Elite athletes are capable of finding it on a regular basis, and top golfers are often in it when clutch shots are made.
It’s also discussed in daily life, and chances are you’ve been in it before, whether it’s generating your best report for school or work, conquering your favorite video game or making more putts than usual on the practice green.
It’s performing at your highest level – being in “the zone” – and it’s Dr. Michael Lardon’s job to help professional golfers and other athletes be in it as much as possible.
“When you’re in the zone, you really don’t think too much,” said Lardon, a sports psychiatrist whose education includes a B.A. in psychology from Stanford, an M.D. from the University of Texas and an internal medicine internship at UCLA. “You bypass your cerebral cortex, and when you do that you work at a much more reflexive, instinctive level. Paradoxically, as we’ve become more intelligent and think more [in our activities], we often get in our own way.”
Lardon grew up playing golf in Long Island, N.Y., often waking up early with his dad and younger brother to play the Black Course at Bethpage State Park. Though he excelled at the sport as a youngster, his most successful athletic endeavor was table tennis. Lardon was so talented that he was chosen at 16 to go to Japan to train with the reigning world champion.
When Lardon returned to America for the national junior championship, he discovered the zone, a mental state where one of his top skills became even easier to execute.
“I made it to the finals and I had an unusual experience where the ball, which normally travels at speeds exceeding 100 mph, started to slow down, and I won the first two games easily,” Lardon recalled. “I was in the zone. Then, somebody said something to my coach about me becoming the next national champion, triggering me to become conscious of what was going on, and I fell out of that state and lost the match. The experience haunted me for many years but also gave rise to my drive to understand the science behind this phenomenon.”
Later, Lardon turned professional and played all over the world, still fascinated with similar states of peak performance he experienced. He won a gold medal at the Olympic Sports Festival in 1980 and then retired to delve into the zone from an academic angle.
His research took off during the early 1990s at UC-San Diego, where he completed his residency in psychiatry and a fellowship in psychopharmacology and psychobiology. In 1994, he was awarded a grant by the United States Tennis Association for the “Neuroelectric Assessment of Enhanced Athletic Performance” – basically, what role the brain plays in an athlete’s performance.
“We had three focus groups: athletes that were among the best in the world, people that were in very good shape and then regular people,” Lardon said. “Even regular people reported times in their lives – not always in sports, it could have been in their jobs – where everything was flowing synchronously.”
Even before that study, Lardon, who has been an associate clinical professor in UCSD’s psychiatry department since 1995 and a consulting psychiatrist for U.S. Olympians since 1999, was offering advice to pro golfers. He met many of them through caddying for his brother, Brad, who first made it onto the PGA Tour in 1991.
“Any PGA Tour level golfer can shoot 62,” Lardon said. “Why somebody plays well on Sundays, or why somebody like Tiger Woods can always seem to put it together, that’s between the ears.”
His new book, Finding Your Zone: Ten Core Lessons for Achieving Peak Performance in Sports and Life, isn’t devoted entirely to golf, but much of it is.
Here are four of Lardon’s tips that can help you visit the zone more often on the golf course:
- See the big picture. “Half of [succeeding] is what’s going on when you’re out there in the heat of the moment and how you manage stress and anxiety. The other half is how you contextualize the sport in your life and the importance of having balance and a check of your ego.”
- Keep a thought journal. “Go back after your round and recall what was happening on each shot. Almost uniformly, when players are playing well, they’re fully engaged in the process of what they’re doing. On poor shots their minds wander to things like, ‘I’ve got to pick up my kids.’ That happens so quickly and insidiously that I think amateurs don’t really pick it up.”
- Have a mental game plan. “Maybe 10 minutes before your round, take time and say to yourself, ‘For the next four hours, my focus is going to be on staying relaxed every time I hit a shot.’ Or, ‘I’m going to try to be really cognizant of what I’m doing and what’s going on so my attention doesn’t drift.'”
- Pulse your concentration. “Think of your focus like an accordion. When you’re walking after a shot, you can relax, and when your ball comes back into sight, your concentration starts to increase and you begin making calculations. You bring that intensity out, and when you step into the shot, you’re fully committed, and after the shot you can relax again.”