Elite athletes talk a lot about being in the zone, that magical place where mind and body work in perfect synch and movements seem to flow without conscious effort. Major-league pitchers, NBA stars, pro golfers and Olympic hopefuls dedicate their careers to the search for this elusive feeling, devoting hours of training to "listening" to their body and "reading" their muscles—trying to construct a bridge between mind and body sturdy enough to lead them straight to athletic nirvana.
But the truly great athletes, those with long careers and performances that fans talk about for generations, know that maintaining a competitive edge is less about keeping it honed to perfection at all times than realizing they can lose the edge every once in a while and still get it back.
Few athletes know that better than Olympic sprinter Michael Johnson, one of the fastest men on earth. Johnson holds two individual world records in track and five Olympic gold medals. He was the first sprinter to win both the 200-m and 400-m events in a single Olympic Games. He has also had his share of disappointments. He contracted food poisoning a month before the 1992 Games and didn't make it past the early heats in the event he was favored to win. And just before the 2000 Olympics, he injured his quadriceps and failed to qualify for the 200-m race.
Setbacks like those would be enough to put most athletes off their game. But Johnson found a way to push them behind him. "If you have a disappointment," he says, "you need to ask yourself 'Why did I not perform well today?'" Was it the preparation? A mistake in execution? "Then you need to get yourself at peace with that situation," he says.
According to Johnson, achieving that peace is the key to avoiding a full-fledged slump. A slump—that downward spiral that only gets worse the harder you try—is familiar to even amateur athletes. For golfers, it can start with the yips, an uncontrollable twitch of the arm or an involuntary snap of the wrist at just the wrong moment. For a pitcher, it's the strike zone over home plate that suddenly begins to jump around. For the basketball player, it's the hoop that has inexplicably shrunk.
Athletes in the throes of a slump will swear that it came all of a sudden, out of nowhere. But psychologists say the episodes are less mysterious than they seem. They usually stem from a failure to prepare mentally for the pressure of athletic competition. "Training is about strengthening the mind-body connection," says Kirsten Peterson, sports psychologist for the U.S. Olympic Committee. "Athletes need to train their mind with the same discipline that they train their bodies."
The mind-body connection in sports is not some New Age construct. Thoughts have direct and powerful connections to all sorts of physiological functions. Think hard enough about jumping out of an airplane, and your heart will start to race and your palms to sweat. Other thought-induced changes may be more subtle, and for athletes who rely on fine motor skills, those imperceptible adjustments can mean the difference between a strikeout and a home run.