A Sports Psychologist’s Experience and Perspective
By Othon Kesend, PhD and Sports Psychologist, Boulder, Colorado
Parallel Mode and The Zone
Athlete’s hunger for it once they hear about it, and especially once they experience it. To sport psychologists it is the Holy Grail of sport performance. They wish they could bottle and administer it to all their clients.
It’s an elusive and profound state, for many a spiritual experience, where the mind/body enter a higher state of harmonious functioning. It is most commonly known as “The Zone” and less commonly as “Flow.”
David Meggyesy, former NFL player, provides this description, “The zone is the essence of the athletic experience, and those moments of going beyond yourself are the underlying allure of sport.” (Cooper, 1998, p 25)
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who first coined the term “flow” and is the first to research it as well as it’s foremost expert, and Susan Jackson, who has also done in-depth research on the flow state, list these elements as the components of “the zone”:
1. Challenge and skills balance
2. Action-awareness merging
3. Clear goals
4. Unambiguous feedback
5. Concentration on the task at hand
6. Sense of Control
7. Loss of self-consciousness
8. Transformation of time
9. Autotelic experience
(Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1999, p.16)
Andrew Cooper, in his book “Playing In The Zone” lists these characteristics:
1. Deep concentration
2. Highly efficient performance
3. Heightened sense of mastery
4. Lack of self-consciousness
(Cooper, 1998, p. 21)
Listing these elements without going into a thorough conceptual description of each may leave you at a loss as to what they involve, but there is not the space in this article to provide such a description. Even so such an intellectual description would not convey the depth, breath, and richness of this experience.
Better yet, here are some personal accounts by athletes who have had the good fortune of playing in the zone.
Bill Russell, in his autobiography, Second Wind, writes: Every so often a Celtic game would heat up so that it became more than a physical or even mental game, and would be magical. That feeling is difficult to describe, and I certainly never talked about it when I was playing. When it happened I could feel my play rise to a new level… At that special level all sorts of odd things happened… It was almost as if we were playing in slow motion.
During those spells I could almost sense how the next play would develop and where the next shot would be taken. Even before the other team brought the ball in bounds, I could feel it so keenly that I’d want to shout to my teammates, “It’s coming there!”- except that I knew everything would change if I did. Mypremonitions would be consistently correct, and I always felt then that I not only knew all the Celtics by heart but also all the opposing players, and that they all knew me. There have been many times when I felt moved or joyful, but these were the moments when I had chills pulsing up and down my spine.
These spells were fragile. A bad call, a poor play, an injury, or some other minor disturbance might be enough to break the rhythm. When the spell broke, Russell always experienced a let down, because there was nothing he could do to bring it back. Like grace, such moments came when they came, and all he could do was play his best and hope. But while in the midst of it, the sense was, ‘This is it. I want to keep it going.’ (Cooper, 1998, pp. 22-23)
In her autobiography, Billie Jean, the tennis great Billie Jean King describes the same territory: It’s a perfect combination of… violent action taking place in an atmosphere of total tranquillity…. When it happens I want to stop the match and grab the microphone and shout, “That’s what it’s all about.” Because it is. It’s not the big prize I’m going to win at the end of the match, or anything else. It’s just having done something that’s totally pure and having experienced the perfect emotion, and I’m always sad that I can’t communicate that feeling right at the moment it’s happening. I can only hope people realize what’s going on.(Cooper, 1998, pp. 22-23)
The British Golfer Tony Jacklin would on occasion find himself in what he described as “cocoon of concentration”:When I’m in this state, this cocoon of concentration, I’m living fully in the present, not moving out of it. I’m aware of every inch of my swing…I’m absolutely engaged, involved in what I’m doing at that particular moment. That’s the important thing. That’s the difficult state to arrive at. It comes and it goes, and the pure fact that you go out on the first tee of a tournament and say, “I must concentrate today,” is no good. It won’t work. It has to already be there.(Cooper,1998, p. 34)
In his autobiography, My Life and the Beautiful Game, soccer genius Peleremembers a day when he experienced a strange calmness unlike anything he had ever experienced before: It was a type of euphoria. I felt I could run all day without tiring, that I could dribble through any of their team or all of them, that I could almost pass through them physically. I felt I could not be hurt. It was a very strange feeling and one I had not felt before. Perhaps it was merely confidence, but I have felt confident many times without that strange feeling of invincibility.(Cooper, 1998, p. 34)
The great Russian weight lifter Yuri Vlasov speaks in a similar vein in describing “the precious, white moment of athletic excellence.”
