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Individual Zones of Optimal Functioning
Understanding your zone and how to get in it
If there was one performance psychology concept I understood while I was still playing, it just might be what I’ll discuss today. Amidst locker rooms of teammates playing pump-up music before a game, I never really participated because I was always trying calm myself down. I couldn’t help but feel something was wrong with me. Turns out, I just had a different zone where I played my best and was trying to get into it.
In this week’s 3 Point’s, I’ll discuss Individual Zones of Optimal Functioning, and how to help your athletes identify and get to their zone.
1. Arousal, also referred to as activation (which I will call it), is a generalized physiological and psychological activation of the person with neural excitation varying on a continuum from deep sleep to extreme excitement (Hardy et al., 1996). Essentially, the level of energy, anxiety or excitement an athlete or performer is feeling.
How does activation impact performance?
As you can see, the Yerkes-Dodson Inverted-U Theory tells us that there is an optimal level of activation for a given performer on a given task. Each performer has a “sweet spot”. We are activated enough to benefit from increasing focus and alertness, but not so much that anxiety impairs our performance.
2. While the Yerkes-Dodson Inverted-U Theory is a helpful tool, it is too simplistic. Fortunately, Dr. Yuri Hanin expanded on this idea when he studied and developed Individual Zones of Optimal Functioning (IZOF). To summarize, Individual Zones of Optimal Functioning tells us that each athlete has a different “sweet spot” of activation for their best performance.
One athlete on your team with a low IZOF may perform best when they are less energized and more calm; they might benefit from trying to relax in their pre-game routine. On the other hand, another athlete on your team with a high IZOF may perform their best when they are highly energized, and they might benefit from trying to pump themselves up before a game.
3. According to sport psychologist Dr. Amber Selking:
‘The best of the best know their optimal zone and can turn up or turn down to get in it”
How can you help your athletes know their zone?
Dr. Selking recommends using a scale of 1-10 (1=minimally activated, 10=highly activated) to help athletes understand when they perform their best. When they think back about their best performances, where on the scale were they? What about their worst?
How can you help your athletes turn up or down to get in their zone? The simplest way is teaching them to use their breath as a tool.
Focusing on a longer or more vigorous exhale can decrease your heart rate and help calm you down. 4-7-8 (4-second inhale through the nose, 7-second hold, and an 8-second exhale through the mouth) breathing is a popular technique to do so.
Conversely, focusing on a longer or more vigorous signals our brains to increase our heart rate and make us more alert. A tool we can use to bump up our activation when needed.
Here’s a quick clip of Stanford Neuroscientist, Dr. Andrew Huberman explaining more:
As always, if you have any specific questions or interested in other tools to help athletes get in their zone, please reach out!
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