I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope…” – T.S. Eliot

In an article from last week entitled “Slow Down to Speed Up,” I talked about how the highest level of achievement in the hurdles comes when you enter “The Zone,” where you can execute all the aspects of speed and technique without the need for any conscious thought, while competing under very stress-filled, high-pressure conditions. For this article, I want to focus more on this elusive, nebulous concept that in sports we call “The Zone,” because it’s difficult enough to describe, and difficult enough to get to, that it merits looking into in depth.

First, let’s back up in order to go forward. “The Zone,” really, is any meditative state – when the mind is relaxed and one’s attention is focused, unaffected by distractions even while aware of their presence. This state of being can occur while engaged in even the most mundane activity, such as sweeping the kitchen floor or mowing the front lawn. That is why many eastern philosophers have said that, to the Awakened Mind, there is no such thing as boredom, because all acts are meditative, prayerful. In other words, if you get bored sweeping the floor, you’ll get bored running the hurdles. The problem is not with the task, but with you.

Along those same lines, The Zone, to look at it another way, is a personal space. You feel removed from the world around you even as you stand at the center of it. There’s a student in one of my classes, Caroline, whom I have taught for the past two years. Whenever I give the kids time to work on a paper during class, Caroline pulls her iPod out of her bookbag, places the earbuds in her ears, opens up her MacBook, and gets into her zone. Throughout the period, I’ll be helping other students with their papers, students will be having quiet conversations with each other, etc. But Caroline, with a very peaceful, contented look on her face, will keep clicking away on her keyboard. She gets more done than anyone else in the room. I remember one time early last year I approached her and asked if her essay was coming along okay. She jerked her head up, totally surprised, totally unaware that I had been standing beside her. She glared at me briefly, before realizing it was me and not one of her peers. Then she lamented, holding her head in her hands, “Mr. McGill, I was in the zone.” Oops. I apologized and told her to keep working, but the damage had been done. I had invaded her personal space. I had stepped inside her bubble. From then I made a mental note to myself: When Caroline is in the zone, leave her alone.

That’s a rule I now apply to everyone everywhere, including myself. The rules are, when you’re in the zone, you have no obligation to engage in ordinary conversation, to follow the normal societal customs of politeness. So, if I’m running through the neighborhood and a neighbor waves at me, I have no obligation to wave back. If my wife is in the living room working on a piece of jewelry that she’s making, she has no obligation to reply to my “Hey what’s up.” If my stepson is in his room practicing on his guitar and I come knocking on the door, he has no obligation to open it.

Thing about it is, we rarely, in everyday life, get in the zone. We’re way too easily distracted. The problem with that is, we can’t reasonably expect to be able to enter The Zone in a hurdle race if we don’t get in the habit of entering The Zone in our daily activities. It’s like anything else, if you don’t practice it, you can’t get better at it. Or to phrase it old-school, If you don’t use it, you lose it.

But we live in a world that is so fast-paced that it requires us to be proficient multi-taskers who get three things done at once and then move on to the next three things. We get things done to get them out of the way. We don’t expect, or even hope to enjoy the activities themselves. We do everything out of a sense of duty, out of a sense of obligation, with a specific, tangible goal in mind. Students assume that if they work their butts off in their classes but don’t get into the college of their choice, then all their hard work was wasted. Athletes assume that if they work their butts off all season but don’t win a championship, then all their hard work was wasted. So we’re always chasing something. We’re stuck in this mindset that if we work hard, we “deserve” some sort of tangible reward.

And why are we so focused on rewards? Because we don’t enjoy the process itself. So material reward serves as our sole motivation. As students, we feel like our teachers only care about us if we do well in their class. We don’t like doing homework, we don’t like writing papers, we don’t like corny projects and lab experiments. As athletes, we feel like our coaches only care about us if we do well in our events. We don’t like practice, we don’t like training, we don’t like lifting weights. Realizing that no one reallycares about us except for what we can produce, we become cynical. We put ourselves through much drudgery because of our hope that it will “pay off” in the end. So we’re making this huge emotional investment, this huge time investment, counting on the fact that once we achieve “success,” that once we reach our destination, the journey will have been well worth it.

Not a very healthy way to live.

