Being in the zone is every athlete’s dream.

It’s as if time slows down and you see everything so clearly. You just know that everything about your technique is spot on. It just feels so effortless; it’s almost as if you’re floating. Every muscle, every fiber, every sinew is working in complete harmony and the end product is that you run fantastically well (Mind Games, Grout and Perrin, 2006).

For amateurs, it may happen only a few times in their athletic life. For professionals, it could be a constant; occurring each time their mind and body operate as one, allowing for the highest degree of athletic performance.

In fact, the ability to tap into the zone might be the factor that separates the superb athlete from the average athlete. The successful athlete can tap into the zone more frequently, whereas the average athlete cannot.

When an individual is in the zone he experiences what could be termed relaxed concentration or the time period during which sensory and motor skills operate in perfect harmony. For professional athletes, the zone condition allows the game or competition to come to a crawl. The baseball becomes larger and moves more slowly. Every shot in basketball is makeable. The same might be said of the surgeon in the operating room or CEO dealing with an intense business deal.

Some brain scientists describe the zone as functioning between acute awareness and/or energized focus.

A person in the zone feels immersed in a state of single-minded fusion  in the act of performing or learning. He can access the zone by inducing gamma wave states. Gamma wave states show up as bursts of activity at 40 Hz every 10 to 14 seconds. Or they may show up as bursts of the famous alpha wave, at 10 Hz. Both are markers for the desired state. We all function with these same frequencies. However, great athletes can get into an expanded gamma or focused gamma state more quickly and probably more intensely than average players of a similar skill level. Monks arrive in their zone during meditation.

An important area associated with the zone is our brain’s left hemisphere, which represents our critical side, particularly when we experience failure.

When performance is inconsistent, the brain tends to react both cognitively and emotionally. At the cognitive level, the left brain tries its best to assert control. At the emotional level, the right brain anticipates repeat failure and reacts accordingly. Both strategies by the brain are disruptive of the state of “being in the zone,” and therefore may be counter-productive.

What characterizes the “flow” state is a kind of “automaticity.” The right things just seem to happen effortlessly and without a lot of forethought. If, in anticipation of failure, the left hemisphere grabs the reins, it may very well ‘overthink’ the situation. And if the right hemisphere grabs the reins, the emotional turmoil may well short-circuit higher-order thinking and executing. Lost in this process is the ‘unitary’ quality, the effortless fusion of right- and left-hemisphere function that characterizes being in the zone.

We are beginning to understand the neural circuitry that underlies these marvelous functional capacities. We are beginning to understand how disruptive our fear circuitry can be to our functional status, and how our ‘executive function’ can be undermined. We are beginning to understand how the smooth integration of our left and right hemispheres is reflected in higher gamma and alpha amplitudes, which is the key to our optimum performance.

Athletes use meditation and creative visualization, and as we know, performance enhancing drugs (PED) to improve performance and/or to get into the zone. Unfortunately, meditation and visualization have proved to produce only limited success with athletes.

Fortunately, one successful non-invasive strategy that can promote gamma and alpha wave states  is called neurofeedback. (Interestingly, neurofeedback has also proved to be highly successful with children with ADHD.  (Neurofeedback has been supported by the American Association of Pediatrics  as having Level 1 efficacy (top ranking) in application to ADHD.

How does neurofeedback work to produce a zone-like experience? Training generally consists of placing a couple of electrodes on the scalp and one or two electrodes on the earlobes. Then EEG equipment provides real-time, instantaneous audio and visual feedback to the subject about his or her brainwave activity

The brain’s electrical activity is simply relayed to the computer. When we can see a representation of our brainwave activity on a computer screen a  small fraction of a second after they occur, it gives us the ability to influence and change them through a process of operant conditioning. We are now literally able to recondition and retrain the brain. At first, the changes are short-lived, but the changes gradually become more enduring and with continuing feedback, coaching, and practice, improved brain functioning can usually be trained in most people, and the changes are enduring. Electrode placements can be determined based on quantitative EEG brain mapping assessments, or in relation to areas of the brain associated with various functional roles in relationship to the International 10-20 System of Electrode Placement (The Journal of the American Board of Sport Psychology) Volume 1-2007; Article # 1).

The key to optimal athletic performance is understanding the nature of mind and body.

For instance, Olympic beach volleyball champion Kerri Walsh-Jennings incorporated neurofeedback into her training routine for the Olympics. The Canadian Olympic team used neurofeedback extensively in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. Alexandre Bilodeau, the Canadian men’s mogul champion, credited his gold medal to neurofeedback. He used it effectively to relax between runs. Also, the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks, after a 20-year post-season drought, skated their way to a 2011 Stanley Cup championship. The Italian National Soccer team kicked up their performance by using neurofeedback and took home the World Cup in 2006. Finally, Star athletes from the NBA, NFL, LPGA, and PGA have turned to neurofeedback for that mental advantage that can move them above and beyond the competition (Admin. 2013).

Contact Dr. David P. Sortino at The Neurofeedback Institute in Sonoma for additional information.