When I attend live sporting events, I like to watch the pros in the starting arena so that I get an up-close look at what the athletes do to get in the zone for competition.
Last fall, Vail, Colorado hosted the Time Trials for the USA Men’s Pro-cycling Challenge. The unique thing about Time Trials, compared to other races, is that the athletes leave the starting area one-by-one, giving me the perfect opportunity to see what mental training techniques each athlete uses to help him perfect at his peak.
Now, although professional cyclists start their pre-competition routine hours before the actual event…
The minute leading up to the actual race is just as vital
to each athlete’s performance.
This is because, right in that final minute, athletes must cope with distractions such as the crowd noise, cowbells, the big TV screen showing other cyclists, and commentators reviewing their performance history as well as current race results.
If these distractions are not properly controlled for, they could easily throw a cyclist off his IZOF (Ideal Zone of Optimal Functioning). Just think how awful it would be to spend hours ahead of time making sure you are properly warmed up and motivated only to have it all be lost in that final moment before you start your race!
Sure, there were a handful of athletes that embraced the crowd with a wave and a smile (many of whom were locals offering appreciation to their fans). Most of the pro cyclists I observed, however, performed three specific techniques to stay in control and ready for their race.
These are the same techniques you can use in sport to
stay focused and get in the zone.
Get in The Zone Technique #1
By far the most common technique I observed among the professional cyclists was a shift in their breathing. As soon as these men stepped on to the start platform, you could see their breathing become deliberate and controlled as a way of removing any tension in their bodies and controlling their minds to stay focused on their race.
Some athletes took a few slow, deep breaths. Other athletes increased the rate of their breath – whatever they needed to do to help them get in the zone.
Purposeful breathing is a quick and powerful way to center your mind and body so that you can be the most ready for competition.
Knowing this, how can you add deliberate breathing to increase your shot at getting in the zone and performing your best?
Would it help to take three or four deep breaths in and out and use a specific number, such as four, to control those breaths?
Or would it help to use imagery, such as a butterfly spreading its wings, to help control your breath?
Whatever you choose, make sure your breathing technique is purposeful and consistent from race to race.
Get in The Zone Technique #2
As a former Alpine Ski Racer, I remember standing in the start and purposely looking straight ahead at the gates on the race course. I used the gates as attentional cues to distract me away from the crowds and keep me focused on the course.
The pro cyclists did the same thing – they looked directly ahead at the well-outlined course as a means of staying tuned in to their race.
Choose an attentional cue you can use in your sport to help tune out distractions and tune in all the essential parts of competition. With consistent repetition, these attention cues will automatically signal to your mind and body that It’s Go Time!
Get in The Zone Technique #3
If you have ever seen the movie, For Love of the Game with Kevin Costner, you may recall a scene when Costner’s character, a baseball pitcher, stares into the catcher’s glove and says “clear the mechanism”. At that point, all the background noises and shenanigans from the crowd are silenced (in his mind of course) and his eyes become sniper-focused on the catcher’s signals.
Although I couldn’t hear what the pro cyclists were saying in that final minute before they took off down the track, I did see their lips moving that leads me to believe they were using similar affirmations to block out the distracts and stay focused on their performance.
Whatever sport you compete in, these same Get In The Zone techniques can be used to help you take control of what you see, hear, feel, and think about. The next time you compete, experiment with one or all of the techniques and enjoy how they empower you to perform your best!