Getting in the Zone or Flow is the ultimate mental state for athletes. They often describe the feeling as, “[being] fully focused, seemingly playing with ease and being at the best of their ability.”
Being in the Zone is described by psychologists as a state in which individuals are, “ fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity” and “ the feeling of spontaneous joy, while performing a task with deep focus on nothing but the activity.”
The Zone is a mental state. For most people, experiencing the Zone is outside of their control. Some experience it, but cannot control or predict it. It just happens, and when it does it is a great feeling of ability, joy, and competence. “I couldn’t do anything wrong” is how athletes commonly describe the feeling.
What if you could control your mind and enter the Zone deliberately? It is a question that has puzzled and eluded athletes and coaches for decades. Some people play their best under pressure while others choke. What are the successful athletes doing and how can it be controlled and repeated, or corrected if necessary?
Our research shows that being in the Zone is a mental state that we can control. However, it takes training, mental control and an awareness of what your mind and eyes are focusing on. It requires control over your thoughts and the avoidance of certain natural habits.
Direct versus Peripheral Vision
Direct vision focuses on the center of our visual field. It provides high resolution and detail and is the part of our vision we use to read with. If you hold your index finger out at arms length, the fingernail is the area of your direct visual field. It is extremely small in size.
Conversely, everything else in your visual field belongs to peripheral vision. Peripheral vision accounts for 99% of your visual field. It tracks movement and light well, but cannot see in enough detail to read with. It acts like an early warning system to direct your eyes to move towards and focus on an object. Peripheral vision is fast, covers a large area, and has relatively low resolution.
Most people give little thought to direct versus peripheral vision, and let their natural reactions govern what they do. People constantly move their eyes to keep what interests them in their direct vision field. This works well most of the time, but in athletics, it can be detrimental. The problem lies with our visual attention.
Direct Visual Attention versus Peripheral Vision Attention
This is an area most people do not think about but are aware of. There is a distinct difference between directing your mental attention to what is in your direct visual field versus directing your mental attention to what is in your peripheral visual field.
For example, you can be speaking to someone and looking directly into their face, focusing on all the details of their eyes, nose and mouth. Then, without moving your eyes, you can shift your mental attention to everything else in your visual field and pay mental attention to what is happening in the room around you. All that has happened is that you have switched your mental attention from your direct visual attention system to your peripheral vision attention system. It is like a switch in your mind directing the change.
It takes time to switch from one system to the other and back again, with estimates suggesting that it takes between 200 – 300 milliseconds to switch from one to the other. During the switch, there is a blind spot or period where no mental processing is occurring. In sports, 200 milliseconds is a long time. A 90 mph fastball will have moved over 20 feet in that time period.
When you are using direct visual attention, your mind is focused entirely on one thing or element. It uses most, if not all, of your mental capacity on just one item. This is helpful in many circumstances, but not all. In peripheral visual attention, your mind is less concerned with the fine detail. This allows your mind to be attentive to more than one thing at a time. You can track multiple moving objects, or pay attention to what you see, hear and feel at the same time. What you give up in detail, you gain in the number of elements that get a portion of your attention. This can be very useful in sports where you must track a team of opponents along with your own teammates, and all the patterns of movement involved.
Getting in the Zone
The key to getting in the zone is to maintain your peripheral visual attention the majority of the time, only switching to direct visual attention when necessary. An example of this is playing basketball. Most of the time a player should be tracking multiple people, the ball, patterns and their own body movements using their peripheral vision. Players are big and movements are fast, so direct visual attention is not usually required. However, when a shot is to be made the player must quickly switch to direct visual attention to correctly judge the distance to the basket in order to make an accurate shot. Once the shot is made they should revert back to peripheral attention.
The problem is that controlling visual attention requires practice and training, and some natural responses work against it. For instance, when a person’s eyes move towards a moving object in an attempt to place that object in the center of their visual field, the brain automatically switches to direct visual attention. This means that the tracking of multiple objects is suddenly lost. There is also the time required to switch between direct and visual attention, which causes a blind spot in mental processing.
With training, athletes can teach themselves to maintain peripheral visual attention even when their eyes move towards a moving object. This allows them to save time, maintain the tracking of multiple objects, and get into the Zone. The ability to master the tracking of multiple elements in the game while saving time and energy is a key aspect of being in the Zone. Focus is maintained on the important elements of the game, making the game appear slower and easier.
Training Visual Attention with the Qball
The Qball is a tool with which to quickly train your vision and visual attention systems. It provides a method by which to train the fast switching between direct attention and peripheral attention, or to prevent switching from occurring.
This is how it works: Take 2 Qballs (one in each hand) and bounce them to waist height, alternating hands with each bounce. Now move your eyes to see both balls as they bounce, tracking them with your direct vision. Try to focus and recognize the numbers on the balls as they bounce. Next, don’t look directly at the Qballs as they bounce, but instead, track them with only your peripheral vision. Notice how the details of the balls become blurry, yet there is still enough detail to allow you to catch the Qballs.
Then, while continuing to bounce 2 Qballs, watch only 1 of the balls with your eyes, such as the right-side ball, and track the left side ball with your peripheral vision. This requires your attention to switch between direct visual attention on the right to peripheral visual attention on the left, without moving the eyes from the right-hand ball. This exercise trains your mind to quickly switch between direct and peripheral visual attention. Try the same exercise again but switch the side that you focus on.
Now, try the above exercise of focusing on the Qball on one side of your body but instead of tracking it with direct visual attention try to track it with your peripheral visual attention, even though your eyes are moving to keep it in the center of your visual field. This takes practice and sometimes it helps to look slightly off to the side of the Qball, keeping the ball close to the center of your visual field. To get the hang of it, try tracking both Qballs with only your peripheral vision by moving the center of your gaze to a neutral location.
These exercises train not only eye movements and focus within the eye, but also train the 2 systems of visual attention. With practice, you should be able to move your eyes to directly center a Qball within your visual field, while also maintaining your peripheral visual attention. This allows you to track multiple objects or elements while getting more detailed visual information. Once an athlete masters this they can control their vision and attention to give them the added edge of time, attention, and vision during the game. Most importantly, they can control their ability to get into the ZONE.
Subscribe to our newsletter below for training courses, news and promotions. Also, send us an email to let us know what you think or discover using QBall.
Share this Post