Reviewed by Tim Boggan, Table Tennis Magazine, Nov-Dec 2008
Sports psychiatrist Dr. Mike Lardon is well known for having worked with PGA, NFL, and Olympic athletes. For almost 35 years he and his family have been friends with my family – originally through the now-Olympic sport of table tennis. Mike and my sons Scott and Eric won the 1976 U.S. Junior Team Championships at Detroit’s Cobo Hall, and later that year Mike, experiencing for a time his own “Zone,” was a finalist in the U.S. Junior Singles Championships at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Because of our shared table tennis and golf experiences (I was once Captain of my University Golf Team), I re-live in reading Mike’s book much of my own competitive experience, for almost all those who take sports or anything else seriously probably at some time or other have been in a “Zone” – that is, where you perform at your highest level, but likely don’t know how it happened.
To take an example from my own life – and Mike’s book urges you to interrelate like doctor/patient, teacher/student – when in the 1960’s six-time U.S. Table Tennis Champion Dal-Joon Lee had not lost a single match to any native-born U.S. player, I opened my eventual loss to him with an unbelievable 21-8 first-game win. When that game was over, I had no idea that I’d built up such a score, or even that the game had ended. For a moment in Time, but only for a moment, I’d been in a no-thought trance – the “Zone.” How to do it again and again? Since that’s what aspiring winners want to know, Mike’s aim in this book is to share Lessons he’s learned to help you try to find, repeatedly, this elusive “Zone.”
Lesson One stresses the importance of dreams, even daydreams. They can lead you to the path of “self-actualization,” to your “inner drive for higher values and purpose,” and so to the “Zone.” Write them down, think about them – they’ll provide internalized energy and direction for you. And perhaps some revelations. Mike gives the example of Dr. Jonas Salk discovering the polio vaccine. During one of his recurrent dreams, “he was able to manipulate his perspective from observer to the subject itself, the virus. He said that in this state of being the virus, he saw his own (the virus’s) vulnerability” – and the vaccine followed.
Mike had sometimes caddied for his brother Brad, for years a golf pro playing the PGA circuit, and thus had occasion to learn vicariously from watching some of the best golfers. He was struck – and wants you to be too – by how Phil Mickelson, positioned to win the Masters, “was napping just prior to teeing off.” It showed how prepared he was, how confident he was – how he’d made the inevitable anxiety, the tension needed to perform, manageable.
“Fuel your determination to succeed with unwavering commitment,” says Mike. Lesson Three describes “your most powerful ally: will.” Mike’s speed-skater friend Eric Heiden “played with pain.” During his coldest practice sessions in a Wisconsin winter, he’d persevere when others left the ice. How’d he do it? By remembering how he used to test himself in summers by sitting in an automobile with the windows closed and the heat on, seeing how long he could endure it. Then in the dead of winter he’d practice this “solipsism” – his mind convincingly modifying reality so as to adapt this remembered warmth to the cold. Lesson: manage your reality, strengthen your will.
Lessons Four and Five I, as a now aging golfer, have to pay strict attention to – for I hit many bad shots and “freeze” on short putts. Problem is: I’m result-oriented, I’m afraid I’ll mishit and add another stroke to my already burgeoning total. What you, Tim, and others like you need, says teacher Mike, is a homework assignment. You’re all to keep two scorecards – one for your actual score, the other for those times you unconsciously know what you’re supposed to do and unhesitatingly do it. For example, you read the line you want your putt to take and just smoothly stroke the ball. Nothing last-second extra is needed. Especially not thought. Keep it simple. ADD anything and you’ve got Attention Deficit Disorder. So, on the second scorecard, whatever club is called for, you’re to record “the percentage of shots that you executed to the best of your ability.” Use the following guidelines: first, visualize the shot you want, then hit it without doubt, or, if doubt exists, back away and start again. Absorb yourself in that regimen until it’s mindlessly automatic. “We choke when we care too much about the wrong thing.” Take satisfaction in the quality of shots hit. Have FUN! It’s often said, says Mike, “that only 10 percent of life is what happens to you, and 90 percent is how you react to it.”
One important concept is conserving your energy. You have to practice some detachment. If you’re frustrated, have the mind-awareness to take a reality check. To relieve tension stretch your fingers. It’s even o.k. to get angry – we’ve seen Tiger Woods bang down a club, or for uttering an audible curse word incur a reprimand from announcer Johnny Miller – but it’s not o.k. to lose focus. Generally performance depends on intensity of focus. Anger can be overcome by visualization techniques. For example, Mike says he sometimes asks “players to shut their eyes and imagine putting their anger on a falling leaf and releasing it to descend into a flowing stream.” That’s Lesson Six.
But it follows in Lesson Seven that the player’s passion, his juices have to keep flowing too. “A mind that is worried about what others think” is practicing “extrinsic motivation,” not the “intrinsic motivation” needed. When we honor the pure motivation that comes from heart and soul, and is not laid out for us by others, “we are loving ourselves.” But following our own path, pursuing our dream, is not an unhealthy experience. This “healthy narcissism” allows us to have the “dedication and effort required to achieve the highest level in business, arts, or sports.” Being in the “Zone” requires pure motivation – it’s a “private experience.”
I once did an interview with Zhuang Zedong (Chuang Tse-tung), the famous three-time World Table Tennis Champion of the 1960’s. “Failure is the Mother of Success,” he said – and “Success the Mother of Failure.” That is, the more successful the player, the more pressure he begins to feel; and the more pressure he feels, the more chance he’s afraid of losing. For, with his reputation, and his need to preserve it, everyone goes gunning for him. “It’s that fear, that failure of spirit, the player must overcome if he’s to be great.” Mike realizes this of course, and says it’s imperative for a player, even for Tiger Woods, to realize “his sport is not a matter of life and death” (for him it almost is?). For sure, though, Lesson Eight says any player has to overcome fear.
Lesson Nine is so important to every player, for it emphasizes the importance of confidence. How do you get it? By “mastery experience” naturally, but also through vicariously watching someone who’s got it, or who can inspire you to get it.
It helps if, as a lead-off quote in Lesson Ten states, “Playing under pressure is not to be feared. It is merely the normal circumstance of performing.” Familiar territory for those who progress. Mike stresses the importance of “activation energy.” Start a reaction that tries to lead you to the “Zone.” But realize the “Zone” “can’t be forced or controlled.” It has “a life of its own.” And though Mike does a good job of trying to get you to find it, understand it, when all’s said and done, the ten lessons learned, the “Zone’s” “an inexplicable phenomenon.” It just arrives out of nowhere.
Since faith in yourself helps, I’ll point you to my own inner door of intrinsic motivation, and show you the mystic key Simone Weil keeps for me and others. The “Zone’s” in mind-awareness, though mindlessly obtained. She says: “Even if our efforts of attention seem for years to be producing no result, one day a light that is in exact proportion to them will flood the soul.” That light, too, comes out of nowhere – faith-based… like the inexplicable “Zone.”