GETTING BACK INTO THE ZONE

Even if you’re successful at consistently playing in the zone, you will eventually fall out of it. Often, that fall seems to happen suddenly. In one moment you’re rolling along, playing great, in the flow of the action, and then all of a sudden you’re not. You make a few mistakes, feel tired or bored, and then the overaggressive regular you didn’t think much about before starts to annoy you. You go against your gut and know instantly it was a mistake. You’re shocked at how you can go from playing amazingly well to doing that! Caught in a downward spiral, you react like you’ve woken up from an amazing dream and are eager to return to it.

As you’ve already learned, getting into the zone happens for predict- able reasons, and falling out of it is no different. While the cause of your fall from the zone may seem random, it’s not. You simply lack the skill to realize how it was predictable. When in the zone, the triggers that typically lead to tilt and other mental game issues don’t have a noticeable impact because they are defused automatically. However, when the impact of each bad beat, 4-bet by a regular, or minor distraction accumulates faster than the mind can digest them, you will inevitably slip out of the zone.

In addition to major mental game issues such as tilt, fear, and low con- fidence, the following is a list of issues that can cause you to fall out of the zone:

• Fatigue
• Wide range
• Bloated brain
• Thoughts of the past or future • Hyper-awareness
• Lack of challenge
• Change in table dynamics

There is a general strategy that can be applied to each of these issues when they start to have an effect on your ability to reach the zone. If you have read TMGP, you’ll notice this strategy is similar to the one presented to address tilt and other major mental game problems. There are a few differences, however, so make sure to read through it.

Step 1: Recognition

It’s difficult to fix a problem without acknowledging that one exists. If you can first define and then pick up on the earliest signs that you’ve fallen out of the zone, you can then use this strategy to get back to the zone quicker and more efficiently. The longer you wait, the farther your mind slips from the zone and the harder it is to recover. This is why early recognition is the most important piece of the puzzle. Unfortunately, players often overlook it and assume that it happens automatically.

Recognition is a skill that becomes stronger with knowledge and experi- ence. A great resource for improving recognition is an A- to C-game analysis—a tool that expands the zone profile to include your entire men- tal game and tactical range. It will also help you to see the differences between each level of your performance in an organized way, making improvement more efficient and the zone more likely.

Follow these steps to create your A- to C-game analysis:

  • Brainstorm and gather notes about each level that your game has reached over the last three to six months (or another sample size that gives you an accurate snapshot of your current range). Think back to previous hands, sessions, and tournaments that you’ve played. What is your mental game like and what are the obvious mistakes you make when at your absolute worst? What mistakes do you make when you’re playing decently? How do you experi- ence tilt when it’s manageable and not overwhelming? What is the first tactical mistake or mental issue that indicates you’ve fallen out of the zone? Even if they’re basic, include all the things you do tactically and mentally at all levels of play.
  • If you are struggling to determine your greatest weaknesses, get a friend or coach to help you identify them. Also, make sure that your true C-game isn’t being concealed by quitting, a stop-loss, being staked, or simply not playing. This is not suggesting that you put yourself in spots where you could lose a lot of money just for the sake of evaluating your game. Instead, try and predict the mistakes that would be made if you tilted really badly, lost more buy-ins than you’d like, were playing with your own bankroll, or played on a day when you felt less than perfect.
  • Categorizeyournotesfromthefirststepusingyourzoneprofileasa starting point. The level of detail you recorded determines the num- ber of categories. If you found a lot of detail, consider using a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is the zone and 1 is your absolute worst. If you found less detail, consider using the common A- to C-game scale.

You may find it easier to define the outer extremes of your range— best and worst—and then work your way in. If you’re struggling to categorize the variations in your game, keep at it. Completing this A- to C-game analysis is similar to the zone profile, and may take you several weeks or even longer to complete.

  • Define your tactical and mental game range together so you can see how they relate. If you have two or more mental game issues, consider doing separate analyses for each issue. That way, you can see the effect that each mental game issue has on your tacti- cal decision making.
  • Study your range as you would any poker concept that you were trying to master.
  • Review your range during your warm-up so it’s fresh in your mind. This makes finding new details easier.
  • Reviewyourrangeduringyourcool-downandaddnewdetailsas you notice progress.

Without this crucial first step of recognition, your chances at recovering after slipping out of the zone are slim. All of the subsequent steps in this process depend on it. Put in the effort to build the skill of recognition and you’ll create the potential to control your game in new and valuable ways.

Step 2: Steady Your Mind

When your game slips out of the zone, you need a way to stop the bleed- ing before you start trying to climb back up. A deep breath is one way to do this. The purpose of a deep breath is not relaxation, but rather to steady and prepare the mind for the third step. If you find that standing up, stretching, or closing your eyes helps you to achieve this, then do that for this step instead. One reason to try using a deep breath is that it can be done quickly, without leaving your chair or giving your opponents any information while playing live.

