owning the zone

By randy lawrence november 2015


For some, the state of grace athletes call “the zone” is the stuff of mystics and fakirs. For others, it’s a will o’ the wisp, a happenstance, a glimpse of what could be. For Dawn Grant and Bob Palmer, the zone is nothing less than a way of living.

“To me, the zone is about life skills,” says Grant, hypnotherapist and peak sports performance mental trainer head- quartered in Amelia Island, Florida. “It’s being able to handle your anger, being able to handle your stress, being able to handle your worry, being able to handle your regret. If you’re get- ting at these things in life, you’re not going to be able to apply it to your shooting.”

In Grant’s practice, she has worked with sporting clays luminaries Wendell Cherry and John Woolley as well as PGA tour legend Vijay Singh, author of two PGA championships and one Masters. Grant worked with Singh during his run to the Fed Ex Cup in 2008 (see September 2015 “Wingshooting”). Those who study with her work on what Grant believes are the five mental keys to peak performance: relaxation, concentration, positive imagery, monitoring self-talk, and developing a consistent mental routine. The goal, in shooting and in life, is to perform on the uptick.

“Too often we default into negative tendencies,” Grant enthuses. “We’re in the zone when we’re not over-thinking, over-analyzing, second guessing. We’re not trying too hard. In sporting clays, we’re not thinking of the score, of outcomes. We’re present and focused. We’re living— and shooting— intuitively, instinctively, taking advantage of what we know, what we’ve learned, how we’ve trained.”

“Rather than the zone being elusive and spontaneous, something rare, something we have no control of,” Grant insists, “we need to understand that if we learn to notice tendencies or bad habits, learn to work on those tendencies in a more constructive way, the end result is the zone state virtually on demand.”

Former national karate champion and 4th degree black belt Bob Palmer lives, as befitting a much-sought-after traveling speaker and clinician, “not far from the airport outside Toronto.” He is the CEO of SportExcel, a high-performance training concern for business and sports leadership. He has coached elite athletes from six continents in over 30 sports, as he website touts, Olympians and Pan-Am, Commonwealth, and X-gamers. Palmer is the author of Mind Vs. Target: Six Steps To Winning In The Clay Target Mind Field, a title Palmer describes as a “clinic in a book.” When, in conversation, some clays shooters insist they’ve never experienced the zone, Palmer counters by asking, “Have you ever had a moment of brilliance? [For a clays shooter] maybe it was just a few targets or a few stations where it was effortless, it was fun, it was adrenalized, and there was no thinking involved. It just seemed to happen. All your skills came to the surface, and you didn’t want to quit, but then [that feeling] does.

“The most important thing someone learns [from that experience] is that the zone has a feel attached to it,” says Palmer. “It’s a very special one. It’s individual. It’s not the same for everybody, and when you get that feel, you know you’re there.” Palmer’s exquisitely simple, nuts-and-bolts training program is a hands-on tool kit that, like Grant’s, empowers his students to enter and sustain their performance in the zone.

“It’s not something you can wait to have happen while you’re shooting because it usually goes wrong,” Palmer says. “But you can get it before you step into the station. Better yet, you can get it even before you arrive at the range. Even better yet, if you can live in it, then shift gears into a much more intense zone when you’re shooting, your game changes and, for many of my athletes, it’s life changing. It will apply to everything that you do.”

In Dawn Grant’s practice, hypnosis bypasses what she calls the “chatter, chatter, chatter” of the hyper-critical conscious mind. Her detailed programs for clays shooters ground them in relaxation hypnotherapy that establishes what she calls “selective thinking.” As she writes on her website, selective thinking gives the conscious mind a very different role to play, that of an alert, clear-minded gatekeeper that can step out of the way with suggestions consistent with what the student most wants.

One of the misconceptions about hypnotherapy is that of putting the subject into a trance that robs one of free will. Nothing could be further from the truth. Grant writes, “Suggestions enter your subconscious mind when you take the mental attitude of, ‘I like that suggestion, I know this is going to work for me.’ You are completely responsible for your own success. You are completely responsible for your own failure.”

And perhaps that’s the down-and-dirty secret of hypnosis. As Grant writes in one of her blogs, “OK, the truth be known...as a hypnotist, I cannot hypnotize you. Never have been able to and never will be able to. There is really only one form of hypnosis, and that is self-hypnosis. All hypnosis is self-hypnosis.

