Being In The Zone: Is It Sustainable?
Think back for a moment to the July 4th game in Oakland where the Blue Jays lost 1-0 in 12 innings and left ten runners on base. Steve Tolleson just led off the top of the 5th with a double. What do you think the next three hitters were thinking? Were they fretting over failure in this situation, or were they calm and focused in the batters box, totally relaxed and confident?
When hitters get into hot streaks or are thought of as being clutch, they usually describe it as being “in the zone” when every thing appears to be in slow motion; a baseball looks as big as a beach ball floating in towards the plate. You can’t miss it. It’s right there for you to pound. Sadly, the next three hitters in that game did not come up clutch.
In their book, The Sabermetric Revolution: Assessing the Growth of Analytics in Baseball, Benjamin Baumer and Andrew Zimbalist say “a major flaw in the notions of clutchness and streakiness is that they do not appear to be persistent skills.” Indeed, players can experience hot streaks for certain periods of time and then they’re just as liable to experience extreme lows. Even those clutch moments appear fleeting, where a player can be the hero one night, and then a goat the next.
A further testament of this comes from former big league catcher Jason Kendall, in his recently released book Throwback, where he says he usually got “in the zone” once or twice a season for about ten days each – definitely not consistent demonstrations of clutchness.
Certainly, this begs the question, is it possible for players to hone this ‘skill’ in order to stay in the zone and be more consistent in their play, thereby limiting the extreme highs and lows that typically occur on the ball field?
Kendall continues to share that the secret to good hitting is that “Hitters need to stay relaxed and take every at bat the same way; most guys can’t do that.” This implies that many players subsequently falter under pressure situations for, I’m sure, a host of reasons. They try to do too much as the cliché goes, they over think the at-bat, they are beset by doubts that they can’t be successful, which often can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Kendall, keenly aware of what leads to success, adds that “The clutch guys can eliminate everything else that goes with playing in the big leagues.”
These traits that Kendall speaks of encompass what being in the zone truly means – the ability to relax and calm your thoughts in order to maintain intense focus. In other words, he’s speaking of a concept known as mindfulness. According to Christopher Bergland from his Mindfulness Made Simple article published in Psychology Today, mindfulness can be defined as “being mindful [or aware] of what you’re thinking, and deciding where you choose to focus your attention.”
Blue Jays hitting coach Kevin Seitzer, himself, remarked in June when the Jays’ bats went cold, that his hitters must not get mad after each failure to do something at the plate. He implored them to take the emotions out of it, to continue to try to be aggressive and compete, but do so without the ups and downs they have emotionally. He’s urging them to keep an even-keel approach, to maintain a mental mindset that refuses to let negative emotions get the best of them. Again, Seitzer is in effect talking about mindfulness.
To be certain, mindfulness does not have to be about sitting on a pillow in a quiet room doing yoga poses while chanting Om’s. That’s a misconception because mindfulness can, in fact, be practised anywhere at any given point in time should a person choose. A player can be mindful of the moment when he’s tying his cleats, watching video of the opposing pitcher’s repertoire, throwing long-toss, taking infield, or as Shawn Green illuminated in his book The Way of Baseball, hitting off a tee and then using that same presence in the batters box. It simply doesn’t matter what you’re doing, by being fully present at any one moment in time, one can be mindful.
Bergland adds that all one needs to do in order to be mindful are three easy steps: Stop. Breathe. Think about your thinking. In other words, calm oneself by focusing on your breath or your body and become aware of your thoughts. Then choose where to focus your attention. Most likely, it’ll be incredible to discover how negative our thoughts are, and how freeing it is to know that, we as individuals have a choice to decide how we feel. Do we choose to feel negativity towards ourselves, or to feel positive, thus elevating our energy and thoughts to a level that may bring about higher chances of success?
Blue Jays radio broadcaster, Jerry Howarth, shared anecdotally to his audience recently that Anthony Gose is one that tends to view things as being glass half-empty which can be hard on his psyche. The alternative for Gose is to choose to become a glass half full kind of guy where he focuses on the positive attributes of his game, the many areas where he can impact a ballgame, thereby building his own confidence. A player always has a choice on how he views his circumstances. To constantly focus on what areas he feels is lacking is detrimental. Sure, he must not ignore those areas, after all, being mindful is about being aware of what needs attention without self judgement. He can then improve his game and be satisfied of the work he put in regardless of the outcome in a game. And that’s the key, even if he fails in a pressure situation, he must maintain positive emotions like those that Seitzer preaches.
Lastly, perhaps the best anecdote for mindfulness in sports comes from Smiling Mind Ambassador, Justin Langer, who is currently Head Coach for the Western Australian Mens Cricket Team. He says “When I learned how to have more control of my thoughts, and concentrating on what was important, all of a sudden, I became a much better player [in my playing days] because I wasn’t getting distracted and my confidence wasn’t taking big hits, I was a lot more consistent in my thought processes, I was a lot more consistent in where my energy had to go. I was much more consistent therefore in my performances.”
While in the present moment, it’s impossible to worry or be fearful about any event because at any one moment in time, you are perfectly calm, relaxed and at peace. On the baseball diamond where opportunity for failure far exceeds success, surely this mindset would enable the player to have a good chance at success – perhaps even have consistently, more sustainable periods of good performance – maintaining that in the zone feeling.
While at present time, this can’t be proven scientifically, not without formal experimentation with control groups added, probably something researchers should undertake in the minor leagues, but anecdotally, former players like Seitzer and Kendall understand. They may not be saying the actual word mindfulness, but it’s there, a skill that can be honed through practice and keen awareness.