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GETTING IN THE ZONE: how to actually enter the zone

Posted by Ainsleyaiken on March 7th, 2019

GETTING IN THE ZONE:  how to actually enter the zone

By Joseph Lenac, Licensed Sport and Clinical Psychologist

Michail Csikszentmihalyi (MC) researched the idea of flow for decades at the University of Chicago.  He examined the idea of being in “flow” or as others might call it “the zone” by studying, researching and following people who excelled in sports, performing arts and business.

MCdefined flow as “The state at which people are so defined in an activity that nothing else seems to matter” (1990).  MC found that athletes would have an altered sense of time when in flow/the zone where time either appeared to slow down dramatically, or things happened quickly but easily.

Through his research, MC defined 9 conditions that had to occur in order for an athlete to get into “flow” or “the zone”.The 9 Conditions of Flow:

The challenge of the situation matches the athlete’s abilities.

There is an effortless merging of self and actions

The athlete has a clear sense of goals – what she/he needs to accomplish.

There is feedback indicating correctness (either from a coach or self).

The athlete is solely focused on the task – controlling their concentration.

The athlete feels complete control without actively thinking.

There is no self-evaluation, self-consciousness or critiquing while playing.

Time transforms:  either speeds up or slow down.

Enjoyment:  the task itself is rewarding (competing, running, shooting, throwing).

Now that you know more about what it takes to get into flow and find the zone, let’s talk about specific factors MC’s research indicates can help us get closer to being in the zone.

Factors that can enhance an athlete’s ability to enter the flow/zone state

Strong confidence          Positive Thoughts          A pre-competition plan

Being physically prepared       Having an optimal level of intensity

Positive team interaction                   Maintaining positive emotions          Strong Focus

Factors that can interfere with getting in a flow/zone state:

Weak focus          Making mistakes            Negative mental attitude

Critiquing one’s own performance   Negative team interactions

As you think about your next practice or your next game; focus on things that can enhance your ability to get closer to the flow state:  make sure you are using your strength cues, thoughts need to be positive, know where your focus is and direct it to what you want to happen.  As well, have a pre-competition plan that keeps you thinking positive and upbeat, and finally keep team communication as positive as possible.

Key Point About Getting into Flow:  One of the most important points related to getting into the flow state as well as maintaining the flow state is; not critiquing one’s performance while you are playing.  Many of the athletes I work with are criticizing themselves and/or critiquing what they do while they practice and during competition.

My Challenge to You:  Commit to zero self-criticism for one week.  Write it down in a personal contract that you are giving up self-criticism for one full week.  I would like you to see how it feels, as well, if you find yourself in flow more often.  Good luck!

Joseph Lenac, Licensed Sport and Clinical Psychologist

Office:  Missouri 314-995-7201                 Colorado 970-926-0056


Reference:  Csikszentmihaly, M.; Flow: the psychology of optimal experience.  Harper Perennial (2008).

Also See: Flow State, Zone State, Slow Down, Self Criticism, Zone, Flow, State

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