If you had an eye on the NFL playoffs this past season, you probably saw a few strange things—the lowest scoring Super Bowl in decades, the (now) Los Angeles Chargers winning their first playoff game in 5 seasons, and the Chicago Bears losing a game on a heartbreaking field goal attempt that agonizingly bounced off of one of the uprights and back toward where it came. And it is the last item on this list, that missed field goal and the heartache that is sure to plague Bears kicker Cody Parkey, that is a perfect example of the value of sports psychology relative to athletic peak performance, more commonly known as The Zone.
First off, what is The Zone? Tiger Woods described it as putting and seeing the cup as larger as a basketball hoop. Michael Jordan described it as there being no hoop at all, that every shot was good no matter what. Wayne Gretzky said it was when the game felt like practice. Dock Ellis, in regard to his infamous no-hitter, said it was like throwing to a glove ten feet tall and ten feet wide.
So, suffice to say that The Zone is a mental state, and not a physical one. And this makes sense. When asked about it, Dr. Steven Bucky, an Alliant professor who has worked for both the San Diego Chargers and San Diego Padres relates that, “Pro athletes would use a low-90’s percentage to describe how much of their game is mental,” and that, “Nobody would argue with the notion that a significant amount of performance has to do with mental skills.” So then, why is so much of professional preparation based on the physical training and readiness of these athletes instead? Again, as Dr. Bucky puts it, “When I’m in the locker room, they’re working on the field, in the weight room—the vast majority of what you see is physical, which is inconsistent with what they say most affects their performance.”
Knowing how to routinely achieve a Zone state is something that still plagues athletes and psychologists alike today, since, despite its commonly known presence and its positive effect on performance, there has been no conclusive link to a physical chemical state that we could definitively call The Zone. It appears to be a purely mental aspect that seems to come and go as it pleases. It merely appears that while all people are capable of entering The Zone, some definitely can do it more frequently than the rest of us, which, when coupled with talent and hard work, gives us the greats and idols of sport that are remembered for generations.
The questions that need to be asked, then, are: How can I help myself get there? Is this a learnable skill? And if so, what about any possible downsides?
Those first two questions have been and continue to be the subject of study to this day, but, as for the third question…
The Other Side—The Yips
Just as Yin and Yang, chocolate and vanilla, The Zone has a counterpart, a mirror-image dark half that is peak failure, and it is commonly called The Yips. The Yips is a significant fear for many athletes, both professional and amateur, and is one that can compound on itself over time, especially after significant blunder.
Dr. Bucky relates a story on this subject from his time with the then San Diego Chargers:
“I was waiting with the wives in the parking lot, and then ran into the kicker who just missed a game winning field goal. He tells the kicker’s wife, ‘I want to go over and say hello.’ She says, ‘He’ll appreciate that you came over, but he is going to be in such a bad mood, that we’ve all learned to stay away.’”
This is very telling. Not only is being this deep in one’s head the wrong way to play professional football, it is an attitude that can persist beyond a day, beyond a week, and even in extreme circumstances, into the months or years beyond the initial Yips-inducing incident.
And The Yips can be caused by any number of things—from in-game failures, to issues in players’ personal lives, as Dr. Bucky tells us from another story from his time with the Chargers:
“Both a Chargers running back and punt returner had fumbled in a game after having not fumbled at any point before during the season. Both then fumbled again on the exact next play they were involved in. At the time, it was clear they were thinking about the first one when the second one happened. Thinking about it takes away from focus, and focus is an incredibly important part of being an athlete.
When I spoke with them after the game as to what caused the first fumbles, both had a similar answer: they had fights with the women in their lives the night before.”
With the above story in mind, it’s clear that the mental state of professional athletes is uniquely—and some would say shockingly—fragile. So, the question becomes: What can be done about it?
What Sports Psychologists Can and Do Achieve
First and foremost, Dr. Bucky recommends that athletes, or anyone really, work toward learning to compartmentalize their thoughts, to work to separate their emotional state from the job they are trying to do and the results they are trying to achieve. While this can be difficult to achieve, it is considered to be the most-effective therapeutic method of dealing with the issues an athlete can develop while out on the playing field.
Another option is to engage in regular sessions with a sports psychologist, which is easier than ever now that almost every team in the Big Four Leagues (MLB, NBA, NFL, and NHL) already employ such a full-time position to ensure the quality of mental health of their players, coaches, and anyone else that is working to win games for their respective franchise. This is also one of the many specialties that can be borne out of attaining a Clinical Psychology degree.
And, as the habits of the pros trickle down to the collegiate level and below, as these things always have, sports psychology represents an exciting and growing specialty within the psychology field. As Dr. Bucky wonderfully puts it, “I didn’t become a psychologist to work with pro athletes. It’s an accident—a wonderful accident…This is an example of the beauty of our profession, that there are many wonderful and fun things we can be asked to do.”
So, you can learn more about how to become a sports psychologist, and even study with Dr. Steven Bucky, in our Clinical Psychology programs, offered as both a PhD and as a PsyD, through our California School of Professional Psychology.