Truth of the matter is, even if we do get into the college of our choice, even if we do win a championship, we’ll be happier that the school year or track season is finally over than we will that we reached our goal. But when the next year rolls around we’ll keep grinding it out. Because that’s the only way to keep our scholarship. Or that’s the only way to  impress prospective job recruiters. Whatever the next concrete goal is, we’ll chase it down, believing that this one is what we really wanted all along, that achieving this goal will fulfill us in ways the previous goals couldn’t.

But if you ever want to enter The Zone on the track, in a hurdle race, you have to unlearn that mode of operation. You have to change your entire approach to how you live your life, to how you approach your daily activities. The world we live discourages us from living in the moment, from being fully conscious, fully present, fully engaged in what we are doing in this moment. Those who preach such a gospel are written off as cornballs who are out of touch with reality. Even a ridiculously successful coach like Phil Jackson, who has coached eleven teams to NBA championships, is an outsider among his coaching peers, his coaching methods have not become the norm, and his former assistants can’t find head coaching jobs. But the reason Jackson’s methods have worked is because he understands, in a very non-corny way, that the moment is the only reality we have. The past is gone, and the future has yet to arrive.

* * * * *

The mindset that will prevent an athlete from ever entering The Zone is the “I Hope So” mindset. Last week I was working with one of my female hurdlers who was getting frustrated that she wasn’t progressing as quickly as she would’ve liked. She got so frustrated that I cut the workout short. After practice I said to her, “Listen, everything is going to be in place by the time it needs to be. By the time spring rolls around and the weather breaks and it’s time to run fast, you’ll be running fast.”

She shrugged her shoulders, unconvinced. “I hope so.”

Translation: “I suck at life. I suck at hurdles. I don’t even know why I’m even out here trying.”

We ended up talking for a long time as I tried to rebuild her confidence. The thing about that girl – and I’ve seen it plenty of times with plenty of athletes – is that she wanted success too much. And yes, it is possible to want it too much. She wanted it so much that her emotions ended up sabotaging her own efforts. A simple rule to follow is, don’t try to solve tomorrow’s problems today. Solve today’s problems today. That girl’s agitation had much to do with worrying that she couldn’t three-step over five hurdlesnow. My point was, we’re gonna get there eventually. But for now, let’s focus on what you can correct in your mechanics that will enable the three-step to come more easily. You can’t solve level 10 problems when you’re at level 3. You can’t solve grad school problems when you’re in middle school. Look too far ahead and you’ll never get to where you’re going, and your own over-eagerness will be the reason why.

The lesson here is, wanting it too much creates tension, anxiety, a lack of faith – in oneself, in one’s coach, in the program as a whole. The words “I hope so” are a red flag to me. They’re an indication of a mind that is not still. And if you ever want to get to a point where you can run a hurdle race free of conscious thought, you need to have a mind that knows how to be still. And the only way to learn how to be still is to practice it. Not just on the track, but in everything you do.

After the 1996 Olympics, Michael Johnson came out with an autobiography entitled Slaying the Dragon. In one of the later chapters, he talks extensively about dealing with pressure. Johnson points out that, in preparation for big races, we either make one of two mistakes, both of which represent extremes. In some cases, we’ll pump ourselves up too much, telling ourselves, “This is it. This is everything I’ve trained for. It’s now or never. Let’s go!” Or, on the other extreme we’ll say, “This is just another meet. No pressure. Just go out there and do what you do.” In the first example, we put so much pressure on ourselves that we’re basically setting ourselves up to fall short of our own expectations. In the second example, we’re lying to ourselves, trying to convince ourselves we don’t really care when in fact we really do.

Johnson’s advice is to acknowledge that you care, acknowledge that you want it, but to focus on executing instead of focusing on results.

Really, what it comes down to is, you have to drop the idea that anything “must” happen. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to excel. There’s nothing wrong with being competitive, with wanting to win. In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with it. Really, you can’t ever reach The Zone as a hurdler by circumventing the competitive mindset. The whole point of running against other people is to bring out the best in yourself. You can’t do it without them. But what you don’t want to do is judge yourself as a person by how you perform on the track.  That’s where you create a mindset where you’re so scared of how you’ll feel after the race if you lose, and so hungry for how you’ll feel after the race if you win, that you can’t even focus on the race itself.

