Peak Performance

Many athletes underachieve in games. They play well in practice but cannot execute as well in games. This is because their mental game isn’t good enough to deal with the pressure and demands of competition. They haven’t learned the skills of peak performance.
Peak performance, often described as “the zone,” can be defined as playing up to your maximum potential. It is playing as well as your body, mind, and preparation allows you to. Playing with peak performance has 5 components:
1: Being fully prepared for competition physically and mentally.
2: Playing with full effort and motivation.
3: Playing with full concentration, with no distractions.
4: Playing with full confidence and trusting your muscle memory (playing loose/relaxed instead of tight/nervous).
5: playing strategically smart and making the right decisions.

The zone, or peak performance can simply be described as being fully prepared and playing hard and smart with relaxed concentration.

But just knowing what peak performance is doesn’t make it easy to play with it. It is difficult to play with peak performance. You cannot just turn on a switch and start playing in the zone. It is very elusive. If you try too hard to enter the zone, you won’t enter the zone. But you do have some control over peak performance. With practice, you can cultivate peak performance on your own. Here is how it works.

First, you need to know your performance process. The performance process is what you actually do while performing. What is your body and mind doing throughout the process of playing your sport? Here is an example of a performance process for returning a serve in tennis:
Proper stance, react to serve, watch and track the ball, prepare to hit ball, decide where to aim your shot, and execute your shot. In short, the performance process in tennis can be summarized as running and hitting balls to a target.

Next, you need to know the role your mind plays in the performance process. The running and footwork part of the performance process largely comes from your motivation. Giving effort to run your fastest is tough so it requires a lot of motivation to do it every point.

Hitting the ball is largely controlled by your unconscious mind. The learned technique of properly hitting a ball is stored in your muscle memory (unconscious mind). To hit the ball well, you just need to focus on the ball, aim for a certain target, then let your instincts take over. Do not consciously try to hit the ball, thinking “put my right foot here, right arm down, swing up, rotate.” This will only make your body tight and move awkwardly. The unconscious mind is better at controlling learned motor skills than the conscious mind. So when hitting the ball, you need “relaxed concentration.” Keep your body relaxed, focus on the ball, and confidently trust your body to execute the shot. Just “let it rip,” as Pete Carroll tells his football players.

Aiming to a target is a choice you need to make smartly but also quickly. As you prepare to hit the ball, decide to hit the ball either crosscourt or down the line. Try to make the smart decision based on the percentages and the risk/reward calculation of the shot. But you need to make the choice fast and commit to the decision. If you hesitate, or keep changing your mind, you may not execute the shot well.

For whatever sport you play, know what your performance process is (running, aiming, hitting, etc.) and know how to incorporate the peak performance mindset (motivation, confidence, relaxed concentration, smart decisions) into it.

Doing this doesn’t always lead to peak performance. But the goal is to keep trying until you get “lost in the zone”. With practice you will get better at it and play with peak performance more often. So if you are underachieving in games, ask yourself “which component of peak performance am I lacking?” Am I fully prepared? Am I fully motivated, focused, confident, and relaxed? Am I playing smart strategically? Do I understand my performance process? Diagnosis is the first step to improving your mental game. Once you know what you need to improve on, you can take action and solve your problems.