How to Get.. and Stay.. in the Zone
Can anyone deny that Karate Black Belts and Kung Fu Masters are great athletes? Can anyone deny that there is something “more” to being a Black Belt or a Kung Fu Master? It might be called an attitude or a state of mind, but these martial arts masters all seem to have it. Remember Caine in the series Kung Fu or Mr. Miagi in the Karate Kid movies? They had it. It’s a calm, a confidence, a distraction free focus, and a maturity.
Did you know that a Kung Fu master is given the title Shoalin Priest? Isn’t it odd that that the way you become a Shoalin Priest is by mastering a fighting skill? What is it about their training that it not only produces excellent athletes, it produces students who grow to be worthy of admiration, even priesthood?
Next question, do these techniques have to involve fighting?
No! The simple truth is that the training only requires an active skill, but baseball hadn’t been invented, nor basketball, nor football, nor tennis. Fighting was the sport of the day. Is there anything mystical about combat? Not at all! All the techniques that are used in the martial arts can be incorporated into tennis, or any sport, indeed, any skilled activity.
So what is it that distinguishes martial arts training from western sports training?
What distinguishes traditional martial arts training is that the ancients were trying to achieve that special state of mind; that calm, confident, focused, distraction free state of mind that we associate with Kung Fu masters. That state is the major point of their training. The mastery of the physical skill is almost a bi-product of achieving that state of mind. In tennis we call that state “the zone”. Everyone agrees that players are at their best when they are in the zone state, but no one in Western sports training thinks of trying to induce a
What do they do in the ancient training that Western sports trainers don’t do?
In a general sense, the ancients worked in three areas that western sports trainers ignore.
1. The ancients understood the need to quiet the thinking mind during the execution of a skill. Skilled behavior does not require thought. If performing skills required intellect, how would the animals do it? How would birds swoop out of the sky into the water, grab a fish and fly out, if skilled performance required thinking? Your thinking mind only gets in the way by introducing self doubt, distractions, indecisiveness, nerves, etc. Almost every martial art utilizes a technique for teaching the students to quiet their thinking mind. Some of these are meditations or yoga-like exercises, but many modern “relaxation responses”, breathing exercises, and “alpha state” inducing techniques can serve the same purpose. Quieting the mind is part of the process of falling into a zone. We put so much pressure on our athletes, a relaxation technique should be a requirement.
2. The ancients understood that if the student could be taught to focus their attention on the task at hand, it would minimize the influence of doubt, distraction, nerves, etc. The logic is simple. If you are focusing on what you should be concentrating on, there is less mental space left to waste on negative thoughts. Martial arts trainers teach students how to focus their attention. We in the West rarely work with concentration. It is usually assumed that a player comes naturally with a good level of concentration, or they don’t, and there is nothing anyone can do about it. This is not true. Concentration can be improved by teaching the student what they need to focus on and what to ignore. This ability to bring your mind to a singular focus is also a requirement of falling into a zone. In this day and age when we multitask proudly, we should all consider learning to focus our attention.
3. The traditional martial arts all work on character (psychological) development. The theory again is simple; a mature individual makes a mature athlete. A mature athlete is easier to train, learns faster, and performs confidently with their best effort, more consistently. The martial art was used as a way to discover and alleviate personality issues. Sports can reveal many facets of our personality. If trainers are looking for opportunities to teach maturity and to discuss personal issues, they will find a wealth of opportunities during a sport, like a tennis match. For example, if a player is overly cautious in life, how might this show up on a tennis court? Perhaps the player considers hitting winners but then chooses to hit safer shots instead. This is a personality issue that is simply manifesting in the game of tennis. Coaches can deal with the issue if they want. It is a matter of intent. You cannot think of this as “wasted time.” What is wasted time is yelling at this student, “go for your shots!” They have a personality issue, which they are already fighting. Suppose another student is a procrastinator in life and you discover they have a hitch in their tennis serve. This should not be a surprise because procrastinators have difficulty beginning new things and serving is the beginning of a new point. You can choose to try to alter the body to eliminate the hitch in the serve, but if you deal with the issue of procrastination, the hitch will leave spontaneously. Martial arts prove that excellence in sports does not have to come at the price of personal development. A student’s performance will improve as they come to grips with who they are. Knowing “thy” self is also a part of the zoning process.
All of these techniques can be applied to any sport as long as the training incorporates the above suggestions:
• quieting the thinking mind,
• learning to focus on a single concentration point
• and attending to personal development.
I believe that the time is now to update our thinking about sports training. This is not a matter of “one or the other.” In medicine, it is a combination of modern and ancient knowledge that is producing the best results. That should be our goal in sports: to utilize the best of the modern and the ancient. It would be good for the players, particularly our youngest competitors, and very good for sports.