Ultimately, it’s not the pressure of high expectations that we’re afraid of. It’s not fear of letting others down, or falling short of our goals that we’re afraid of. When the big race comes – the championship race, the race we’ve been training all year for, all our lives for – it’s the moment we’re afraid of. Because we never live in the moment, because we haven’t trained our minds to do so, we find excuses to avoid facing it. We have our post-race explanations scripted in our minds before the gun even goes off. “Where’d that headwind come from?” “Man, that starter held us in set too long.” “Could’ve sworn the dude to the left of me false-started.” “Hit that third hurdle and that threw me off my rhythm. I’d’ve run a personal best otherwise.” And the list goes on. Because, in our training and in our daily lives, we’re always projecting toward some future event, always striving toward some future goal, when the moment finally comes, we back down from it. We don’t know how to face it.

That’s why, before big meets, I spend more time preparing my athletes mentally than physically. I tell my athletes, you can’t back down from the moment. You can’t train and prepare and then “hope” to do your best. If you prepared to do your best, go out there and do your best, whatever that may be. If your best doesn’t get you to the next round, or get you first place, or whatever your goal is, you can live with it. It’ll be a bitter pill to swallow, but you can live with it, and, once the initial pain wears off, you can feel good about yourself. What you can’t live with is knowing you could have done better – that you would have done better, if you hadn’t backed down from the moment.

Another thing I tell my athletes is, don’t try to suppress negative thoughts. They’re not really “negative.” It’s not “negative” to think that you might lose, that you might not make the finals, that you might hit a hurdle, that you might have a bad start. These are natural concerns. And the more work you’ve put into your training, the greater these concerns become. The problem is when these thoughts become obsessive, when the athlete becomes convinced that some sort of disaster will happen.

The mind thinks. That’s what it does. Suppressing thoughts doesn’t decrease anxiety. In fact, it has the opposite effect. Your anxiety increases because you are still worried that bad things could happen, but you’re trying to convince yourself that you’re not. It doesn’t work. A lot of people say you should try to think “positive” thoughts. That doesn’t work either. You’re still tense because now you’re hoping that you won’t hit hurdles instead of fearing that you will. You’re hoping that you do have a good start instead of fearing that you won’t. The mindset is no different really. Fear disguised as hope is still fear.

The meditative mind, the quiet mind, is observant. It observes without judging. And that’s the approach you should take in regards to your thoughts in the moments leading up to a big race. Observe your fears. Don’t judge them. Allow them to be. Look your worries in the eye. Stare them down. Not in a confrontational way. Not with the attitude that you will overcome them or conquer them. But calmly. With the realization that they wield no real power over you. Think the thoughts through. Gradually, what will happen is, the fears will dissipate. And you will understand that all you can do on this particular day is run as fast as you can. From there, you will make the conscious decision to run as fast as you can. Even if the wind is blowing in your face. Even if the starter does hold everybody in set too long. Even if you did have the bubbleguts this morning after eating that bagel.

What you have to recognize is, the truly focused mind doesn’t block out anything. It is aware of everything, but not bothered by anything. “Everything” includes all internal dialogue as well as external factors, such as the ones mentioned at the end of the previous paragraph. It also includes people talking to you, walking and talking all around you, planes flying overhead, crows squawking in the distance, the voice of the public address announcer. Again, you’re aware of all of it, but affected by none of it. To enter The Zone during the race, you have to enter a very quiet, meditative, prayerful mindset before you step into the blocks. Bringing out the best in yourself as a hurdler compels you to become a deeply spiritual human being, whether you consider yourself one in the strictly religious sense or not. You have to go deep within yourself to find the best within yourself and to bring it out into the physical world, where other human beings can see it and be inspired by it.

So in those final minutes leading up to the race, you empty your mind of thought. You understand that thought can’t help you now. In practice, you relied on thought all the time as you taught your body all these foreign movements that it had to learn in order to be able to hurdle efficiently. In earlier meets, you relied on thought to help you execute the lessons you were learning in practice. You entered races with one or two key cues in mind: don’t forget to lean, or bring the trail leg to the front, for example. But now, all you can do is run. You must let go of control and trust your body completely. You must trust it to know, instinctively, what to do, how to do it, and how to make subtle, barely perceptible adjustments along the way. After having taught the body all year long – in workout after workout, drill after drill, rep after rep – what you wanted it to do, now the time has come to send it out there on its own.

