Article written by Danny Takacs
What is it the ideal performance state?
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” (Baechle & Earle, 2008).
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 athletic performance come together perfectly.
According to Baechle and Earle (2008), the ideal performance state is characterized by the following:
The complete absence of fear and supreme confidence
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 athlete must trust in his or her skill levels and “let it happen” naturally.
How to Reach it
Was there ever a time during a competition 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 a gold medal and no medal at all.
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 athlete. 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.
When speaking in terms of athletics, visualization is the art of using mental imagery to create a complete mental experience of an athletic 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).
Ilya Ilyin, one of the best Olympic weightlifters of all time, has stated in multiple interviews that he visualizes each competition in thorough detail months in advance. In doing so, he feels that he has already lifted the weights he is attempting by the time he actually gets on the platform.
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 sport skills. With this in mind, it’s easy to see how practicing visualization can help an athlete reach his or her 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. This is why 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 athlete (Baechle & Earle, 2008).
Of course, life isn’t only about athletics. Getting in the zone doesn’t only have to refer to athletic competition. Professionals can apply the information above to improve their game on the job. 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? Try visualizing 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.