Step 3: Inject Logic, Goals, or Inspiration

After you’ve steadied your mind, this step helps you to “dig deep” and work your way back into the zone. Injecting logic, goals, or inspiration into the front end of your game helps you to return to the zone by address- ing the specific problem(s) that caused you to fall out of it.

We often watch athletes dig deep within themselves to find a spark that gets them back on track after the momentum has shifted against them. When they find that spark, their resurgence is striking; it’s as if they’re a different player. In interviews afterwards, they often say that in the process of digging deep, they are able to find reasons why winning is so important to them and that fuels their drive to win. Their goals don’t change, but remembering why their goals are so important to them proves invaluable to their mental recovery. This is the essence of inject- ing logic, goals, or inspiration. Implementing this technique can give you the mental boost necessary to break through the problem and get back into the zone.

Basically, the goal of this step is to come up with a statement, goal, or inspirational note that you repeat to yourself, or say out loud. Write it down and make it easily accessible so you don’t have to rely on your memory. Also, consider using audio recordings, videos, music, or other forms of media to make the message more powerful.

Injecting logic. When minor mental game issues, such as frustration, cause you to slip out of the zone, you need a statement or phrase that cuts straight to the core of the issue. This allows it to dissipate enough for you to refocus and get back into the zone. Here are some examples of how injecting logic can help:

You get frustrated after getting coolered by a weak player.

IF IT WASN’T FOR VARIANCE, POKER WOULD NOT BE PROFITABLE. I NEED BAD PLAYERS TO WIN IN ORDER FOR ME TO MAKE MONEY

OVER THE LONG TERM.

You get overconfident after winning several pots in a row and start play- ing too many hands.

THE QUICKEST WAY TO LOSE THE MONEY I JUST MADE IS TO PLAY POORLY. I NEED TO MAKE ADJUSTMENTS, AND NOT ASSUME

I’M GOING TO WIN EVERY HAND I PLAY. THAT’S IMPOSSIBLE.

You start to feel pressure as you get close to the final table.

PRESSURE IS FUEL TO PERFORM AT MY ABSOLUTE BEST. NO MATTER WHAT HAPPENS, I’LL WALK AWAY FEELING THE BEST IF I

PLAYED MY BEST. I CAN’T CONTROL THE OUTCOME ENTIRELY, I CAN ONLY CONTROL HOW I PLAY.

Injecting goals. When you get bored, disinterested, or tired, remem- bering your goals and their importance can provide the boost of energy you need to get back into the zone. Every time you play, have your

goals—both short-term and long-term—written down and easily accessi- ble. Read and connect your actions to them. What you’re able to achieve in poker is often a direct result of the actions you take in those moments.

Injecting inspiration. Sometimes remembering your goals is not enough; you may need a stronger dose of inspiration. Fortunately, we are often inspired by the same thing over and over again. Be prepared with a sampling of things that inspire you: a meaningful song, a quote from a great athlete, a clip from a favorite movie, footage from a championship victory, or a phrase you say to yourself.

Step 4: Strategic Reminder

The previous three steps are occasionally enough to get you back into the zone, but usually you need a strategic reminder to finish the job. When you slip out of the zone, you lose access to part of your skill set. In your A- to C-game analysis, if you were able to specifically identify the tactical differences between playing in the zone and the levels below it, take it one step further and write a list of every component of your game that is lost when you slip out of the zone. Keep this list easily accessible with your injecting logic statements, goals, and inspirational notes so it can act as a guide for knowing what to focus on tactically.

Step 5: Repeat When Necessary

Once the door to exit the zone has been opened, it becomes easier to open again. For this reason, it’s likely that you’ll have to repeat these steps throughout your session or tournament. Stay ready to recognize the signs that you’ve slipped out of the zone and implement this strategy each time it happens.

When These Steps Don’t Work Right Away

Developing the skill of recovering the zone takes time, and you’ll most likely make mistakes in the process. Success will eventually come after

you gain stronger recognition of the subtle nuances in both your tacti- cal and mental game and have found injecting logic statements, goals, and inspirational notes that have proven to be effective. To speed up the process, be sure to regularly update your zone profile and mental and tactical A- to C-game analysis. Also, evaluate the effectiveness of your injecting logic statements, goals, and inspirational notes to see what adjustments need to be made.

The good thing is that even if your attempts to get back into the zone fail, doing all this work puts you in a great position to play at a high level. That means you are avoiding B- and C-game level mistakes, which over time narrows your range and makes it easier to reach the zone.

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