Physical needs. If you are struggling to take your game to a higher level and can’t immediately point out what needs improving, a lack of physical energy may be the problem. Better rest, a healthier diet, and more exercise have all been proven to increase overall energy levels. Consider gathering some data to see if there is a connection between the quality of your play and your eating, sleeping, and exercise habits. If you begin to notice a pattern, strive to make some small improve- ments and look to targeted resources about diet, sleep, and exercise for more advice.
While a proper amount of sleep, a healthy diet, and regular exercise can have many benefits to general health and wellbeing, their importance in getting to the zone is often overstated. Again, your ability to play in the zone depends on the level of energy that is right for you. If you regularly get little sleep, eat poorly, and don’t exercise, you can still perform in the zone because you’re accustomed to those habits. Players who radically improve their diets and start exercising frequently can struggle at first to handle the dramatic increase in mental functioning that occurs as a result. Don’t let that deter you, of course. Improving these habits is never a bad thing, just be prepared for the adjustment period that may accompany them.
Emotional state. Emotions can have an important impact on your energy levels and give you the boost you need to reach the zone. It’s common for players to perform at very high levels the first time they move up to a new stake, possibly due to an increase in anxiety. The pressure
to perform at a more challenging level gets them amped up and propels them to play in the zone. When a player is feeling inspired by, for exam- ple, a friend who just won a big tournament, that inspiration can light a fire within them and raise their energy to zone levels. Your mind will utilize any source of energy, even an emotion with a sometimes-negative connotation like anger. If you are feeling bored or unmotivated, anger can serve as a mental boost to kick your mind back into gear.
It is important to realize that although these emotions can have positive implications on your game, they should not be relied upon as a consistent and reliable way to play in the zone. To utilize them in this way at all, you have to be able to exercise a high level of mental and emotional con- trol. In addition, you don’t want to grow dependent on so many external factors, e.g., opponents, friends, and stakes. It is much more effective to discover ways to affect and control your energy levels from within.
Goals. Motivation is a powerful source of energy, and goals provide structure and direction for that energy. The clearer your goals, the more intense and well-directed your motivation will be. When you have weak- nesses in your goals, your energy gets dispersed in too many directions and your motivation suffers as a result. When you are able to estab- lish your exact targets, you can then effectively focus all of your motiva- tion and energy on reaching them. And in doing this, you significantly increase your chances of success. The topic of goals is vast, and will be discussed in more detail in Chapter 6.
Degree of challenge. While playing in soft games is often the most profitable way to game-select, keep in mind that you need to be suf- ficiently challenged in order to reach the zone. One of the most pop- ular theories about the zone comes from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian psychology professor and the author of the book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience3. He defines being in the zone as a state of “flow” whereby a person is fully immersed in what they are doing. Csikszentmihalyi asserts that in order to achieve this state of flow, a balance must be struck between the skill of the performer and the chal- lenge of the task. In other words, the performer needs to be sufficiently challenged and have enough skill in that task to meet the challenge. The graphic below illustrates the relationship between skill and challenge:
As you can see, the size of the challenge and the amount of skill you have aren’t important separately; it’s the relationship between the two that determines your ability to reach the zone. When your skills are low and the challenge is low, or when the challenge is high and your skills are also high, you can perform in the zone. However, if you’re a massive underdog, you’ll be overwhelmed by the challenge and according to Csikszentmihalyi, you’ll experience anxiety, not flow. Conversely, if you expect to easily crush a weak opponent, you’ll get bored by a challenge that’s too low and fall out of the zone.
Of course, this relationship isn’t always true. There are many instances of players who raised their games to incredibly high levels despite being severely outmatched. In addition, there are many players who ignore the size of their edge and love the challenge of competing no matter how weak the opponent. This highlights the power of perspective; as Csikszentmihalyi explains, “It’s not the ‘real’ challenges presented by the situation that count, but those that the person is aware of.”