At the peak of tremendous and victorious effort, while the blood is pounding in your head, all suddenly becomes quiet within you. Everything seems clearer and whiter than ever before, as if great spotlights had been turned on. At that moment you have the conviction that you contain all the power in the world, that you are capable of everything, that you have wings. There is no more precious moment in life than this, the white moment, and you will work very hard for years just to taste it again.(Cooper, 1998, p. 35)
Allen Iverson, after scoring 52 points in the 2001 NBA playoffs, said: “To me (the basket) looked like the ocean.”
Baseball player John Olerud reported, “When things are going well there seems to be more time to react to a pitch. And it doesn’t matter what that pitch is. It just feels like you have more time to react.”
Cooper, 1998, p. 36)
One of my clients, an all-state high school basketball player, described to me his experience as he stepped to the foul line for two shots with 10 seconds left in a tied game for the State championship. He said that he felt totally calm and confident. He was unaware of the noisy packed crowd in the NBA arena where the game was played. He said it felt like there was a string connecting him to the basket. In this pressure packed situation he felt no pressure. He hit the winning shots. He fulfilled a boyhood dream.
Another client, a female Olympic mountain bike racer told me of her experiences when riding was totally effortless.
Many of the qualities of the zone described in these quotes reflect those listed by Csikszentmihalyi, Jackson and Cooper: “profound joy, acute intuition (which at times feels like precognition), a feeling of effortlessness in the midst of intense exertion, a sense of the action taking place in slow motion, feelings of awe and perfection, increased mastery, self-transcendence, heightened concentration, calmness,confidence, perceptual enhancement.
(Cooper, 1998, p.33)
As is evident in these quotes, these athletes, in their description of their experience, ascribe to a variety of zone qualities but not to all at once. That is not to say that at times they weren’t all going on, the one’s described may have overshadowed the others in some cases.
Yet of greatest significance is that even these descriptions may not convey to “the reader the depth and intensity of a feeling of power verging on the mystical, a kind of spiritual power experienced by these athletes”. (Cooper, 1998, p34)
At this highest and most profound level of experience, Bart Giamottidescribes <i?>a moment when we are all free of all constraints of all kinds, when pure energy and pure order create an instant of complete coherence.” (Cooper, 1998, p. 36)</i?>
The rower Michael Filippone says, “it’s like a higher level, being perfectly in the moment, a phenomenal feeling, a spiritual feeling. It becomes effortless to work hard. That’s the most precious thing in the sport.”(Cooper, 1998, pp. 36-37)
As a sport psychologist and an ultra distance runner I have been in search of the key(s) to the zone for many years both for my clients and myself. I have been on a practicing spiritual path for over 25 years, and during that time have also studied and practiced a profound system of holistic healing. Yet with all this background I have not found the key to entering the zone at will.
In fact, as far as I know, no athlete, sport psychologist, teacher, or coach, except for one (more on this later) has known how to enter the zone at will.
I have been in this altered state of consciousness. When I go into nature and meditate often I will enter a state which contains qualities of the zone: a calmness, a heightened awareness of myself and the environment, a sense of transcendence, a harmony or oneness within myself and as a part of nature on a level of spirit, but this is all achieved in stillness.
