How To Get Into The Peak Performance Zone

Too often people think of the peak performance zone as the domain of world class athletes and performers when in truth, the experience is universal. ‘Being in the zone’ is a fantastic feeling and the ability to regularly get into the zone is one of the most vital skills for life mastery.

So, what exactly is ‘the zone’ and how does it work?

It’s more properly called the Yerkes–Dodson Law of Achievement.

If you examine the top ten percent of all of your performances, in any area, you’ll see they all occurred while a certain amount of stress was present. That is, for some reason or other the pressure was on for you to perform well and you did.

Why did you deliver instead of falling in a heap? Because the right amount of pressure means the rest of the world falls away, focus sharpens and peak performance becomes possible.

Here’s what it looks like in graph form…

When asked to predict the shape of this graph before seeing it, most people will draw a line sloping downwards to the right. An understandable conclusion – that stress decreases performance – but an inaccurate one. What happens most often is the curve you see above.

In truth, most of us tend to perform quite well under pressure. When the conditions are right, we rise to the occasion by moving into the peak performance zone.

Here’s a simplified version of the graph…

When people talk about a looming deadline resulting in a team really coming together and finding an extra gear to finish a project on time, they’re referring to that team being in the zone.

Of course as you can see on the first graph if stress continues to increase, performance drops again. In cases of extreme overwhelm or anxiety, performance will be non-existent.

Clearly, we need to know how to deliberately create and maintain the zone. The ability to do so ensures we can deliver our absolute best any time we need to. Athletes use the zone regularly and are therefore the best way to illustrate – let’s use the Wimbledon tennis final as an example.

The pressure on the players to perform at their peak is immense – it’s an important game, the outcome of which will likely impact their whole career.

Yet when commentators ask the players about match strategy we often hear things like, “Well, I’m just going to go out and and enjoy my tennis.”

That’s code for…  “I’ve got to turn this into just any other game of tennis. If I can just let go, let the crowd vanish and let the environment disappear so it’s just me and my racket and this other player, then it’s just another game of tennis. And everything that I’ve trained into my body for the last x years is going to come out by itself. I just have to be relaxed enough to stay in that zone.”

 

What the player actually has to do to maintain the zone is keep the stress and relaxation balanced at the right points. And that’s really what creating and maintaining the zone boils down to.

We need to develop the paradoxical ability to simultaneously understand this is the most important game of tennis we’ve ever played, but also not get sucked in or taken under by the pressure.

The skills that allow us to do that are opposites – desire and detachment.

 

Desire moves us into the zone from the left towards the right – that is, it raises arousal or excitement and with it pressure. It’s the thing that fuels our ability to ‘amp up’ when we need to. Desire relates to goals, targets, what we want from a given situation or realising how important something is to us. To tap into desire, we must ask ourselves what we’re getting out of something, what we want out of a situation or what’s driving us.

Detachment also moves us into the zone, but from the other direction. It moves right to left on the graph – it’s what keeps us in the zone by ensuring we balance relaxation with arousal. Detachment is the idea that ultimately, this thing we desire doesn’t matter. Whether we achieve the goal or not, people will love us the same and the world will keep on turning. Without detachment, performance slumps when the pressure becomes too much.

Most people have a solid understanding of desire, so we’ll use the tennis analogy again to demonstrate how detachment works in a practical sense…

Put yourself in that final match, and a ball you should have easily put away for a winner goes ungraciously into the net. The next exchange will even the score or put you up against the wall.

Fronting up for the next point as if you won the last one is called speed recovery. That is, how quickly can you let it go? Can you turn, walk across the court, let the last point go and face the next one as if it’s a brand new opportunity to win? Basically, can you detach? If you can’t, you’ve got absolutely no chance of maintaining the zone.

In short – staying in the zone is one big balancing act. We must be tense enough to get into the zone, but relaxed enough to stay there. To do that, we need to really really want it, but also understand that it doesn’t matter.

 

The question most asked on this subject is: “Paul, how am I supposed to both really, really go after a goal and also not care if I reach it or not?”

The answer is you have to go for it and then let it go.

When you’re visualising your target, do it with emotion, heart, and belief in your dreams. Then, you let it go. Do that by admitting that winning or losing won’t change anything you really care about. Your family won’t love you more. They won’t love you less. Nothing of real value will change.

So that’s the theory. The zone is an immensely powerful tool if you learn to use it well.

How do you do that?

Experiment with it.

Creating and maintaining the zone is a concept I can only tell you about – I can’t teach you to use it. I can tell you what to do, but to really master it you’ll have to go out and teach yourself what works for you specifically. You’ll need to observe yourself and continue adapting until you have a system that works reliably.

Here’s an exercise to get you started…grab a pen and paper and you can begin implementing the zone right now!

 

EXERCISE:

  1. Make a list of the areas in your life that would benefit from you being in the high performance zone.
  2. Make a list of the concepts, ideas, processes and techniques that cause you to ‘amp up’ or rise to the occasion. Be specific. Is it anticipation? Looking forward to a result? Excitement about a challenge? Performing in front of a crowd? Remember that your ability to change how you feel when you choose to is what will be key here – what is it you do to get yourself uplifted, interested and excited?
  3. Make a list of the concepts, ideas, processes and techniques that calm you down. Be specific. What have you done in the past that has enabled you to detach? How do you connect with your understanding that there is no need to stress or worry? Remember that your ability to change how you feel when you choose to is what will be key here – what is it you do to get yourself calm, collected and able to see the big picture?
  4. Make a plan to implement the results from the first three sections of this exercise into your daily life. How will you use those concepts to get yourself in the zone when you need to?