The zone cannot be reached without the right amount of energy. This is true in a mentally demanding game like poker, just as it is in a physically demand- ing sport such as basketball. If your level of energy is too high or too low, you might be able to perform well, but you won’t be able to reach the zone.
The Yerkes-Dodson Law1 illustrates the direct relationship between energy level (i.e., stress, emotion, and arousal) and performance. As you can see in the chart below, maximizing your performance does not mean maximiz- ing your energy level. You need to find the level that works best for you.
1 Yerkes R.M., Dodson J.D. 1908. The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit- formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology 18: 459–482.
On the left side of the curve, performance is poor because there’s not enough energy to properly fuel higher brain functions such as thinking, planning, and decision making. Think about how poorly you play when you are tired, bored, unmotivated, depressed, or too relaxed. (Many of you won’t even play at these times to avoid playing badly.) On the right side of the curve, you also play poorly; however, it’s for the opposite reason—too much energy. When the brain is overloaded with energy or emotion, higher brain functions shut down. This means that the excessive energy associated with tilt, overconfidence, and anxiety has the power to cause your performance to suffer.
As your energy level increases up the left side of the curve, or as it decreases up the right side, higher brain functions and the quality of your play steadily improve. That means you’re better able to plan action on future streets, remember prior action, and think on the right level—even across lots of tables. However, as the graph illustrates, there’s not a lot of room for error in maintaining this peak level of performance: You can’t have too much energy, and you can’t have too little. The goal is to find your ideal middle ground; call it the Goldilocks level of energy.
The first person to research differences in the levels of energy that lead to the zone was renowned sport psychologist, Yuri Hanin. He developed a theory called “Individualized Zone of Optimal Functioning”2 after find- ing a variation in the level of energy that athletes need in order to play in the zone. He found that some athletes get into the zone when they feel relaxed, others with moderate levels of anxiety, and the rest need high levels of energy. This variation means that players who need to be relaxed to get into the zone will play much worse when exposed to the high levels of anxiety that other players actually thrive on. The opposite is true as well. Players who prefer high levels of intensity will lose their mental edge when they are too relaxed. Ultimately, you have to figure out what works best for you. So, are you the type that plays best when you’re relaxed, fired up, or somewhere in between?
2 Hanin, Y.L., 1997. Emotions and athletic performance: individual zones of optimal functioning model. European Yearbook of Sport Psychology 1: 29-72.
Many factors contribute to your level of energy and influence your ability to reach the zone. Understanding each one is crucial. The major factors are:
• Physical needs
• Emotional state
• Degree of challenge • Perspective