There have been two times which stand out for me as experiences of being in the zone during physical activity. The first occurred when a friend and myself were on the other side of a narrow river canyon in a remote area of New Mexico, several milesupstream from our campsite, as darkness approached. We returned through the gorge moving over and around boulders, wading and swimming – I moved through the darkness effortlessly, my body flowed as if I was the river. I was sure-footed and sure-handed,my body knew what to do each moment. My concentration was present in each moment. I felt as one with my body and with the environment I moved through. I was filled with energy, and I felt a heightened sense of consciousness of my experience.
The second time was during the last 24 miles of the Leadville Trail 100 Foot Race, about 19 to 20 hours into the event. I entered a state in which I felt energized, despite my fatigue. I was able to easily be aware of and regulate my state of relaxation internally and muscularly, thus making it possible for me to stay right on the edge of performing optimally. On this edge I stayed open to and acutely felt the invisible energies available in nature. In this state of openness I was able to continuously feed off of this energy and fortuitously pass twenty-seven people in these last twenty-four miles.
The common theme in both these experiences was a sense of urgency in the challenge: the first being a threat, to some degree, to my physical well being; and the second, the challenge of a hundred mile race.
This theme is also representative of Csikszentmihalyi and Jackson’s first characteristic: a challenge for which my skills were sufficient although challenged.
To this day, several years later, I can physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually recall these experiences. They were exhilarating – a joy unto themselves.
I experience degrees of this at times doing a sport, especially running and at times I have felt different qualities, individually and in combination, of being in the zone, such as afluidity that was effortless; an openness to the invisible energies of nature; a calmness; a feeling of harmony within myself and with the environment; and a heightened sense ofawareness of myself and nature in which I can feel the subtleties of my energy and movement and one in which my surroundings appear lit up.
I even have, through the use of various practices and focuses, been able to more predictably enter these spaces, but I have spent many years working with these techniques for my self-development both in stillness and during physical activity.
All of this has contributed to whatever abilities I have developed in being able to open myself to these experiences.
Parallel Mode: Entering The Zone at Will.
The zone has been a state that athletes have not been able to enter at will. The array of mind/body training techniques and perspectives practiced by athletes and taught by sport psychologists serve to increase the possibility of achieving a zone state, but they do not guarantee it.
Rick Wolfe, a sport psychologist quoted in AndrewCooper’s Playing in the Zone says in response to the question: how do you get in the zone?… “If I knew that I’d be a millionaire many times over.” (Cooper, 1998, p. 37)
Some sport psychologists take the approach that it happens when it happens. Others take the approach of developing mind/body training systems to hopefully make it more predictable.
Susan Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi in Flow in Sports say “It is not possible to make flow happen at will and attempting to do so will only make the state more elusive. However, removing obstacles and providing facilitating conditions will increase its occurrence.” (Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi, 1999, p 138)
Well, we now are entering a new dimension in sport. Someone has discovered the key that opens the door to the zone.
Let me tell you my part in this story. In the fall of 2000 I was reading a column in the sport section of the Denver Rocky Mountain News titled: Get in the zone? These guys can put you there.
Columnist Sam Adams reported being invited to “spend some time in the zone” by tennis pro Scott Ford. Adams took him up on his offer and says “When Ford told me he could put me ‘in the zone’, I didn’t believe it – especially because I had never played tennis before. Well, within ten minutes, I did realize a focus and concentration that allowed me to hit balls with Ford at decent speeds.”
Adams went on to report that Ford had teamed up with Dr. William Hines, the team ophthalmologist for the Colorado Avalanche, Denver Broncos and Denver Nuggets, and they had recently presented their theories and technique for entering the zone at will to the 2000 Pre-Olympic Sports Science Congress in Australia. Needless to say, I had to know more. Had the Holy Grail really been discovered?
I tracked down Scott Ford’s phone number and gave him a call. I met an incredibly wonderful and generous man on the other end of the line. Scott told me that he had accidentally discovered the technique about twenty years ago during a tennis match when he was trying to get his timing right.
He said it was something that needed to be experienced rather than described. So I made an appointment to learn to play tennis in the zone.
