In 1976, I was in the final of the United States Junior Table Tennis Championships in Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, Nevada, when a strange event happened to me that forever changed my life.
My opponent, Perry Schwartzberg, was the United States’ best junior player and I certainly was not of his caliber. However, prior to the match I had been practicing a meditative technique I learned several months earlier while training in Japan.
In world class table tennis, the balls move at speeds greater than 100mph, with tremendous spin. My friends said I never missed a ball during the warm-up and I looked like I was in a trance. For the first 45 minutes of the match I experienced the ball moving in slow motion. I remember seeing myself smashing the ball as if I were looking down from above. Perry’s great high-toss serve looked like a lollipop waiting to be smashed. I won the first two games easily and then the fatal moment occurred—I started to think. I thought if I won the next game I would be the national champion and soon there would be endorsements and so on.
In that brief moment of thought everything changed. I lost the national championship. Perry’s blazing backhand and bullet high-toss serve became a blur. I fell out of the Zone and Perry became the national champion. However, that experience profoundly changed my life and today I work in professional sports, mostly on the PGA Tour as a psychiatrist helping athletes find that holy grail: the Zone.
In the early 1990s Dr. John Polich and I studied many of the world’s greatest athletes. Our studies applied brain imaging technology to elite athletes while they performed various behavioral tasks. The results suggested that Olympic-caliber athletes processed stimuli faster and earlier than non-athlete controls. Through this research, as well as my extensive work with athletes, it has become clear to me that the “Zone” is a paradoxical state in which great physical feats are accomplished while the mind is almost still. Simply put, the Zone is a mental state in which our thoughts and actions are occurring in complete synchronicity. The thinking part of the brain, the cerebral cortex, is bypassed and our mind is actually operating at a more primitive, reflexive level. Since the thinking brain is quiet, one can react (or act) more efficiently, sampling increments of time in smaller intervals, which is why people who have experienced the Zone talk about feeling as if time passes more slowly. People also describe it as the place where and when things happen effortlessly. The 100mph baseball comes in slow motion; the feeling is calm and the result is often beyond expectation. Children playing are in the Zone. They do not have to have a magic drug or mantra. They don’t need a $400-per-hour shrink. The Zone is not a magical place although it feels that way. It is the baseline of the unencumbered mind. There is truth to the old Zen proverb, “those who think do not know and those who know do not think.”
And though we are all born in the Zone, we spend most of our lives living a great distance from it in a world of worries that we self-create. Sometimes trauma, loss, and love shock us back to this primordial place, but mostly we never find it—except by accident. The research we conducted at the University of California at San Diego and Scripps Research Institute suggested that there were four essential components that characterize the Zone:
- Super concentration on or the complete mental absorption in a task;
- The experience of time slowing down;
- A sense of detachment from outside influences or a feeling of being in a bubble;
- A resulting super-normal performance.
But most interestingly, our research also showed that these athletes reported peak performance states outside of athletics, in regular life. Peter Vidmar, two-time gymnastic Olympic gold medalist, told us that he can get so absorbed in various tasks that his wife tells him that it takes a few moments before he can recognize his own children. Scott Tinely, triathlete and twice Ironman World Champion, described that when he plays guitar he feels the same timelessness that he feels during his best Ironman performances. Steve Scott, Olympian and one of the greatest milers in the history of track and field, spoke about feeling like he is in the Zone while playing video games—that things seemed “like he was in a bubble” of concentration.
What my research has shown is that some people, specifically high-level athletes, have a predisposition for the Zone. But our research also demonstrated that it is not any kind of genetically exclusive club; it’s a combination of multiple factors—most of which are based on very simple actions and decisions—that enable these athletes to achieve the Zone time and time again.
Working backwards from the results of my research, I began to isolate and distill what exactly made Eric Heiden different from other speed skaters; what made Lance Armstrong overcome a deadly illness in order to win seven world-title championships; what made one PGA golfer better than another. Surprisingly enough, despite all the science proving the Zone, attaining the Zone was less about innate human biologic science; it was more about human determination and will.
As a psychiatrist, I see this apparent paradox all the time: medicines can help reverse or prevent some illnesses, but it is often the heart and soul of a person, those elements invisible and untouchable, that bring true healing. In working closely with all kinds of athletes, helping them to maximize their talents and learn to win under pressure, often I am simply helping them get out of their own way. When they learn to reduce their distractions, increase their focus, tap into their will, and build their confidence, they often find the Zone. And they often win.