In sports, you're in the "zone" when you make the impossible look easy--when you swing at a golf ball and it goes straight down the fairway, or when the tennis ball zings crisply off your racquet, just where you aimed it.
The zone is a mysterious mental and physical state. Even with noisy crowd distractions or competition against talented opposition, everything seems to be quiet, movements seem effortless.
Athletes would like to experience this enchantment every time they lace on their sneakers. Unfortunately, it's not that easy.
"Most athletes have no control over the zone," said Jon Kabat-Zinn, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester. "If you want to put yourself in the zone with any regularity, the best way to do it is to train yourself mentally using meditation.
"The feelings that you have when you're in the zone are the same ones that occur naturally in meditation," according to Kabat-Zinn, who teaches meditation techniques at the University of Massachusetts Stress Reduction and Relaxation Center. He also taught meditation to the members of the 1984 U.S. Olympic rowing team. "When you meditate, it's not that you're trying to cultivate these feelings, it's just that you can't help but develop them."
Meditation has a profound effect on both mind and body. "When I meditate, I turn the world off, reduce my heart rate and make my blood pressure drop," said John Howard, an endurance athlete from Encinitas in San Diego County, who holds many world records in cycling. "When I stop meditating, anywhere between 10 minutes to a half-hour later, I'm more relaxed and better able to concentrate. Meditation is just a matter of gaining control of the mind and the body. This is something that everybody has the capacity to do."
Athletes who meditate for 20 minutes twice a day say a return to the zone is a fairly regular occurrence. "After meditating, the peaks in my athletic performance seem to stay longer and the valleys are a lot milder," said Chris Montgomery, a former Princeton University football player who started meditating in 1971 and now develops transcendental meditation (TM) programs for corporations.
"Whenever I play tennis, softball or basketball, I find that I'm at the top level of my game more often. And even though I don't play any one sport with any regularity, I'm able to actually do less and accomplish more. Because of TM, my game seems to come back to form very quickly."
Transcendental meditation was brought to the United States by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi of India in the 1950s. By sitting comfortably in a chair for 20 minutes at a time, closing your eyes and repeating a special phrase or word to yourself over and over, scientists have found several things will happen.
Brain waves will shift in a matter of seconds from alert beta rhythms to relaxed alpha rhythms; blood lactate levels will drop, and as more blood flows to the brain and skin, there will be a marked decrease of blood flow to the muscles. In this completely relaxed state, the mental and physical rest that meditators are receiving is thought to be twice as restful as deep sleep.
After a meditation session, a person will feel great quietness, alertness and freedom from physical fatigue. An athlete will notice that his game will improve, sometimes dramatically.
"Athletes are becoming more aware of the mental aspect of sports," said Dr. Gregory Sharp, an osteopathic physician at the St. Louis Sports Medicine Clinic in Chesterfield, Mo., who has been meditating for more than a decade.
"Muscle for muscle, joint for joint, athletes are pretty much similar to other athletes. It's the mental aspect that can make the difference in the final outcome of an athletic contest, and this is where TM can be a positive influence."
DeArmond Briggs, 36, began practicing TM while he was a top-ranked tennis player for the University of Arizona in the early 1970s. Briggs, now ranked No. 1 in singles in the 35-and-over category in Iowa, has found that TM keeps his mind much more settled and relaxed, and he is rarely rattled on the courts.
"I don't really think of what has already transpired or even what I'm presently doing on the court," Briggs said. "I simply react to shots. Because of TM, I've found that my reactions are quicker, my muscles are more relaxed and my body can then function to its fullest capacity."
No Quick Scheme
Meditation--by any method--has great applications for athletes. However, Scott Pengelly, sports psychologist for the Nike-sponsored Athletics West track team in Eugene, Ore., cautions that meditation is not a "get better quick" scheme. "Like a weight-lifting program, meditation takes discipline and has to be done on a regular basis to be effective," he said.
Up to now, improvement in athletic performance has yet to be directly linked to meditation, because it is virtually impossible to design a scientifically controlled test that can isolate the effects of meditation. But, Pengelly said, "As more athletes begin to meditate and then find that they're in the zone with a certain regularity, this is the only validation that they need."