My experience with tennis is only slightly more advanced than Sam Adams. I have played some but very intermittently and not for many, many years. When I met with Scott we went right to it. He put me on the court, gave me the zone visual focus and we started hitting balls.
Within ten minutes I was in the zone!
I was in an altered state of performance. I was in an extremely high state of focus, I felt calm and in the present. Even though the situation was ripe for me to be self-conscious and thinking about what I was doing, I was totally with the task in each moment. I was hitting the ball and moving better than I had ever experienced before playing tennis.
Subsequent lessons served to reinforce the power of what Scott was teaching me. I always entered the zone.
During one of my early lessons Scott and I had a 62-ball volley. Scott asked me if the ball seemed like it was moving very fast. I answered no. I felt I had plenty of time to play the ball almost anywhere on the court. He said that in fact he was hitting pretty hard.
I work with the Metro State College Tennis Team in Denver. I brought the coach in for a lesson from Scott. He also experienced the difference immediately. He then stayed to watch my lesson and later said that I was doing things on the court that usually take months to learn.
An added bonus of being in this state is that you learn quite quickly and easily. When Scott began teaching me some tennis skills I picked them up surprisingly fast, much faster than it usually takes me to learn. So when learning a sport, or for that matter anything, by using this technique you can optimize your ability to learn.
After the first lesson Scott and I talked for a long time. He told me about his experience the day he discovered this technique. He said in order to make contact with the ball at the optimum contact zone he visualized an invisible shield that stretched across the court in front of him and was placed at the contact zone for the ball.
He then focused on the imaginary shield, rather than on the ball. All at once his timing got dead on, his game elevated and he experienced himself in the zone.
His tennis partner asked him what just happened. Scott told him to try what he was doing and his partner also entered the zone. Scott found out that he could do this any time he wanted.
Scott told me that he experimented with this continually. Playing tennis using this focus and then not using it. He always played in the zone by using it, and when he played the way he had been taught, his game was never at the same level.
Scott has a scientist in him. He had to know why this technique worked. He began observing and studying everything he could about the eyes, vision, and the brain. He has spent the past twenty years doing this research. In a nutshell this visualtechnique, Scott calls Parallel Mode, engages the right hemisphere of the brain so that the person is performing in a whole brain state.
This significant increase in brain power, our control and operating system, integrates and optimizes all levels ofperformance – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.
When an athlete enters the zone there is a shift in their visual focus to a peripheral and fixed focus. It seems nobody has been aware enough of this change to make the connection between how we use our eyes and being in the zone.
If you recall the quote by Allen Iverson when he said the basket looked like an ocean, there was a picture of him accompanying the quote in the newspaper. In this picture his eyes were open extremely wide and his focus was fixed in space.
During the recent NHL Stanley Cup finals, Colorado Avalanche goalie Patrick Roy’s eyes were also opened very wide and seemed to be fixed in space.
During the playoffs many sports commentators said that Roy was playing on his head, a hockey term for playing in the zone.
The validity of Scott’s discovery has led two of the foremost experts in sport vision to join with Scott to disseminate this knowledge: Dr. William Hines (who I mentioned before) and Darlene Kluka, Ph.D., a professor at Grambling State University.
I have spent years studying and observing my own and my client’s experiences of performing in an altered state of consciousness. My studies have exposed me to the fact that there are types of music and sound that will put a person in a whole brain state.
There are high tech machines now available that re-circuit the brain for enhanced performance. Yet in most sports you can’t take the music with you. I don’t believe its clear yet whether these high tech machines actually enable you to learn to enter the zone at will.
We have all been blessed with eyes and the power of vision. Our eyes are always with us. By learning to use them in a new way you can enter and perform in the zone by choice, not chance.
It is possible to access the zone using similar techniques with other of our senses, good news for those athletes with impaired eyesight or those for example who are kinesthetically dominant vs. visually dominant.
