Are You In the Zone? Take This Test.

Recently I’ve been talking with a few master coaches about learning velocity — specifically, asking them for tools that will help people locate the “sweet spot” where learning velocity increases. And that spot is pretty sweet. Research shows that changes in practice strategy and attention can improve learning velocity by as much as tenfold.

So here’s the result: five questions to determine whether you are in the zone or not.

1. Can you describe the move you’re trying to learn in five seconds or less?

2. Do you have a precise, HD-quality mental image of yourself performing the desired skill ?

3. Are you making — and fixing — mistakes?

4. Are you varying the speed of the action — slow, super-slow, and fast?

5. Are you zooming in and out, isolating your attention on a small part, then seeing how it fits in the larger picture?

If you can answer “yes” to all five of these questions — as Apolo Ohno does so vividly in this video — then the coaching consensus is that your speedometer is pegged. Congratulations: you are learning at peak velocity.

In essence, the questions revolve around three simple acts: 1) isolating an action; 2) pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, firing and fixing your circuitry; 3) combining individual actions into a fluent performance.  And it’s important to note that while athletics is the most obvious application here, these methods apply to music, math, business, social skills — even writing. After all, when it comes to learning skills, neurons are neurons (well, pretty much).

It’s also interesting to note what questions are not on the test. There’s nothing about long-term goals, for instance. Perhaps that’s because when it comes to motivation, long-term goals are essential — but in training they tend to distract from the matter at hand: putting your entire attention toward the act of building fast, fluent circuitry. Also absent from this quiz: any talk of your present level of ability — which is equally immaterial to the process.

With his zone-friendly practice habits, is it any wonder that Ohno performed so well in Dancing With the Stars? And judging by his performance in Vancouver, he’s still firmly in the sweet spot.

And speaking of the sweet spot, I’d like to remind you of the story of Michael Reddick, a regular guy who is attempting to become a professional billiards player. Check out Reddick’s remarkable progress here.