Being in the Zone

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The term “Being in the zone” originally comes from sports, especially team ball sports, like Basketball, Baseball, and Cricket. They are related to beliefs in “the hot hand”, or “the hot bat”, or the “edge of the strike zone”. As fans, we are totally elated when the star player of the team we love is converting the first 8 out of 11 shots on the basket. The same happens when the hitter hits 8 out of 11 balls thrown to him or the pitcher throws 8 strikes out of 11 pitches.

We can also relate to our own experiences that occur and feel like “Being in the zone” when we want to do a series of things and we complete 8 out of the first 11 without failure, faster than anticipated, almost to perfection.  Examples are grilling the perfect burger, getting just the right amount of spices on a steak, driving down a road with signals and having 8 green in a row out of 11 lights. Anybody who is reading this and recalling events similar to these examples knows exactly how amazing the feeling is, and how we crave to have this experience more often. We even go as far as calling people who have these so called “streaks” our ‘heroes’ or ‘idols’.

In the context of creating good habits, it is important to have positive learning experiences. Those experiences are anchored in our memory if we have something we can use to remind us about the great experience we had – the feeling we had when we were “in the zone”.

Each time we develop and facilitate a powerful learning experience, the participants are getting very close to “Being in the zone”. They recall experiences from their past where they felt to be ‘in the zone’ and compare. If the Innovation Mapping™ process or the Learning Visual process has similar impact on them, participants associated them with
“Being in the zone”. The cool effect is that the actual Innovation Map or the Learning Visual trigger the feeling and recall “Being in the zone” each time a participant looks. It’s a little bit like the vacation picture effect but more powerful.  The team remembers how amazing it was to be part of the creation. It’s almost like being part of creating a piece of art.

That leads us back to “Being in the zone”. Most readers will be able to point to games in sport where all participants and the spectators agree that they witnessed a piece of art. This can be true for the whole game and it’s amazing or surprising result, or just one defining moment. Michael Jordan became most famous for his ability to make the final “clutch” shot at the end of the game that sealed the victory.

One word of caution for any facilitator or trainer reading this description of “Being in the zone”. What actually happens is very similar to an illusion or a magic trick. We, as humans, fall victim to our expectations and are very willing to forget what math and statistics dictate. We know that a basketball player who has a season average of making 50% of the shorts from the field and 80% from the free throw line has reached these numbers based on thousands of attempts during a season of about 100 games or more. In some cases these statistics reach across several seasons. The same is true for batting averages in baseball, and similar statistics in other sports. It is also true that we all know there is a 50/50 chance in a coin toss to hit either heads or tails. In throwing dice we know there is a 1 in 6 chance to hit any specific number.

We are convinced that a player must have a ‘hot hand’ when he or she makes 8 out of the first 11 throws in a game. We are equally sure that the player has ‘gone cold’ if the next 11 throws only result in 3 baskets. A .300 batter is considered “off his game” when he doesn’t have even one hit on 11 pitches.

All these judgments are understandable and they feel like they are based on solid calculation, math, and statistics, etc. In reality they are figments or our imagination. What we forget is the requirement to have a large enough sample to ever really create any meaningful statistic – and we know that. When a coach brings in a brand new player who doesn’t have any professional experience and the ‘kid’ hits the first 6 shots from 20+ feet away, what do we all say without hesitation? – Yes, exactly -“he is lucky”.

What really happens is that our mind has an expectation. When someone tosses coins we expect about 50/50 head and tails, and something is wrong when its heads the first 8 times. Would we be willing to wait all the way till the first 1000 tosses have been completed, it would be 50/50 overall.

The same is true with the basketball player. We actually wait to the end of the season, take the actual statistically proven numbers, and decide if a player should be traded or not. The large sample makes us confident that the statistic is valid. During the game, though, we get emotional and fall victim to our expectations.

We can take advantage of our shortcomings in training by creating events and experiences that make us feel as if we are ‘in the zone’. To strengthen the effect we let the participants create artifacts like the Innovation Map or the Learning Visual to remind us how “Being in the zone” feels like.

By the way, we also have that tendency in sport where we easily recall these most amazing streaks and scenes of seemingly inhuman performances in the clutch. That recall is what happens when we see the Innovation Map™ or Learning Visual we helped to create. If you ever want to know more about the science behind the numbers, I recommend the book “How we know what isn’t so”, by Thomas Gilovich.

AMC is an international consulting firm that serves the corporate and private sectors in two prime areas:

  • Project management of change initiatives
  • Facilitation and teaching to implement learning designs

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