Tip: When to Think (and When Not To)

Readers of this blog know that we’re hu-uuuge fans of stealing — by which I mean the kind of stealing where you shamelessly pickpocket good ideas from one line of work (sports, music, business, whatever) and put them to use in another. Here’s one, which I especially like. It’s stolen from Annika Sorenstam, the golfer, but it could apply to pretty much anybody.

Here it is: Draw an imaginary line that separates your practice space from your performance space. When you’re inside the Practice Zone, your brain is fully switched on. You’re thinking, strategizing, planning. But when you step across the line into the Performance Zone, you click off your mind and just play.

Here’s how Sandy Williams, a reader who recently attended one of Sorenstam’s camps, describes her using it:

Essentially she drew an imaginary line about a yard behind the ball (think of the back line of a batters box).  She deemed the area behind the line as the ‘thinking’ zone and the area in front of the line as the ‘play” zone.  In the thinking zone, she would get info from her caddy and think hard about the wind, the aim, which club, which shot, visualization, etc.  Then once she had figured out what she wanted to she crossed the line into the ‘play’ zone, she said she turned her mind off and hit the shot (or ‘played’ like she was a little kid) like she had done millions of times before.

There’s plenty of brain science that supports this method (MRI scans show that the more skilled an athlete is, the less they’re thinking). And of course we know that top performance happens when we relax and go on autopilot, letting our unconscious brain do its magic. But I like it because this Practice/Play Zone idea could be applied to lots of stuff beyond sports. Music, writing, trading stocks, chess, you name it. We all have a zone where we build, and then a zone where we relax and show what we’ve built.

I also like it because it shows the real paradox at the heart of improvement. During practice, thinking and planning are your friends. During performance, however, thinking and planning are your enemies. You can’t avoid this paradox; you need to build a routine that embraces both sides. You essentially have two brains, the conscious and unconscious; so the best way to improve is to give one zone to each.

PS — Thanks to Sandy Williams and the always-enlightening Finn Gunderson, director of alpine education for the U.S. Ski Association and director of sports education at YSC Sports, for passing this one along.

PPS — What other strategies have you come across that address the practice/performance issue?