An aspect of Scott’s research was to understand how this fixed-visual focus enabled one to be in the absolute present. His immersion in this research led him to an insight about being in the present. He presented this insight to the time-space scientists at NORAD in Colorado Springs, Colorado and to use the colloquialism, they were blown away. Scott had actually come up with a mathematically verifiable understanding of the relationship between past, present and future that was totally new to these scientists. It explained how this focus enabled a person to play their sport in the moment.
Scott and I hit it off really well. We felt each other to be kindred spirits. We both recognized the implications of what he had discovered not only for sports performance, but also for humanity in general.
Here was a way that people could engage a whole brain state that promoted well-being on every level. Both of us being spiritually inclined also recognized the transcendent aspects of this state.
I asked Scott’s permission to teach Parallel Mode. Looking to find people of like mind to bring this to humanity, initially through the sport world, he was very pleased to have me aboard.
I had already started to figure out how to adapt the Parallel Mode focus for running. I did this the day after my first tennis lesson. I was able to enter the zone while running and have continued to experiment with it. I find I am much more in the present and this is especially noticeable for me on my long runs of up to four hours.
I also experience a heightened sense of awareness of myself and everything around me when I used this Parallel Mode focus. This is especially exciting because when I’m on trails I’m able to look up and around and due to an expanded state of awareness my body responds easily to objects on the trail. In this state of heightened awareness I feel connected to the spirit of nature. I get relaxed and it’s usually easier to run.
Another thing that occurs is my mind and body feel unified and harmonized and I have increased sensitivity. I’m thinking, but my mind and body are calm and feel whole.
In this Parallel Mode state I’m not jumping from one thought to another or visually from one object in the environment to another. In other words, I experience the parts of the whole but they are all connected and I feel and am aware of them as a whole.
I am simultaneously aware of what’s occurring internally and externally, for example, I am aware of how individual parts of my body are moving at the same time while also experiencing them as a whole working together.
In addition, a Parallel Mode state is a state of whole awareness which enables me to make very quick adjustments energetically or with my running form. I compare this integrated state to the power and focus of a laser. There are no parts of ourselves working at cross-purposes and this creates an incredible experience of focus, power and mastery.
I experience the whole brain state as not only mentally expansive, but also physically, emotionally, energetically and spiritually expansive. Any negativity over focus creates contraction on all these five levels inhibiting the free flow of all our resources. In the zone everything can work positively, harmoniously, efficiently and effectively. There is no impediment to “FLOW”.
The Parallel Mode or Zone state I just described occurs occasionally. It is a more intense and complete experience. Usually I will enter states that contain only elements of all I described and the degree of intensity of the experience will vary.
I also want to add that typically we are taught to attempt to stay in the present by focusing on the task at hand, but the task at hand is always changing. It’s easier to maintain one constant focus, which is what we do with the zone focus, and everything unfolds as a continuum within and as part of that focus.
This constant singular focus of the Parallel Mode is part of the reason the mind gets quieter and all-encompassing compared to a state where it is fragmented and flitting around.
Scott has applied the Parallel Mode Process to basketball, baseball and golf. He gave me a lesson using it with basketball, and I began to teach it to my clients, figuring out how to use it for the different sports. So far I’ve taught Parallel Mode focus to fencers, baseball players, runners, mountain bike racers, soccer players, wrestlers, golfers, tennis players, volleyball players, football players and basketball players.
Overall it has been very successful, but I don’t want to give the impression that working with the Parallel Mode Process is a cake walk. It involves learning to use your eyes in a new way. It’s not that hard to get into it, but it involves staying with the focus and reprogramming your circuitry. This takes time so practice is absolutely necessary.
It also must be done in manageable doses so the brain isn’t over stressed. It’s very easy to revert to a Serial Mode, which is our usual way of operating in which our left hemisphere is dominant.
This switch from Parallel Mode to Serial Mode can occur quickly, especially in stressful situations where we have a lifetime of habitual ways we respond mentally and emotionally.
It is in a Serial Mode where our negative performance states can occur such as negative thinking and feeling or thinking about doing rather than just doing. In parallel mode the left hemisphere is still operative, meaning its positive capabilities, such as decision-making, are still being accessed.
