When a professional athlete has an incredible performance, he is often referred to as playing “out of his mind.” There is a lot of truth to this statement. In his phenomenally successfully book, “The Inner Game of Tennis,” W. Timothy Gallwey suggests that we really have 2 “selfs”. Self 1 is the ego– the critical, judgmental and analytical self that never stops thinking, and is continually giving instructions to self 2. Self 2 is the self that takes the action– plays the sport.
For the purpose of discussion, I will refer to Self 1 as “The Ego”, and Self 2 as “The Player.” What we need to realize is that when an athlete is “in the zone” or “playing out of his mind” he has achieved a state where he completely transcends The Ego. The Player is 100% in the moment, focused on the situation at hand, with no concern about the past or the future. The Player just plays and The Ego is quiet.
You have likely heard the statement, “we are our own worst enemy.” One way to look at this statement is to realize that The Ego only gets in the way of optimal performance. When The Ego begins to give instructions to The Player, it causes stress, nervousness and over-thinking. Muscles will tighten when they shouldn’t. There will be much second guessing and a delay in response time.
Can we learn to transcend The Ego and get ourselves into a state of relaxed concentration– a state that allows us to be at our best? It takes a lot of practice and the right attitude, but I believe we can. A shift in mind needs to take place, where The Ego has 100% confidence in The Player’s ability to execute and successfully take the required action. That is step 1. The way you get there begins with practice– continual repetition of the situations that one will face in a game. Practice is the time you should be thinking, identifying errors and making adjustments. Practice is where the majority of the learning needs to happen.
Step 2: After enough repetition and learning takes place, the goal is to get The Ego to completely trust The Player. The mind needs to become quiet– free of criticism, instructions, judgment and emotion. Let The Player take over and play. When you get to this point, you’ll be playing “in the zone.” Ideally, you want to get to a point where, instead of The Ego continually “beating up” The Player, The Ego looks up to The Player in awe, with humility.
I just gave you a lot to digest. Here is a simple breakdown of what I am talking about:
1) Consider the idea that you have 2 “selfs,” The Ego and The Player. The Ego analyzes, judges, criticizes and constantly barks instructions to The Player. This only gets in the way of The Player achieving optimal performance.
2) You must practice your physical game so much that you finally get to the point where The Ego completely trusts The Player to “get the job done” without any instructions or thinking about how you will do it.
3) The time to think, judge and make adjustments is in practice. Allow yourself to do this as necessary, but you should get to a point where, even in practice, The Player takes over and The Ego just watches in awe.
4) At game time, no matter how far you have come with your physical game, quiet your mind and focus 100% on the play at hand. Take emotion out of the equation. When you make a mistake, don’t get upset. View it as a “learning event,” take a moment to picture how you could have played it better, then let it go. At the same time, when you do something great, don’t get emotional. View it with humility, take a breath, and get ready for the next play.
5) Remember, the less you “think” when playing, the better you will perform. Hockey is a game of reading and reacting. Allow yourself to read and react, read and react. Trust yourself to let go of “trying to figure it out.” Just play.
Humans have an incredible natural ability to learn how to do new things very quickly. Learning happens very fast when The Ego stays quiet. The best way to learn is by watching someone who is very proficient at doing that which you want to learn how to do, then picturing yourself doing the action a few times in your mind. You then should try doing the action over and over, continually making adjustments until you master the action.
Most of us learn the slow way. We have a coach or instructor telling us the steps we should be take, we try following the instructions, and then the coach or instructor continually criticizes us and tells us what we are doing wrong; keep your stick on the ice, lower your stance, raise your glove, turn you body, push off with your back foot, keep your shoulders level etc. When we focus on one thing, say keeping your glove higher, we forget to keep our shoulders even. Frustration sets in and our critical Ego starts telling us we can’t do it correctly. We end up doing too much thinking, which in turn gets in the way of natural learning.
A better, more natural way to learn is by watching a professional or highly skilled goalie perform the action a few times. Then, you should try doing it yourself over and over until you begin to do it better and better. A great tool to help you learn this way is video. Have someone videotape you doing the action. Watch the video and get an idea of how you need to adjust your movements, then go out and practice it some more. Keep making adjustments until you master the action.
For those of you who want to learn more about these strategies, I highly recommend the book, “The Inner Game of Tennis” by W. Timothy Gallwey. Yes, I did say Tennis. I don’t play Tennis. Personally, I am not very interested in Tennis. It doesn’t matter. This book contains the hidden gems, the secrets if you will, of how to perform at your best- regardless of the sport or activity.