By Jon Wertheim

how-athletes-find-the-zoneMichael Lardon figures it was serendipity. A top table tennis player growing up in New York, he had always been fascinated with the mental component of competition. “Who gets in ‘The Zone?’ How do they get in ‘The Zone?’ And most important, How do they stay there?” He enrolled at Stanford, took a pre-med science course and was paired with Olympic speedskater Eric Heiden as a lab partner.

Flash forward 25 years: Dr. Michael Lardon is among the country’s most prominent sports psychiatrists, working mostly with Olympic athletes and PGA players. He’s also an associate clinical professor of psychiatry and UCSD. In his new book, Finding Your Zone, (Penguin 2008) he draws on his work and research and offers a road map for finding the zone.

I recently caught up with him to talk about finding the zone…

Jon Wertheim: You offer lessons for achieving this state of peak performance. But how much of the it is simply hard-wired?

Michael Lardon: There’s certainly a hard-wired component. How do you disassociate: You’re looking at the baseball and blocking out the “no batter, no batter?” Most people have some ability to do it. Elite athletes obviously have more. They rate very high on the “ability to go into a trance.” Heiden, for instance, was easily hypnotized. At the elite level, many PGA Tour golfers can shoot 60. But why can some guys do it on Sunday? That’s not about their physical being; that’s mental. As for the weekend-warrior guys, I have friends I grew up with who shoot like 110 and then one day they can shoot 79. They’re still physically the same person. What happened?

JW: You write about athletes you’ve treated, but also about athletes you’ve simply observed up close. Any stick out?

ML: Sure. Tiger [Woods] is fascinating. He was [recently] paired against a kid, a rookie, who had shot low on Thursday and Friday. The kid had a six-shot lead. At the press tent, they asked Tiger when the last time he was paired with a player he’d never heard of, on the weekend. He said he couldn’t remember. Then they asked how it felt, that they’d almost handed the kid the trophy already. Tiger looked the guy dead in the eye and said, “In golf, they don’t hand the trophy out on Friday.” That’s a simple line. But it’s a template for beautiful mental hygiene. Tiger doesn’t get ahead of himself. He’s not thinking about how many British Opens this will make; he’s thinking about keeping the ball low.

JW: You also write about Heiden…

ML: I don’t know if it was synchronicity or what, but in 1981 Eric had just won five gold medals and was my lab partner. I was always fascinated. He and I would take the same test. I might know more material but he would make a higher grade because, whether it was on the med school test or the Tour de France – he switched to cycling in college – he just innately knew how to perform … You just can’t get that guy excited or anxious.

JW: Then how do you explain someone else in your book, John McEnroe?

ML: He’s an exception. But Borg? From my view, Roger Federer was very reactive when he was young. What made him the player is today is that he has a better handle.

JW: But I always think Federer of is an anti-Tiger. Tiger is a killer. Federer is a beautiful player, but I don’t think he’s robotic. I don’t think he’s mentally weak, but he’s human, You say, “Hey batter!” and he turns around.

ML: I think his gift and talent is wild. He may still go down in the annals as the greatest player. But if he had [Tiger’s peak-performance skills] he would be even at the next level. But this points out the heterogeneity … I remember someone mouthed off the Tiger in the World Match Play and Tiger beat him eight and nine. Basically didn’t let him win a hole. Normal tour guys would have someone that far down and they would have sympathy; they let up. I think Federer is gentler that way, too.

JW: Tiger’s pretty much at the peak of peak performance?

ML: Tiger’s very unusual, just the way he was raised, just the way the passion that was kindled. It was, “Do your homework and you get to play golf.” The way he was taught proactively, made him great too. When most of the players of his level get famous or win a Major, they take a large step back. There’s an onslaught of attention. With Tiger, he was ready.

JW: Are you sensing that sports psychology/psychiatry is losing stigma and we’re past the point of “head cases.”

ML: I think people are becoming more sophisticated. I remember reading someone saying, “Ben Hogan would never have had a sports psychologist.” I disagree. Back then, they didn’t have them. But Hogan, who meticulously studied everything? Why wouldn’t he want to know the best way to quiet his mind, keep relaxed. I think more people are more educated to the mind and the neuroscience makes it clearer – we’re not crazy; this is part of human physiology. I think, yeah, the stigma starts to dissipate.

JW: How much do the mental challenges vary sport to sport? Is McEnroe going through the same drill as Duval?

ML: It’s interesting, each sport has its own demands. Golf, think of the downtime. If you’re weak in the mind it gets exposed. Bubba Watson, who hits it so far, [well] If he had a little Tiger in his mind, he’d be a real force to reckon with week-in, week-out. But think about Olympic athletes: They have one opportunity every four years. That pressure to build your performance, to peak around one performance, that’s a different challenge but clearly a mental challenge.

JW: What’s the relationship between raw talent and mental strength, a natural versus a grinder?

ML: I use the example of a Lee Jantzen or a Jeff Sluman, guys who are really great in their heads and then you go to range and they’re not as impressive as some of the other guys. When you have the whole package, you have it together it’s a rarity. But at the Olympic Center they can all pole vault some ridiculous height. But what makes a guy, on U.S. Olympic team trial day, be a performer? That’s the question. It’s a bell-shaped curved. For most it’s a mix. Only, a small percentage have a 10-out-of-10 in both [physical and mental] and that’s a guy like Vijay Singh.

JW: And Tiger?

ML: That’s a whole different level.

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