There have been athletes I’ve taught who have found the Parallel Mode Process somewhat difficult to work with. There have been those in which the aspects of the zone occurring for them were subtle and they weren’t aware of anything happening. I’m becoming pretty tuned-in to when there are shifts occurring even when the person may not be.
I try to bring their awareness to any of these subtle changes and this is usually helpful. There are athletes who prefer to stick with what is familiar or have more trust in what is the universally accepted way of using their eyes for their sport, i.e.. always follow the ball.
Struggling to work with something new, where old habits pull at us, creates frustration. My experience, up to this point, is that for those who commit to work with Parallel Mode focus reap its benefits.
I’ve also found that athletes who have experienced the zone really get into it. For one thing they recognize that they are once again performing in that special state and they get really excited to know that there is a way for them to enter that once-elusive territory at will.
Lastly, achieving a Parallel Mode state optimizes your current level of performance. You do not leap beyond your current abilities, but playing at that high level consistently will enable you to improve more quickly.
Some of the athletes I have taught had these responses: I recently taught the all-state high school basketball player I referred to earlier in this article. He called me later that night after having gone and practiced. He was so excited. He said he had just completed the best workout he ever had. He said he experienced things opening up and slowing down. He was so psyched by the possibilities for his future as a Division I college basketball player.
During the high school basketball season I got a call from a coach asking me to come in and teach his team whatever it was I was teaching the other team. It seems there was an article in both Denver newspapers about a game this team, which was ranked number one in the state in their classification, had won over their toughest competition.
One headline in the Denver Post read: Broomfield has right idea in win, and reported Always looking for any edge, Broomfield boys basketball coach Kevin Boley brought sports psychologist Othon Kesend to talk with his team early in the season. Kesend spoke with the Eagles, ranked No. 1 in class 4A, about visualization techniques, relaxation methods and ways to get ‘in the zone’ when they’re on the floor.
Now when Broomfield takes the court, not only do the Eagles possess more talent than their opponents, they also feel they have the mental edge as well.
In the game, senior guard Andrew Toof put Kesend’s techniques to good use hitting eight of eleven shots en route to scoring 21 points. Every time Broomfield needed a big shot,Toof seemed to be the one who hit it.
“(Kesend) told us there was a way to get in the zone by saying “yes” every time the ball releases from your fingers,” Toof said, “I’ve been working on that at home, and it’s helped my shot so much. It works.”
The headline in the Rocky Mountain News read: Eagles’ Toof doesn’t mind being a yes man, and the paper reported: “Talent and experience are enough to propel most prep basketball teams tothe post season, but Broomfield’s top-ranked Class 4A boys club recently added another ingredient to that tough-to-beat combination. The mind game.”
“We had a sport psychologist talk to us recently,” said senior Andrew Toof, “and he told me to say “yes” to myself as soon as the ball leaves my fingertips for a shot. It seems to be working.”
A teaching golf pro I work with got very excited when I taught him the Parallel Mode Process. He experienced a heightened sense of awareness, a calmness, and a deep level of concentration and being in the present, which excluded the possibility for his mind to wander, which is a difficulty for him.
He was putting from over the edge of the green and every one of his many shots were in close proximity to the hole, and several times he made the hole two or three times in a row.
A female professional mountain bike racer I work with on Parallel Mode focus experienced not being distracted by externals such as cars, which was her most common distraction when riding on the road. The externals were all integrated into her experience so that they didn’t distract her visually or emotionally.
A twelve year old male fencer to whom I had taught Parallel Mode focus many months before recently told me that he had experimented by not using Parallel Mode for a whole bout and then using it in another. Both these bouts were against the same opponent. He told me he fenced much better when he used the Parallel Mode focus.
Parallel Mode’s Effect On Traditional Sport Psychology Practices
Sport psychologist typically work on all the parts that either need some fixing or improving. We deal with performance anxiety, self-doubt, negative thoughts and feelings, setting goals, focusing, relaxing, energizing, visualization, strategizing, unreasonable expectations, etc.