“What you need is a hypnotherapist to teach you how to do it, to be a facilitator... [who] shows you how to place yourself into a beautiful state of hypnosis that [affords] you the physical relaxation and mental alertness” that are hallmarks of being in the zone.

Grant’s training as a hypnotherapist, coupled with a studied background in the shotgun sports, allows her to design suggestions that relate specifically to helping shooters quiet the noise of a fickle, judgmental conscious mind and move into a “present in the now” performance state. The design helps them deal with distractions of all kinds, from noise in the gallery to the weather, a shooting cart’s function, obnoxious squad mates, an overbearing scorekeeper, and lost targets.

Grant laughs when she says, “We’re trying to bring the conscious mind to heel. Our goal is to enable it to learn in a healthy, constructive reflection that helps us make better choices,” before getting out of the way and letting us perform without conscious thought as we put our training and expertise to work.

All of Dawn Grant’s students start with a basic session, perhaps in person, perhaps over Skype, perhaps via an audio CD that she describes as “a widening of the conscious mind through breathing techniques and progressive relations...that take you into the alpha state, which is really what the zone is. Call it the gun mount practice...a teaching moment that you experience, practice, and talk with me about.”

From there Grant offers a variety of specific mental training packages involving different depths of instruction and, as one could imagine, different price points. For example, one product deals with suggestions developed specifically for maintained-lead shooters, a detailed exercise written from Grant’s own training from Woolley and Cherry.

Bob Palmer’s unique approach stems from his assertion that living and shooting in the zone is about assuming leadership of our own game, leadership in our own lives. Palmer says when we allow outside factors to influence us, we give over our leadership role and our place in the zone. “If you’re influenced by your squad mates, that will pull you out of your game. If you’re influenced by the top shooter there, that gets into your mindset and pulls you out of your game. When you go to a competition, watch the top shooters walk by. They’re into their own heads. They’re not influenced by anyone.”

Palmer maintains that it’s critical his students have clarity not only about what the zone feels like, but what it feels like in the no zone. “You’re chugging along, you’re in the zone, and it all starts to crash. You step back and say, “Oh...[squad mates, an uncooperative co-worker, circumstances with a spouse] have taken leadership from me. Pulled the rug out. I’m out of the zone.”

Palmer’s six-point building blocks are “a tool kit to turn that situation around, take back that situation.” Training includes each student doing a touchstone exercise, visualizing both zone and no-zone experiences for quick recognition of both, using each as a different sort of guide; learning to establish mileposts and set goals in perspective; practicing the power of physically and mentally “rehearsing” future events; being on the lookout for, and rewriting, self-talk scripts; as well as training tips for helping us not think.

Palmer prides himself on the practical, applied workshop nature of his teaching. As with Grant, he sees his role as a guide, teaching people how to take charge of their own ongoing learning. “Take that leadership model outside of shooting— to the classroom, to the boardroom , into family life,” says Palmer. “People may be very good at writing goals down, but are they learning how to make those goals bright, powerful, attractive? Do they have a tool kit for how to deal with difficult people, how to energize themselves, how to forget the bad and the ugly? It’s not about Bob being your coach for life. It’s the system being your coach for life.”

For Palmer, a major part of performing in the zone is treating our failures as opportunities. There’s a chapter in his book with the intriguing title “Love To Miss.” Ironic as it may seem to those steeped in the North American sporting tradition that we must despise losing, we must despise failure if we’re to have a champion’s mindset. Too often, hating one miss can detonate an avalanche of more. Palmer teaches techniques for helping us embrace and benefit from a miss. “If you don’t mind missing, you’re not going to miss twice,” he says. “It’s going to have no influence on you whatsoever. But if you hate missing, you’ll hate missing the second one even worse and go into that death spiral.”

Instead, Palmer insists that he wants his athletes “to get excited by those downturns. My wife used to always say to me, so and so went to a competition and didn’t do very well. What do I say to that? I get excited. They’ve revealed some faults, some flaws. They’ve now got the chance to work them out of their system. They have the opportunity to learn to reset.”

Palmer says that owning the zone is about “getting excited about missing or losing and treating it like a detective would,” about being free to reflect, to analyze, to plot how to get better. The zone, he says, “isn’t so much about accepting losing; it’s about having a passion for winning and having the tools to figure stuff out.”

Randy Lawrence is an NSCA Level I Instructor. He retired from Hocking College's School of Arts and Sciences as the institution's only three-time Excellence In Instruction Award winner. Email Randy atpointswingfetch@hotmail.com.

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