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Peak Zone

In June 1958, 17-year-old Edson Arantes do Nascimento, better known as Pelé, arrived in Stockholm with the rest of the Brazilian national football team to play against Sweden in the World Cup Finals. Just before the game, as the peppy marching beats of the Brazilian national anthem rang out, Pelé’s thoughts wandered. He thought of his mother back home, too nervous to listen to the game on the radio. Then the whistle blew and the men were off. Pelé and his teammates were shocked by the skill of the Swedes, who scored their first goal within four minutes. Only then, he writes in his 1977 autobiography, did Pelé get his head in the game:

…Suddenly I felt a strange calmness I hadn’t experienced in any of the other games. It was a type of euphoria; I felt I could run all day without tiring, that I could dribble through any of their team or all of them, that I could almost pass through them physically. I felt I could not be hurt. It was a very strange feeling and one I had never felt before.

I came across this passage, believe it or not, in a study published this week in the journal Consciousness and Cognition. In it, Janet Metcalfe of Columbia University and her colleagues used Pelé’s words to define a somewhat fuzzy psychological concept: the feeling of being “in the zone.” You’re probably familiar with the feeling, especially if you’re an athlete, musician, artist, writer, or video-game aficionado. It’s the mental state of being focused intently on a specific task, a complete absorption that allows you to forget any self-consciousness and lose all sense of time. For me, it’s the (all too elusive) feeling that makes writing fun.

People have presumably been getting in the zone for millennia. But it didn’t get much scientific attention until 1990, when psychology researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi published his now-famous book, Flow. In the book Csikszentmihalyi defines flow essentially the same way that Metcalfe defines being in the zone (and her study uses the terms interchangeably). Csikszentmihalyi proposed that flow happens when a person finds a task that is optimally challenging — not too hard, not too easy, just right.

Later studies by other researchers supported this idea. But this so-called ‘balance hypothesis’, according to Metcalfe, doesn’t account for an individual’s variability. I can carry out a task with a constant level of challenge and sometimes feel in the zone and sometimes not feel it. Metcalfe uses professional basketball players as a classic example. Most players show a consistent level of ability throughout the course of a season and are faced with a steady onslaught of competition. And yet, they’ll report being in the zone in some games and in a slump in others. Why?

In 1985 a different research group gave an answer they called the hot hand phenomenon. By analyzing shooting records of the Philadelphia 76ers and the Boston Celtics, the researchers showed that players are amazingly consistent over the course of a season. Nevertheless, on games when a player happens to make a string of baskets, he will say he was in the zone or had a “hot hand.” In reality these lucky strings are statistical flukes; the player is just as good as he ever is. Nevertheless they make him perceive his own ability in a more positive light.

Metcalfe thought the hot hand data offered a big insight into what causes flow. In what she called the ‘balance-plus hypothesis’, she proposed that feeling in the zone comes from two things: an optimal level of challenge (as Csikszentmihalyi suggested) and a high level of perceived performance.


The new study tests this hypothesis. The researchers recruited 45 college students to play a Tetris-like computer game in which Xs and Os float down the screen. When the letters get to the bottom, participants are supposed to use a cursor to catch the Xs and avoid the Os. As in Tetris, when the letters come down slowly the game is fairly easy and when they come down fast it’s difficult.

On the first trial the computer would randomly choose a letter speed. On the very next trial, the participant would choose. Each trial lasted about 20 seconds, and afterwards participants were asked for two self-ratings: how much they felt “in the zone,” and how well they thought they had performed.

On the trials in which the computer selected the speeds, participants gave the highest zone ratings at moderate speeds, consistent with previous studies on the balance hypothesis. But the researchers also found that on trials in which the speed was the same — that is, the challenge to the participant was the same — they gave higher zone ratings after trials in which they had perceived their game performance to be better. (This was true even when they hadn’t, in fact, performed any better, just like the study of the basketball players.)

What’s more, the study found that both the level of challenge and perceived performance affected the participants’ choices. On the trials in which they determined the game speed, participants chose the speeds that aligned with maximum zone ratings. This underscores another important feature of flow: it’s intrinsically rewarding. Why else would they choose the speed of peak zone as their preferred level of play?

Metcalfe and her colleagues are interested in the study’s implications for everyday learning. Her past worked has shown that when figuring out what to study during a work session, students tend to choose materials that are not too hard and not too easy. The research on flow suggests that this is because these materials are the most rewarding.

But the new study adds a second variable, suggesting that students can get even more reward when learning if they perceive their efforts in a positive way. And how can they do that, you ask? On that key question, unfortunately, the current study provides no answers.

