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Getting to the Twilight Zone

Sometimes, when calming and concentration techniques merge with an athlete’s high arousal (is this what we should be calling an optimal experience?), a slow-motion effect is reported, and the action seems to slow way down a sort of tachypsychia. Full-blown tachypsychia (defined in post 3) may be the most difficult of the arousal zone states to summon. At its height, it is certainly the most fleeting. Maybe that’s why, when many athletes are asked how they get there, they just shrug their shoulders like basketball player Reggie Miller and say, You do not come to the zone, the zone comes to you. But there is evidence to suggest otherwise. Like other positive facets of the psycho/adrenaline system, it seems to kick in at optimal arousal the point at which the athlete has reached harmony of the mind-body-hormonal triangle. That’s the state the Japanese call ki and the Tibetans lunggom.

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It’s directly related to intense concentration, visualization, and perhaps hypnosis. We may be able to harness it, says John Krystal, associate professor of medicine at Yale University. It’s similar to inducing a trance and it is under the control of the adrenaline system. To get to tachypsychia, the athlete may need to reach the highest workable level of the mind-body alarm system. Whereas extra speed and strength kick in during a two- or a three-alarm reaction, tachypsychia seems to require a four- or five. When an athlete who has reached optimal concentration is suddenly faced with a crisis stage of competition bingo the dopamine and noradrenaline arrive to give momentum to a situation that’s already there, some biochemists believe.

These wonder hormones seem to always attach themselves to the direction of momentum the athlete is headed. (Those chemicals were found in large quantity in a study of British racing drivers who were concentrating hard and achieving good results.) Of course, when they are pumped into the blood of a competitor who is concentrating poorly or is anxious or fearful, the opposite choke and poor performance can occur.

As in other peak performances, anger is often a key quotient, as long as it is channeled optimally, and with confidence. When he’s playing poorly, Doug Flutie now in the NFL after years of great success in the CFL gets mad at himself and takes command of a game. That’s when tachypsychia often appears. In a 1994 CFL game, he got mad at an opponent who stepped on his arm. After that, the whole game in front of me slowed down for a while and my concentration became superior, he recalls. Suddenly I had more time to react to what the defense was doing and my adrenaline levels seemed way up, but I didn’t let them get out of hand. Flutie added that he saves those emotional bursts for the latter stages of a game. I can’t hold that concentration level for 60 minutes. I wish I could bottle it, though. Such moments not only give Flutie more energy, but more desire to win, he added. It keeps your morale up, knowing you have the ability to bring on those powers.

Tachypsychia does not last long from a few seconds at it is most intense to a few minutes in a more watered-down form. The great athletes know how to strive for it at the turning point of a match. And remember it is important not to confuse various types of peak performance zones. This short-term state seems only vaguely related to long-term zones, such as Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. In between are many other mind-body flow states, lasting a whole game or through several competitions.

Former tennis great and Olympic women’s coach Billie Jean King calls tachypsychia the perfect emotion. She tries to bring it on as often as possible by focus, relaxation, and using cue words such as Go! during the turning point of a competition. She explains:

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