When I start with a client I do an extensive interview to find out what they need help with and to get to know them so I can develop a strategic approach that is best suited to their individual needs.
My background is holistic and I consider the integration of mind, emotions, body and spirit. My aim is to work with as few components as necessary to have the broadest effect. I hope to create a positively integrated athlete and person who can perform at a peak level, and if possible in the zone.
The fact of the matter is I’m addressing multiple elements. I am quite certain that getting all these elements right and in balance does not guarantee a person will perform in the zone, although it does increase the possibilities and it definitely supports a more consistent high level of performance.
The zone is a higher level of mind/body functioning dependent on the performer being in a whole brain or Parallel Mode state. The zone technique goes right to the control and operating center, the brain, and initiates this whole brain state. It involves doing one thing that improves everything.
This has presented a key question for me… If you can enter the zone at will by using the Parallel Mode Process, is it then necessary to address all the other components that we sport psychologists typically work with?
In the zone, to review some of its characteristics, you are in the present, so there are no worries about the past or the future. You have the right mix of relaxation and energy. You are extremely focused. Your body usage is maximized. Your have aheightened and expanded sense of awareness so you see very quickly what needs to happen and your body does it. This makes it seem as if time has slowed down.
At this point I have no definitive answers, but I do have a sense of some answers.
With my clients I have continued to work the way I have always worked but also teach them the Parallel Mode focusing techniques. If concentration and focus is an issue for a client I usually use Parallel Mode focus to work on this issue because it involves such a high level of concentration.
There are some athletes with whom I have only done Parallel Mode work, so I will see how many of the issues that I might have had to address with them disappear as concerns.
Here are some initial thoughts and observations based on my own experiences practicing the Parallel Mode and my observations and reports from my clients.
I always make learning to relax the underpinning of my work because it is essential for optimizing mental and physical performance. When you are able to control your relaxation you can adjust your energy and tension levels to just the right amount to be able to use the least amount of effort necessary to accomplish the task at hand. Also being able to relax will moderate anxiety. While doing the zone focus facilitates relaxation, from my experience it is still helpful to teach relaxation techniques.
For one thing doing the Parallel Mode focus in a more relaxed state helps the focus to work quicker and more effectively. It is usually more difficult for me to focus in a Parallel Mode and for it to start working when I am unnecessarily revved up or emotionally distracted.
I also mentioned earlier that it’s not unusual for athletes to get frustrated when learning the Parallel Mode Process because of the tendency to revert to Serial Brain brain activity. I found at these times my capacity to get relaxed, and settled in myself from having practiced relaxation, enables me to calm the frustration down and easily come back to Parallel Mode.
In observing athletes working with Parallel Mode who haven’t practiced relaxation, I’ve seen in some cases more difficulty refocusing on the technique.
Another benefit of knowing how to relax is when learning skills in the zone. Often we have a tendency when learning a skill to think the process out in a Serial Mode. I’ve found that having a capacity to relax enables the learner to settle into themselves when this tendency to think too much arises and to more easily trust their mind/body to do the skill, which it will do in this Parallel Mode state.
As I stated earlier, when Scott was teaching me tennis skills which I learned very quickly in a Parallel Mode, I utilized relaxation techniques to keep me settled when I found myself going into a Serial Mode.
Clients usually come to me with specific concerns. I feel that it is important to address these concerns and also those that crop up during the period of our work together. There’s usually a lot of energy tied up in these issues and it helps the person to both diffuse them and know that they are gaining control over their obstacles.
Also I’ve found that in many cases giving the person an understanding of what’s behind the thing(s) impeding their performance and/or a bigger perspective of their situation can in and of itself bring about improvement.
There are also questions that come up for a person such as the moral dilemma recently presented to me by a 12 year fencer who wondered if in order to win he had to intentionally try to intimidate his opponents.