Pelé vs. the Swedish goalkeeper at the 1958 World Cup final. Photo via Wikipedia
Pelé vs. the Swedish goalkeeper at the 1958 World Cup final. Photo via Wikipedia

The science of zone is still in its infancy, for sure, and I wouldn’t put too much stock into any single new study, including this one. But Metcalfe’s ideas are intriguing enough to try to incorporate in my day-to-day habits. (Because, why not?) Perhaps there’s a way I can periodically give myself positive feedback while writing, for example. Or maybe I could try reminding myself of past successes just before starting something daunting. I’ll let you know how it goes. And in the meantime, I’d love to hear from anybody who has found their own tricks for reaching peak zone.

You might wonder, by the way, whether the Pelé anecdote I began with points to the opposite conclusion of Metcalfe’s. It was only after the Swedes scored a goal, after all, that his mind clicked into the zone. So, at that moment, wouldn’t he have perceived his performance negatively, not positively?

I won’t pretend to know what was in his mind at that moment. But from what he writes in his book, it seems that this goal actually reminded him, and his team, of how good they really were:

“For a moment we were stunned, deaf to the screams of delight from the stands, as if we couldn’t believe such a thing could happen to us,” Pelé writes. Their next emotion wasn’t panic, but excitement. It was “as if the Swedish goal was what Brazil had needed all along to pull us out of our slump.”

12 thoughts on “Peak Zone

  1. Best prompt I’ve ever had was the book “The Inner Game of Tennis,” which talks about — once you have fair mastery over a skill — getting your mind out of the picture so you can just execute and focus on the object you’re addressing. I think this comes easier with athletics. It certainly works for me in tennis and in baseball, for in both of those, the object one focuses on is the ball: in tennis, specifically, the lower third of the (approaching) ball, where you’re going to strike it. But it’s beyond that. The book wants you to focus your mind on anything but the mind talking to itself — to find an outward focus. So in tennis, you watch the ball AT ALL TIMES, even between points, and, between points, you also listen to yourself breathe. It’s the outward thing you focus on. He says to observe but not direct things like your point of contact with the ball (which should be out front); if you’ve done your homework beforehand, you’ll correct toward the optimum.

    And this works like a sumbish. Watching the ball is the big thing. If you watch it properly — so you’re looking at the lower third, so you see its spin, all of its ballness — the ball looks bigger and everything but you slows down. You have more time; you get there sooner, the ball is there to hit.

    Fragile, though. I was once playing very much in the zone against a player much stronger than myself, a guy I’d lost to repeatedly at scores of 6-3, 6-2, that sort of thing, and I was killing him. (Curt; wonderful guy.) I was swinging freely and the ball looked big and fast I was sIow and some part of my mind knew where to hit the ball without considering or questioning it and my body just did it. I was just drilling it. It was all easy.

    I won the first set 6-1 and was up 5-2 in the second when I let my brain back in, thinking about things instead of just seeing the ball. Should I serve wide or down the line? Careful not TOO much spin. Hit this approach crosscourt or down the line? I didn’t play terribly; but I started missing, then got more conservative, and Curt broke my serve and then held his and then broke mien and then my legs were tired and we reverted to the mean. He won that set 7-5 and the next one 6-4.

    Later he said that towards the end of the first set he just told himself, Well damn, I hope he comes down because I don’t know if anybody can hit like that forever. And I did until I was a game away from winning the thing and started thinking about it.

    But I highly recommend that book. Dated in some ways; but the essentials are great. It works. And the state you get in when you have enough mental discipline matches exactly all the descriptions of the Zone you hear from athletes.

    When John McEnroe CRUSHED Jimmy Connors in a US Open finals, I think 83 it was, he won 18 or 20 game and didn’t make a single unforced error until deep into the second set. He was a god. He said afterwards “The ball looked like a grapefruit.”

    1. Sounds like a fascinating book. But the big question for us, David, is how to translate that tennis-game zone to the writing-game zone. I suppose it’s a vote for distraction-free writing time, but that doesn’t always work for me.

  2. Correction to my comment above: I meant to say “… the ball looked big and slow and I was fast…” I must have thought about my typing right there.

  3. The article claims that the string of baskets was ‘in reality…a statistical fluke’. That presupposes that being ‘in the zone’ is not a real thing. How does anyone know whether the string was something controlled by the player or just a statistical fluke? That is the very question at issue, and the ‘test’ sheds no light on it.

  4. For some reason I can’t attach these directly to my earlier (first) long comment and exchange with Virginia. But

    1. Peter Edmonds kindly corrected me on the date and venue of McEnroe’s steamroller job on Connors. It was the 1984 Wimbledon final: 6–1, 6–1, 6–2. In 22 games, Connors, actually playing well himself, held serve only 4 times. Mac was very nearly perfect. He was always where the ball was and he almost never missed.

