Zoning it

don’t have to be in the Zone to win championships … but it helps!

This of course is true. With majors in golf or grand slams
in tennis in particular, where the pressures on the individual are huge, that 90% in sports that Yogi Berra talks
about being “mental”, really comes to the fore.

The thing about all “world class type” events is that they
take place over a period of time, a number of days, and that is what makes the
level of competition so compelling. At the Wimbledon Tennis Championships a
player can play an amazing game in Round 4 for instance, being in the Zone over
a goodly part of their (probable) 2-3 hours on court – and yet then not
replicate that form in their next round match. Similarly in the four rounds of
a major golf championship, a lot of it is more about consistency than Zoning. Intense
zoning sometimes does happen over a number of the days of competition, and on
these occasions one player will usually be SO dominant that their winning
position is unassailable and they blow away all the opposition, regardless of quality.

There are however two sides to maintaining a high level of
performance consistency, and in all sports – whether individual or team sports –
it is what marks out champions from the rest.
To re-quote Yogi Berra here – “90% of baseball is mental, and the other
half is physical”
– and for baseball read all sports.

The two sides of maintaining your Inner Game are:

Dealing with the pressures

Playing in the Zone

The top tier of world rankings are a reflection of a player’s
consistency, and the level of the above two factors they bring to their game –
given that they match each other in technical ability and fitness.

We were all somewhat amazed at Rafael Nadal’s win in Indian
Wells 2013 – his first comeback tournament after a long injury lay-off. However
he was only out of the game for reasons of physical breakdown, and his above
mentioned mental strengths were untouched. Of course, part of his rehab can be
referred to as “dealing with pressures” – and, as we know, that is one of his
supreme strengths. Once physically back to where he wanted to be, the above two
factors in his “A-Game” did the rest and I, for one, was not surprised.

Of course our chances of playing in the Zone more often go
up dramatically if we can consistently deal with the pressures. And that level
of ‘dealing consistently’ comes with understanding where those pressures are
really coming from.

The US

Last Sunday saw the final day of this year’s US Masters in
Augusta, and as I watched the contenders from my armchair comfort (it was raining
at the course), I felt a sense of anticipation that something of special
interest would be in the offing.

There was the customary ebbing and flowing of players’
fortunes on the leaderboard, hole by hole, and all the while – in the
background – I sensed those two major mental game factors were conducting this
vast sporting orchestral performance.

Over the last few holes, two players – Adam Scott and Angel
Cabrera – emerged as dealing best with all the pressures, and, as witnessed on
the 18th hole, both were playing in the Zone. For me this was
enthralling – extra special, if you like, in spectator terms. Here were two
guys at the very top of their game in the moment. Interestingly, how I
witnessed it, each one’s version of their Zone was different. Yet it was clear
to see that that was where they were.

So the competition went to a sudden death play-off. And yet
it didn’t start straight away! For me as a spectator it seemed to take an age
before they got out on the course to play the first sudden death hole. How
would they react to this distraction, the unsmooth transition from each of their
“highs” of landing difficult putts to birdie the 18th hole? And all this
was taking place in failing light and wet, soggy conditions, where they were
each armed with towels, umbrellas etc.

The consistency at dealing with pressure and the remaining
in the Zone continued for each as they matched each other at the first play-off
hole – and so they continued to the next one, where the intense and high drama
of quality competition unfolded once more. “Who would crack first,” I was
thinking, because in these situations it IS usually about that.

But this time it was about who WON it, rather than who LOST
it. Angel Cabrera’s next putt was about as close as it gets without actually
going in the hole – and we all watched spellbound as Adam Scott sank his putt.

It was a jaw-dropping moment, almost immediately followed
by Cabrera’s celebration with and for Scott, which was equally compelling in
sporting terms. However he may reflect on his disappointment, in the moment he
was authentically overjoyed for his opponent.

There has been much said about how Adam Scott had overcome
his disappointment at The Open Championship 2012, where he had ‘bogeyed’ the
final four holes to lose an ‘unassailable’ lead, and of course that would have
been one of his own particular pressures as the final moments of this drama

However, that is how champions become champions since –
prior to those moments – they are just players.

I always chuckle at the media interviewers in these moments
because they always ask the same question, which actually points us all away
from what has really been happening in the moment.
“So, what were you thinking as you played that shot?”

Understanding where those pressures are really coming from,
as I said earlier, is the difference that makes the difference. Things on the
outside have happened, do happen, and will happen – one way or another. We make
our own pressures, and then react to those pressures so adding more pressures!
On this day at Augusta, both were winners because they were impervious to the
pressures and were both in the Zone.

Read the BBC’s report of the final day at the US Masters