In life, as well as in poker, we develop and maintain routines. Imagine how complex your days would be if you had to think about each mundane task: brushing your teeth, getting dressed, eating, and driving your car. After several hours, you would be exhausted. Many people take for granted how many routines and habits are ingrained into the fabric of their lives until their routines are disrupted. If you have ever moved into a new home, you know what this is like. The changes to your routines and habits are a big reason why moving is so stressful. You no longer easily know where things are, so it takes more time and mental energy to do what used to be second nature. Even something as simple as making a morning cup of coffee becomes harder since your coffee, cups, and coffee maker are in a new place. Eventually, you settle into a routine and life becomes easier.
In poker, you can increase your chances of getting into the zone by developing and maintaining consistent routines. When you get into the zone more frequently as a result of your routine, a causal relationship can grow between them. When this association becomes strong enough, you’ll begin to anticipate playing in the zone just by starting your routine.
So, even when your energy isn’t ideal before you begin your routine, that association alone can act as a spark. However, it is important to not depend on this association as the sole catalyst for getting you into the zone. That dependence compromises your mental edge and practically guarantees that you will not play in the zone. Instead, make executing your routine a high priority and remain committed to keeping it up to date. While you want a routine that is consistent, that does not mean it should be static. As soon as your routine becomes stale, it starts to lose its effectiveness.
Look at any successful athlete, amateurs and professionals alike—they all have structured routines. One major reason is that their routine puts their minds in a bubble where nothing can distract them from focusing on their performance. Your poker routine serves the same purpose, and allows you to become completely immersed in the action. Once inside that bubble, only allow things inside that help you to play at your abso- lute best. Playing in the zone is tough enough under ideal circumstances, so it’s worth removing all activities from your routine that compromise your performance.
Your zone routine must include two essential components: a warm-up and a cool-down. Warming up before you play and cooling down after- wards eventually need to become such a natural part of playing poker that you do them automatically. If you have struggled in the past to add these elements to your game, just remember that learning your routine follows the rules of the ALM and can take a while to become learned to the level of Unconscious Competence. In the early stages of develop- ing your warm-up and cool-down, you might need to try several options before determining what works best for you. Don’t expect it to work perfectly right away, and don’t overload yourself by trying to do too much too quickly. With enough time and effort, incorporating a warm-up and cool-down will eventually go from feeling like a chore to an automatic part of your routine.
Every player has a warm-up, even if they are not aware of it. A warm- up is simply what you do just prior to the start of playing poker: drinking coffee, driving to the casino, reviewing hand histories, or simply turning on your computer and firing up tables. The goal, however, is to create a structured warm-up routine that:
- Allows you to build momentum so you’re ready to play at a high level from the start.
- Gets you ready to quickly identify and correct any tactical or men- tal game problems.
- Creates a buffer against excessive stress and pressure.
- Separates poker from everything else in your life. Regardless of what you’re currently doing to warm up, this is the question you have to ask yourself: Is what I’m doing before I play preparing me to play in the zone, or at least at a high level? While many players have a structured warm-up, few can say that it adequately prepares them to play in the zone. If your warm-up needs work, that doesn’t mean it needs to change entirely. You just have to figure out what aspects of your warm- up are working which ones aren’t. You can then steadily remove what’s broken and add new elements that increase both the quality of your play and the duration that you can sustain that quality. Consider adding the following steps to your warm-up in the order below:
- Remove and minimize the potential for distractions.
- Review long-term goals and set short-term goals for the day, session, or tournament. These can be a combination of tactical, mental, or other poker-related goals.
- Review strategic notes that will help you to correct your tactical and/or mental game weaknesses.
- Do some deep breathing and/or visualization.
The first step narrows your focus and creates the bubble around poker by removing all potential distractions. Depending on the environment in which you typically play, there might be a long list of potential distrac- tions. Write them out so that you can check them off before each time you play. You will then be ready to move on to reviewing and setting goals.