* * * * *

Being in The Zone in a race is a different experience altogether. It’s a whole other world. It’s a very strange experience, a very weird experience. It’s not the same as the thrill of victory. It’s not dependent upon victory, and it doesn’t happen when you cross the finish line. It happens during the race. It’s not thrilling, in any typical sense, at all. It’s quiet. It’s peaceful. But it’s a peace that hums, that vibrates, that pulses with energy. What’s weird about it is that it’s not something that you do. It’s not something that you accomplish. It’s not something you can chase. It’s not something you can strive toward. It’s something that happens to you. You don’t expect it. You’re centered on getting out of the blocks well, beating everyone to the first hurdle, keeping your rhythm, managing your speed, negotiating each obstacle, dealing with opponents’ elbows and forearms. Then all of a sudden, this feeling emerges. You forget you’re in a race. Your body is moving effortlessly but with enormous fluid power. You are in The Zone.

When this feeling arrives, you have discovered what it means to be a hurdler. Even if the feeling lasts only one second, it can have a profound long-term effect upon you as an athlete and as a person. Its effect is much more profound than that of winning a race, regardless of how big the race is. Winning makes you proud. It provides concrete, external validation for all your hard work. It validates the chase, it validates the goal-setting. Winning feeds the ego. It is a form of material wealth. It gives you the right to say you’re better than everybody else. It gives you the right to raise your arms in triumph.

But being in the zone takes you in an entirely different direction. It doesn’t make you proud. It makes you humble. It can transform you in the same manner, and to the same degree, that surviving a life-threatening illness can transform you. When you realize that your real power lies not in asserting your will, but in surrendering it, that it lies not in overcoming obstacles, but in becoming one with them, you liberate yourself from arrogance, from cynicism, from any notions of superiority or inferiority. You free yourself from the self-centered desires and harsh judgments of your ego. Once you’ve been in The Zone, you can never go back to being the old you. In the words of the Buddha, you have Awakened. In the words of Jesus, you have been Born Again. To put it in non-religious terms, you are wise. You can see through the lies of this world, you can never be fooled by them again, and you will no longer allow them to govern your life.

* * * * *

Though The Zone is not something you can chase, it is something you must be open to. It’s something you can prepare yourself for. That which you chase will run away from you. But if you learn to be still, it will come to you. You must create space for it, by removing the clutter in your mind. And the only way to remove the clutter is to practice doing so on a daily basis. Slow down. De-emphasize multi-tasking. While I know that time is always an issue, seek out those moments when you can hone in on one individual activity at a time. For example, when doing your math homework, give your full attention to your math homework. When writing a paper, give your full attention to writing the paper. Do so without focusing on the grade, without trying to predict what the teacher wants. Instead of listening to music strictly as background noise, give yourself ten or fifteen minutes to do nothing but sit there and listen to a couple songs. You’ll be surprised at how much more clearly you hear the music, at how much you can hear in it that you missed before, though the songs are very familiar. When cleaning your room or mowing the lawn, don’t worry about the fact that you have three other things you need to get done before you can go over to your friend’s house. Put all your focus into cleaning your room. Don’t half-ass it. Clean the room. What you’ll find, when you repeatedly put all of your focus and energy into what you are doing at that moment, is that you’ll learn how not to rush, you’ll learn how to get things done without wasting so much time and effort. Your mind will become less distracted, and therefore your work will become more efficient. You’ll find that even though you’re moving “slower,” you’re actually getting more done.

Then, in your training, focus on doing your best in each individual workout, on each individual rep. On the track, over hurdles, in the weight room. Be aware of the bigger picture, but don’t focus on the bigger picture. If you focus too much on the big picture throughout the training process, the big picture will overwhelm you, and you’ll be plagued with self-doubt every step of the way. Clear the hurdle in front of you. Literally and metaphorically. Give your full attention to the hurdle in front of you. You have to get into the habit of paying attention to what you’re doing right now. If you get into that habit, you’ll find that practice sessions will be more enjoyable, that the quality of your workouts will improve, that challenges that once seemed impossible will seem quite manageable.

The truth is, you don’t have to “hope” to do well. You don’t have to “try.” You don’t have to “do” anything except stay Awake. Real control lies in letting go of control. It lies not in what you do, but in who you are. When you learn to live in the moment every moment, when you learn to give your full attention to every moment, when your emotional equilibrium no longer depends upon on results, that’s when your every act becomes a meditation. You are not just in The Zone, you are The Zone.

© 2011 Steve McGill

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