These are issues that must be worked through with the client. Also these issues (i.e. putting unnecessary pressure on oneself to have certain results which one really doesn’t have control over. One can only control their effort) can crop up before a competition even if the athlete enters the zone during the performance. Helping the athlete to diffuse these issues can help them begin the competition on a positive note and make it easier to work with the Parallel Mode focus.
Also with regard to pre-competition, I believe it is valuable to have a routine or ritual that optimally sets the athlete up for their performance. This routine should include the Parallel Mode focus, but can also include relaxation, visualization and anything else the athlete believes helps them.
This is an area I always address with my clients and also includes lifestyle factors that affect performance. A Parallel Mode focus is not going to guarantee a good diet, but it may help the athlete be more sensitive and aware to the effects of food or other factors like sleep on their performance.
Having addressed these concerns can make the athlete feel more secure and confident and they also have a repertoire of mental skills they can call on in times of need. This increase in their confidence can carry over to their working with a Parallel Mode focus.
I also think that there may be a benefit in addressing certain issues or learning certain mental skills because the effort put into this work may increase the power of the mind/body in those areas worked on. This strengthened state may enhance the zone experience.
Scott was aware with me that I worked with the Parallel Mode Process at a pretty high level compared to many others he taught and he attributed that to all the work I have done over the years on these mental skills.
Another area I believe is valuable for me to address with my clients is being prepared for the unexpected. While being in the zone usually will enable the person to flow with anything that comes up, I think that being prepared will only increase thechances of staying in the zone and not being pulled into a Serial Mode. Recall what Bill Russell said about the fragility of the experience for him.
Along these same lines is having a competition strategy. When ne is in the zone one is able to adapt very quickly to any circumstances, but the more prepared we are, it is very possible that adaptations can go even quicker and smoother.
The creation of a long-term vision and the establishment of process and outcome goals is another area that is important for a sport psychologist to address. If there are team difficulties either among teammates and/or team members and a coach this can create emotional stresses that can impede working with the Parallel Mode focus.
Here is another situation where I feel more traditional sport psychology work is applicable. Visualization is a very powerful mental training tool. When we visualize it activates those parts of the brain that would be engaged if we were actually doing theactivity. This process then helps circuit the brain for the activity.
Using visualization will reinforce all the aspects of how you will do a skill or perform in a competition. You can visualize doing the Parallel Mode Process and being in the zone while performing and it will actually create the whole brain state thus reinforcing your ability to perform in the zone as well as optimize the particulars of the performance.
The Parallel Mode Process also utilizes visualization, so developing the ability to visualize well improves the ability to do the Parallel Mode focus better.
I have presented here numerous situations where I currently feel there is a need for more traditional sport psychology approaches. As I have stated, while nothing is definitive currently, I believe that addressing these concerns can enhance the athlete’s ability to work with the Parallel Mode focus and enhance the experience.
Remember that prior to the discovery of the Parallel Mode focus developing mind/body balance through mental training only increased the possibility of accessing the zone. It is now possible to enter the zone at will, or, as I like to say, “By Choice, Not Chance.”
The ability to stay in the zone for longer and longer periods, for the Parallel Mode Process to begin to lock in requires repetitive practice. As in any learning, the brain creates new circuits that strengthen through practice. It requires the same qualities that make for any successful performer – desire, will, discipline, a willingness to hang in there with the ups and downs and an openness to learning and improving.
Having sought the key to the “Zone” both for my clients and for myself for many, many years; having personally learned, practiced, experienced and applied a plethora of mind/body techniques and spiritual practices; and having experienced thezone, I can say we are truly at the dawn of a new dimension in sport performance.
What started as an accidental discovery, will, for those who grab hold of it, revolutionize the sporting experience.
REFERENCESCooper, Andrew, Playing in the Zone: Exploring the Spiritual Dimensions of Sports, Boston & London: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1998.
Jackson, S.A. and M. Csinkszentmihalyi, Flow in Sports: The Keys to Optimal Experiences and Performances, Champaign, Il., Human Kinetics, 1999.