What Professional Athletes Do to Get in ‘the Zone’

Basketball Slam Dunk
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An elite athlete’s body is on display most during critical moments—a game-tying free throw, a match point, a full count. We see their muscles ripple, their hands curl, their face twitch.

What we don’t have much insight into is their minds, the most crucial element in performance-making moments, according to Jonathan Fader, Ph.D., a leading sports psychologist for professional athletes.

When athletes need to perform their best in a high-pressure situation—when they do sink that free throw, ace a serve, or nab an RBI—this is what’s going through their minds.

1. They don’t think

“As a recent athlete said to me, ‘thinking is horrible,’” Fader says. “In situations when people choke or when they’re not performing at their best, it’s usually because they’re overthinking.”

Fader says a big chunk of his job is to train athletes how not to think during moments when they’re likely to psych themselves out. Instead, he wants them to enter “the zone”.

“The report from most athletes in the zone is everything just seems to work and it’s almost like they’re doing it without thinking,” he says. “Sometimes athletes are surprised with their performance after because they’re so relaxed.”

2. They change their focus

There are two types of focus, according to research from the University of Nevada. An internal focus means an athlete gears their mind to focus on their own body movements (e.g., a batter focusing on the way his arms swing). An external focus means an athlete dials into his surroundings, and the way their body will affect them (e.g., a batter focusing on the speed and position of the ball).

Gabriele Wulf’s, Ph.D., the director of the Motor Performance and Learning Laboratory at UNLV, body of research indicates an external focus significantly boosts performance because athletes are not thinking about their own movements.

“When you adopt an external focus, you perform much more automatically and efficiently,” Wulf told Men’s Fitness in a previous article. “Somehow the body knows what it has to do to achieve the desired outcome, and that results in more fluid, efficient, and accurate movements.”

3. They slow their breathing

The worst thing an athlete can do is overanalyze their performance, Fader says.

“When you’re thinking too much and you don’t have a method to shift your focus back to the task at hand, it’s a dangerous place to be—[it can ruin a critical moment],” he says.

One effective method for returning back to the zone is slowing your breathing. Fader tells his athletes to breathe deeply from the belly, not from the chest, and to concentrate on exhaling longer than inhaling.

4. They don’t sweat the small stuff

Fader teaches elite athletes how to treat failure. The wrong way to approach failure is turning it into a “global issue”. For example, a baseball player thinks a strikeout signifies he’s not a great athlete.

Elite athletes adapt their thinking on failure, comparing the single event to all the other successes they’ve had.

“People who can change their thought process are usually more resilient to flunks and more prepared for moments when they might choke,” Fader says.

In a critical moment, elite athletes are confident in their abilities. They don’t believe previous failures are a reflection on their playing ability as a whole.