Review your existing long-term goals so you’re reminded of how impor- tant this session or tournament is in the pursuit of them. Then, review or set specific goals for the day. One essential short-term goal is to play in the zone. As you probably suspect, setting this goal makes getting to the zone more likely. This is true because you first have to acknowledge that getting there isn’t automatic, and that forces you to make the necessary adjustments. You can also set results and quality goals, such as increas- ing the length of your session, playing a certain number of tables, and improving specific areas of your tactical or mental game. Make sure you’re aware of the impact that your goals have on your energy and the degree to which you feel challenged. If they are too high or too challeng- ing, you may only be able to play in the zone for a short time, if at all. On the other hand, if your goals aim too low, they won’t generate enough motivation to play in the zone.
Once you have your goals clear in your mind, the next step is to review your tactical strategy. This is similar to what most professional athletes do prior to every game. They get themselves ready to win by reviewing the competi- tion, their strategy, and areas that need improvement. You need to do the same thing with both your tactical and mental game. Begin by reviewing your C-game, and then steadily work upwards toward your A-game.
Be prepared to improve the back end of your range—your C-game— every time you play. Remind yourself of the areas you’re working on in your B-game, and minimally in your A-game as well. You can do this by reviewing the following:
• Hands in a hand replayer along with a list of corrections to your mistakes.
• Your tilt profile along with your injecting logic statements and strategic reminder.
• Notes from a coaching session, strategy article, or training video specifically aimed at an area you are working on.
Reviewing these keeps the corrections to these errors in the front of your mind, which gives you the opportunity to correct them before they become problematic.
The last step of the warm-up is not as essential as the previous ones, but it increases your chances of playing with an ideal level of energy—and thus your chances of getting into the zone. Deep breathing and visualiza- tion are two ways to quickly solidify what you’ve done up to this point in your warm-up so that it can be effective throughout your entire session. For example, you can take slow, deep breaths into the lower part of your stomach, known as “diaphragmatic breathing,” for a minute or two. This helps to clear and steady the mind.
Even though the value of visualization has often been oversold, it can still be a useful tool in preparation and learning. It is important for players to realize that imagining what they want to happen is not enough to, for example, win a tournament or beat the best players in the world. If this were true, the power of your visualization would matter more than the amount of poker skill you have. Clearly this is not the case.
Visualization is often portrayed as a tool to become instantly successful, even though research shows that visualization requires a high level of tactical skill to even be effective6. In sports, visualization works in tandem with an athlete’s existing skills, and has a significant effect on the body’s muscle memory. When athletes visualize an action involved in their sport, such as running, kicking, and jumping, their muscles fire in the same coor- dinated patterns that they do when the athlete is actually performing those actions. Many even report sensing their bodies move during visual- ization, even though they never physically move an inch.
Through visualization, athletes create a bridge between warm-up and competition so that they can perform at a high level from the start. It’s like a downhill skier getting in another training run moments before a big race without leaving the locker room. With visualization, they can slow down their movements like a video in slow motion and focus on features of the course, their technique, and previous practice runs. PGA Tour play- ers often envision playing the first few holes while warming up on the driving range. They picture the first hole in their minds, hit the tee shot, and then hit their second shot from where they envision the first tee shot stopping. This rehearsal isn’t guaranteed to improve their performance, just as practice doesn’t guarantee that either; it can, however, improve their chances.
While there is a lack of research on the use of visualization in mental sports, it’s reasonable to conclude that this kind of practical visualization can have a similar effect in poker as it has in physical sports. One way players can use visualization is to imagine being in a situation where they tend to make mistakes. They can prepare for specific tactical goals, such as being more aggressive on the turn, making larger value bets, or bal- ancing their range. They can also use it to improve mental game issues such as tilt, which can then help them quickly recover after falling out of the zone. Just remember that you must have also acquired enough skill to be proficient in controlling tilt. If a new player uses visualization to warm up, they might imagine making a big hero call or easily quitting before they tilt, but without real skill in these areas, visualization won’t have an effect on their performance.