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on playing in the Zone

May 20, 2010

By “zone” here I don’t mean zone D or zone O, but that mentalphysical space you can get to when you are playing, moving as a team with beauty, flow.

If you’ve ever studied the psychology of Flow, you might have heard of the “zone of optimal arousal”. You might remember the upside-down U/bell curve where you move from boredom to flow, from flow to anxiety.

What you might not know is that these curves look different for gross motor movements than they do for fine motor skills. A sports psychologist mentioned this to me the other day, that in diving the “anxiety/flow/arousal” curve is much steeper and “to the left” than it is for a team sport such as perhaps rugby.

What might this mean for Ultimate? Consider the following (hypothetical, unproven) chart:

Perhaps it explains, partially, two phenomena. First, the call to “stay chilly” on O when handlers near the endzone. Second, the so-called conservation of greatness wherein “player who has just made a great play and as a result has possession of the disc is likely to commit a throwing error turnover due to the rush of adrenaline from the great play”.

What does this mean for coaching and for training? I’m not quite sure, but I do believe that understanding and training with “arousal curves” in mind might help make better (Ultimate) athletes of us all.

How so? Perhaps it’s because we think explicitly about threat modulation as we lift or sprint, practice on the field or off, and develop mechanisms and modalities to stay chilly or fire it up on-demand, perhaps even as quickly as you need to execute a chilly low I/O break before busting it out gross-motor style with an upline cut. Which begs the question, do we train and practice this relationship between chilly and hot, tension and relaxation (of a different sort), in the gym? Should we?

I don’t know, I just know that it’s great to watch kids alternate KB swings and sprints on the field, and maybe it’d be even funnier to see ’em throw mini-discs for accuracy alternating with 50 lb. sandbag get-ups, give and go alternating with sandbell/medball throws.

So, are you playing in the zone? …which one(s)?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 20, 2010 12:28 pm

    I sometimes get into this zone when I play, but I don’t know what causes it. Some days I play consistent and flat. Other days, I get so fired up and I go nuts. I’m still trying to figure out how to control where I go on this curve.

    “Emotional arousal” is a really good way to label the y axis in those charts btw. Maybe it’s just a matter of controlling (perhaps NOT controlling) one’s emotions?

    • Leslie Wu permalink
      May 20, 2010 5:52 pm

      Perhaps! I’ve been reading _The Inner Game of Tennis_ — the Inner Game of Ultimate any one?

      That talks more about the importance of letting go of an excess of conscious thought, a bit less than about using emotion although there is an anecdote in _TIGoTennis_ about using the emotions you are having that day (anger, excitement) to the best possible measure.

      I definitely want to write a few more points on the “Inner Game” of Ultimate since I def know much more about the “Outer Game” of Ultimate Training than the inner!

      The way I think about it also includes thinking about the sympathetic vs parasympathetic nervous system response, if that makes sense to you. Relaxation (Lakers coach meditation anyone?) and deep breathing, focus and HRV, splashing water in your face (actually increases parasympathetic response!) vs getting-into-fight-mode. All good techniques, one that good coaches know and apply, and good athletes respond well too…

      Perhaps elite athletes internalize these means of amping up and amping down, and know where they need to be. I realized at UPA Regionals that there are times when a coach yelling “run” at me actually helps but of course that’s a tricky line to walk probs as a coach for college-sport athletes.

  2. James permalink
    May 21, 2010 5:44 am

    Bruce Siddle has done some research on BPM vs. Motor Skills. I haven’t taken the time to read much of his original research, but it’s fairly widespread in police/military training literature. From the Effingham County Dive Rescue website:

    “From “Siddle” we summarize the following; from 70 beats per minute (bpm) to approximately 115 bpm we physically have the ability to perform fine motor functions at a quality level. From 70bpm to about 140 bpm we can complete complex motor skills at a quality level of performance. At heartrate over 140 bpm our ability to perform fine motor skills is all but gone and complex motor skills are very sub-standard; gross motor skills is all that remains efficient and actually increase in quality. ”

    The evolutionary reasoning was that as BPM increase, the body ‘assumes’ that danger is correspondingly increasing and blood ought to be shunted away from limbs and into the costal/abdominal muscles for organ protection.

    Following this, I would think that two factors play into elite athlete’s abilities to play ‘in the zone.’ First, physiological freaks like Federer have naturally superior cardiovascular systems, reducing overall BPM levels. Second, elite athletes have typically trained and retrained even the most unlikely and awkward movements in their sport (like the layout), reducing sympathetic nervous response to these stimuli. So, the player who lays out in pickup and scrimmages and practices throwing after Snertz ought to have fewer ‘Rule of 11’ moments. Of course, other factors are naturally involved – a crushing heckle delivered right before a throw might be enough to spike an otherwise mellow heart rate out of the target zone and result in a crowd-pleasing turn.

    A couple links:

  3. Tiff permalink
    May 31, 2010 9:03 pm

    Nice post- I’ve always thought it was cool that psychology and ultimate use ‘flow’ in complementary ways.

    Turning it on the endzone also happens because the cutters go nuts and crowd or otherwise don’t use space as well. But in general I agree that intuitively handling suffers more than cutting during ‘hot’ play. The idea of practicing hot w/cold is pretty interesting. It seems like some drills that require sprinting to a throw are in the ballpark, although those are sometimes said to be to ‘practice throwing while tired’ which is almost the exact opposite of what you’re talking about 🙂

    As an aside: when I learned about the U-shaped curve, one of the differences was between overlearned vs. new skills. New skills requiring a lot of control and mental effort are much more susceptible to choking under pressure, while things you’ve practiced a million times you might actually do better under performance pressure (curve moves right). I think the idea is that practice turns a fine motor task into a gross motor task, or a complex one into a simple (or “chunked”) one. I wonder if there are any handlers out there who claim to throw better in a (high-stakes) game? But even if not, a handler’s two curves (handling and cutting) are probably closer together than a cutter’s would be.

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