About the time the calendar clicked over from 1999 to 2000, something extremely important happened in the world of sports. Actually, it started more than five decades earlier. I’m referring to the recognition of something called the “Zone” and its rapidly growing importance to the sports world. The term came into general use at about the turn of the century. Before then, phrases like “on a roll”, “in the groove”, “dialed in” and “lights out” were widely used, but “in the zone” was less often in evidence. Yet, in 2015, it’s become an important part of our vocabulary.
If you’ve been shooting for a while, you probably have been in the Zone a couple of times…or more. As a result, you know what it feels like to you. Not everyone who reflects on their time in the Zone will describe it exactly the same way, but there are consistencies. When in the Zone, athletes report an intense focus on the ball, target or clay pigeon. It is, in fact, an altered state of mind, a place where the conscious mind turns over execution of the shot to the unconscious mind. Modest shooters may call it “luck” because, rather than being a conscious technique, it’s just something they do without thinking about it.
In addition, there is a large diverse body of literature all discussing, more or less, the Zone. A Google search on “peak performance zone definition” returned well over a million results. In addition to online material, there is also a considerable body of print literature. In The Achievement Zone, Shane Murphy paints a colorful picture of this phenomenon. The Zone is a “…special place where performance is exceptional and consistent, automatic and flowing. An athlete is able to ignore all the pressures and let his or her body deliver the performance that has been learned so well. Competition is fun and exciting” (Murphy, 1996, p. 4). And while I really like the spirit of his definition, I need to add and underscore a key difference between stationary targets and clay target shooting. In trapshooting, we fire a little over one ounce of lead pellets at 1200 f.p.s. at hand-sized Frisbees ejected in a wide range of directions at a speed of over 40 m.p.h. (half again that speed if you’re shooting Olympic Trap). That all happens in well under a second; coincidentally, so does your heartbeat. When trapshooting from the Zone, the target appears to slow down and that mere fraction of a second seems much longer and that in turn makes it considerably easier to execute the perfect shot.
Figure 1 below illustrates how I envision the Zone. The vertical line at the left represents how challenging the activity is. An activity that is too easy wouldn’t challenge our ability; we’d lose interest in it, we just wouldn’t care. Even if the challenge is mid-level, so long as our ability can handle it, and more, it too eventually becomes boring. Many singles shooters go on to handicap or doubles for that reason. The interesting part of the diagram is upper right.
When we asked a small sample of college trapshooters what the Zone felt like to them, they mentioned “feeling the flow”, having improved vision and seeing targets larger, brighter and moving more slowly. One of the students showed remarkable insight when he described it as "how I feel just before I kill a deer". It got a laugh, but he was right. He talked about time “standing still” while he gently squeezed the trigger.
According to research published in the Online Journal of Sport Psychology (Young and Pain, 1999) the single most-often mentioned characteristic of the Zone is the slowing of time. Furthermore, this slow-motion vision is reported across a wide variety of sports; they studied seven, including tennis. Reviewing theoretical studies and empirical reports, the authors found the Zone exists in all sports although there are differences among specific sports and specific athletes. In The Inner Game of Tennis, Timothy Gallway (2008) discusses the performance enhancement that comes from hitting tennis balls while in the Zone. He also emphasizes the fragile nature of being in the Zone. When you are on a hot streak, it’s best not to distract yourself by thinking about it, he says, because when you do, the streak tends to end abruptly.
We trapshooters have all seen these abrupt ends, more than once, particularly in competition. Having run 24 straight “lights out” without really thinking about how they are doing what they are doing, shooters sometimes decide they have to abandon the strategy that just broke 24/24 and start to think out ways to try harder on the last bird. You know this rarely works and so do I. Moving your focus from the bird about to be launched to the score yet to be posted, leads shooters to exit the Zone, feel the pressure, return the drifting birds to full speed and cringe at the call of “lost” bird. But why should that be true? We’ll come back to this question shortly.
I noticed the Women’s Tennis Association recently published an article entitled simply “In The Zone” (2014). In it they coin the phrase “Ideal Performance State”, a phrase that doesn’t have as much sizzle as “Zone”, but is actually more descriptive. The concept of Zone has risen above casual comments by commentators and competitors to the point of official recognition by the WTA. It’s part of a wider body of literature that extends well beyond tennis or any one sport.
Consider two widely-read books, not specific to any sport, but on the topic of excellence in general. Clearly, the authors fully embrace the close relationship between Zone and high performance. In Pursuit of Excellence: How to win in sport and life through mental training, Terry Orlick (2004) has “focus” as his main theme. He refers to the “Zen Zone” and discusses various mental tools like positive visualization which high-performing athletes use to enter the Zen Zone on demand. Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code explains why the Zone works this way. Coyle discusses what he calls the “Zone of accelerated learning.” One of his most important observations is that when an athlete is in the Zone, he seems to be turning off his conscious mind and trusting his unconscious mind to make the shot. He cites research demonstrating that the unconscious mind is literally thousands of times faster than the conscious mind (Cole, 2009, p. 112). With that being true, why wouldn’t we want to learn how to shut off our relatively slow conscious mind and trust our lightning-fast subconscious mind to acquire the target, decide where the break point is going to be, move the barrel to that point and pull the trigger at exactly the right millisecond to completely smoke the bird? No, seriously, why wouldn’t we?
Research conducted by Advanced Brain Monitoring using portable EEG machines identified specific patterns of the brain waves of expert archers, and with biofeedback were able to teach new shooters how to enter the Zone on demand. This resulted in a 230% improvement in learning speed and performance. That’s not a typo, 2.3 times better. Trapshooters I’ve shown this video to (Science Channel, 2013) are most impressed. I encourage you to watch it as well.
When the challenge level is very high, one of two things can happen. When we seriously doubt our talent is up to the task, we get anxious, the targets appear small, hard to see, tricky and appear to move very quickly. But if our talent is strong enough, and we believe we can run them all, the targets may appear as large as trash can lids, in vibrant orange and slowly sailing out in a predictable way. We are very focused, and as a result, not anxious. We’re confident, we’re having fun, there is nowhere else we would rather be, our conscious mind is quiet and…say it with me now…we’re in the Zone.
So if we accept that Zone exists and if we believe we will achieve best scores while shooting from it, how do we progress from letting the Zone find us to entering it on demand? A Google search on “peak performance zone training” found over 1 million references. It’s a daunting task. I started, of course, paging through past issues of my favorite, Shotgun Sports Magazine, where I spent some quality time with the series of articles on mental training authored by Dr. Michael Keyes. In Trap and Field, I religiously read the column “Own The Zone” by Bob Palmer. In TrapShootingUSA (March-April, 2015), Joe Loitz has a very nice article on the “Quiet Eye” which, as he describes it, is a key component of getting into the Zone. I suspect you can suggest other trainers and techniques. Maybe you’ve even had success with some of them. There certainly is a lot going on in the “other half” of this sport.
Here at ClayMetrics, an independent research organization which does not charge for its services, we are researching Zone training techniques and the improvements that result. Recently, we’ve started working with a peak performance trainer whose approach is to provide mental tools to enter and remain in the Zone. We’d like to hear about your experiences and help out if we can. You can reach us via e-mail Robert@ClayMetrics.org or on the contact page at our website www.ClayMetrics.org. SS