    2. Yes Virginia, that is the question: How to translate to more complicated tasks, such as writing. It happens to me in a blue moon. For me, lately, I get at closest to a zone-like state most easily (still not common) if I’m dictating rather than typing or writing longhand. (I use the hated, error-filled Dictate Dragon app. Don’t even try to edit with that thing.) Why does this work? I think it’s something like watching the ball. The key is not looking at the screen, and thus denying myself the ability to fiddle with whatever I just wrote. That comes later, for now I’m just watching the ball, considering the sentence and phrase in front of me. So I more easily get in a state of flow.
    I have a long cord on the headset so that I’m not too close to the display, and so I can pace, which seems to help a lot. Sometimes I turn the display so it faces away. I think of it as Going Homer.

    Then, of course, it’s necessary to finish the work session by going closely over what I’ve just dictated, to correct the many errors Dragon Dictate will make. Some are so bizarre that if I wait even a few hours to correct them, it’s hard to remember or even imagine what I actually said.

    Dragon never gets in the Zone.

  5. I’ve done a lot of research myself into how we get into “The Zone” and a lot of it has to do with shutting out the conscious mind and letting the subconscious take over.

    Tim Gallwey wrote an outstanding book on how this is achieved in sports called “The Inner Game of Tennis”.


    For all those looking to get their feet wet in this subject, I’d highly recommend it!

  6. For once, I think I can help here. My suggestion is to look into the writings of Kay Redfield Jamieson.(sp?)
    The noted Psychiatrist. An MD, PhD and self-diagnosed
    Bipolar patient.
    I can’t say if the depressive-type (Bipolar 1) can be distinguished from the angry-type (Bipolar 2), but the manic or mania state is this ZONE to which you refer.
    I was diagnosed in 1994 with severe depression and began the long road of different medicines to shake the depression. In 2004, my diagnosis was changed-to or refined to Bipolar Disorder. After experiencing a first-time full-blown mania. The details aren’t as important as the medicine journey. Certain meds can give you The Zone feeling when (inside) you know that you are the same person. Sometimes, I have been able to go into this near manic state as a result of a particular combination of meds that correspond with a positive time in life.
    I once offered to Wash Univ researchers in the Psychiatry Dept to take the meds, induce mild mania and have them do an FMRI to determine how different the manic images were from the images at the end of the medicine’s effective period. The Zone goes away as the mania wears-off. Jamieson’s book contains insights into mania and Composer/Conductor Symphony-writing abilities and how the frenetic output of manic periods would be followed by periods of deep depression.
    I know that she expanded on this topic in another of her books: “Touched By Fire”.
    I hope this comment helps.
    I have never taken a single art class but would happily send you some photos of artwork that I have been able to produce during these periods. I think you would be impressed with the personal style that has a
    “Jackson Pollack” type of influence. Even though I had never heard of this artist or seen/studied his work.
    Bill Osterholt

  7. Providing steady rewards (equivalent of a basketballer getting points) can help students perceive their efforts in a positive way.

    I think this is called gamification. I’ve seen on the Khan academy website where students are given badges and points for various achievements, similar to video game achievements and rewards.

  8. I’ve been reading about Csikszentmihalyi and flow state for years. I even tried giving presentations about his ideas – and research findings in positive psychology generally – to clients, although with mixed results. But with regard to your question, Virginia, about tricks for reaching peak zone, I found something that often works and try to apply it to writing, skiing, and tennis: methodical and patient build-up with positive-reinforcement. When I fail to do this my chances of getting into zone are slim.

    Here’s how it might work for a writing session: sit down and, without any pressure or judgment, just randomly start typing. After a couple of minutes there should be a paragraph or two of nonsense. Go back and delete most of it. . . except for any cluster of words that makes sense and sounds good. Take a moment to appreciate this effortlessness. This will begin to simultaneously build confidence and relaxation, both of which you need for flow. As a talented and experienced writer you already have everything you need to achieve flow state in a writing session, its just a question of getting out of your own way in the early stages. Once you get into a rhythm you’re off and running. If you fall out of it you can take a break and then when you sit back down try the exercise again.

    Here’s how it might work in skiing: go off by yourself to an empty and easy section of the mountain and make a few slow turns concentrating on feeling and completing every part of the turn. Then look back up. Appreciate the curve of your tracks. Close your eyes and take a few deep meditative breaths, once again *feeling* the turns you just made. Since you already know how to ski, its just about getting into the right state of mind before amping up the terrain and speed pressure (and fear). When you rejoin your friends on the double black diamonds you’ll have a better chance of getting into the zone than if you went directly there from the car.

    What these “tricks” require is a little bit of time and patience and awareness, which, sadly, our civilization conspires to deprive us of. Its hard to enter flow state when outside forces are rushing and pressuring and distracting you, and its even worse (but universally common) when your own mental dialog is throwing you off. Of course once you build up to flow state you need that competition and pressure to remain there. That’s the paradox. How you ‘enter’ may be the key, and that requires breaking out of the default autopilot state. Its not easy. Its a lifelong practice.

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