It certainly happens in sailing. I suspect that top sailors are "in the zone" most of the time. For a duffer like me it only seems to happen a few times a year. There was the first race at Quannapowitt YC last October when I just seemed to be picking up the shifts and puffs naturally and pulling out ahead of the fleet without any particular effort. There was the last race on Friday at Hyannis when something clicked and I was sailing so fast downwind I wasn't even anxious about capsizing any more. And there was the last race at Buzzards Bay in 2008 when I almost felt like I was having a Cannabinoid Moment.
I know it when I feel it. But how do you get into the zone?
There was an interesting article on this topic earlier this month in New Scientist - Zap your brain into the zone: Fast track to pure focus.
The article discusses several methods to achieving that state of high performance "flow" at any game.
1. 10,000 hours
First there's the advice that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become expert in any discipline. "Over that time, your brain knits together a wealth of new circuits that eventually allow you to execute the skill automatically, without consciously considering each action." Yarg told us all about that back in 2009.
Then there's the idea that you should concentrate on some external focus, like the seam on the ball for a tennis player or the water's movement around your limbs for a swimmer. The idea is to distract the conscious mind from thinking about your own performance. I wrote about this a couple of years ago at Seams.
The New Scientist article then describes how scientists have been studying what goes on inside the brain when athletes are in the zone. They have discovered what brain waves are characteristic of the flow state and have been using neurofeedback to train people into how to achieve it.
Each person is hooked up to electrodes that tease out and display specific brain waves, along with a monitor that measures their heartbeat. By controlling their breathing and learning to deliberately manipulate the waveforms on the screen in front of them, the novices managed to produce the alpha waves characteristic of the flow state.
The experiment discussed in the New Scientist article was performed on archers. Hmmm. It might be a bit tricky to hook up a Laser sailor with electrodes and a brain wave display while he's actually sailing.
4. Zap your brain
The article goes on to report on how one scientist is speeding up the process of learning to get into the zone using something called "transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS)" which is basically a fancy way of saying "give your brain electric shocks." There's even a growing community of DIY types who are experimenting with tDCS at home. Scary! And probably also not practical on a Laser.
What do you think?
Do you have any other suggestions?
Oh, I have to explain the title of this post. This morning while I was thinking about how to write a post on this topic, the radio started playing Pinball Wizard by The Who. And I realized that this is probably the best song ever written about being in the zone while playing a game. Enjoy!
He ain't got no distractions
Can't hear those buzzers and bells,
Don't see lights a flashin'
Plays by sense of smell.
Always has a replay,
'N' never tilts at all
That deaf dumb and blind kid
Sure plays a mean pin ball.