal and external distractions as normal, by not giving them any more added value than a mediocre or well-performed pass or a compliment from a teammate.
When an athlete can keep all these processes in perspective, on even keel, the is then better able to enter the coveted “zone” where athletic execution is effortless and as free-flowing as the current of a stream. We are thus, as spectators, permitted witness to spectacles of sheer brilliance. From free-kicks that challenge the laws of physics to dazzling feints by Ronaldo and precision passing by Barcelona, spectators and athletes alike revel in these moments.
So how is Sport Science facilitating the gateway into “the zone”?
Currently, there are several ways that players can increase their focus levels: through personal use of techniques like mindfulness meditation and with the assistance of technology at certain sport centres.
Mindfulness Through Meditation
Mindfulness meditation is currently the water-cooler conversation piece in the health and well-being sector with numerous physical and psychological health benefits. Many of its principles are typically related to the concepts of Zen Buddhism and many athletes are getting back in touch with this ancient practice.
Mindfulness fosters concentration by focusing on a certain point in the present moment. Typically, this begins with focusing on the feelings of the inhalation and exhalation of the breath via the feelings of the abdomen expanding and collapsing, air entering and exiting the body while keeping an objective awareness of any thoughts or emotions entering the mind and allowing them to freely come and go like clouds in the sky. Later on, this can be expanded to the warm-up where the focus is on feelings of stretching and then to the environment; taking in the surroundings through all the senses.
The Success of Phil Jackson
A notable example of these principles has been with the successful coaching of the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers by Phil Jackson. Jackson emphasised these practices in a sport permeated with big egos and vast differences in salaries. Through mindful practice, the individual separates themselves from distracting thoughts and feelings, and they are encourage to foster a greater sense of empathy for themselves and the people around them whether it be teammates or opponents.
This facilitates a great focus on the player’s game rather than the individual and they are able to make the best possible play in that moment. Jackson went a step further by incorporating a sense of belonging by all the players (not just focusing on Jordan) by using an on-court strategy that allowed all the players to be involved and a touch on the ball which he goes into greater depth in his national bestseller “Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior”.
Sport Science Facilities
Football has also embraced these principles with the assistance of modern sport science technology. AC Milan’s MilanLab has long been an interdisciplinary research center with a person-centered approach regarding not only performance but also health and well-being. Sport Psychologist Bruno Demichelis is credited with emphasizing the use of their ‘MindRoom’ which utilizes bio and neurofeedback to monitor various states of the athletes.
One such exercise involves a guided meditation of several players (much like in mindfulness meditation) which relaxes them as their heart rates and brain waves are monitored. After this, the players are then exposed to images and video of unsuccessful performances while being instructed to maintain steady breathing and thus a lowered heart rate that not only helps in conserving energy but maintaining focus on the pitch.
Demichelis is credited with helping AC Milan players overcome their anxieties and worries against Liverpool in their 2007 Champions League final and would then bring these techniques to Chelsea FC under then manager Carlo Ancelloti. The ‘MindRoom’ has also been adopted by other teams like Real Madrid FC, the Canadian Olympic Team and the Vancouver Canucks of the NHL.
The overall benefits of these techniques in improving not only performance but also general health and well-being, overshadow traditional psychological skills training in sport. The beauty of this mindful-focus approach is that even if a club can’t afford a ‘MindRoom’, these techniques can still be easily administered by a trained mindfulness instructor and thus be an easy, cost-effective, and ultimately welcome addition to any sport club.
Adapted from an article by Alex Titkov, a sports psychologist in Sport and Exercise Psychology at Lund University, Sweden. Performance consultant, editor, writer, Titkov has also been a footballer in the Swedish 5th division.