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What my son's foul-shot taught me about business… and getting in the zone

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Picture this… A packed basketball stadium with fans going wild. It’s my son’s basketball grand final. There are four seconds on the clock. His team is down by two points. And he’s just been fouled – meaning he has two free throws.

He makes his way to the free-throw line – the enemy of even the most accomplished NBA player. If he nets both shots, the game enters overtime. If not, his team will lose the game.

The crowd roars as he bounces the ball a few times… the noise is deafening as he straightens up for the shot… he steadies himself… up goes the first shot… then a deathly silence as the ball arcs in seeming slow-motion through the air… it goes in! He then goes through the same routine before his second shot… nothing but net! The crowd erupts! (Dad leading the way!)

After the game, I asked him what was going through his mind as he lined up for the free throws.

“All I focussed on was the sound of the ball bouncing,” he said. “Then I just remembered what my coach had said during all the hours of practicing free throws – making sure I held the ball correctly, and doing all the little things we’d focussed on. It was only after I’d made both shots that I even noticed the crowd cheering.”

Here’s a great example of what sportspeople refer to as ‘getting in the zone’ – that all-too-rare event where nothing else exists except what you’re doing at that moment; when we are solely focussed on executing that skill (sometimes to the point of not even hearing the crowd – or if we do, it’s a vague awareness). When you’re in the zone, everything you do goes exactly to plan, and you execute the skill perfectly.

So, why don’t we all ‘get in the zone’ more often? After all, it’s precisely for big moments like this that we spend those hours practicing and honing our skills. What holds us back? And what can we do to make the zone appear more often?

The answer is that most of us think too much – about everything except the skill we have to execute. We imagine the glory of scoring the winning goal, or the shattering feeling if we miss the shot and lose the game. In other words, we get ahead of ourselves – so we’re no longer in the moment.

The zone is more likely to appear when we don’t think – which is why most of us never get there. That state of a clear, uncluttered mind is best achieved by having a routine – a set of steps that we can focus on when the pressure’s on. Just like my son did when he bounced the ball, and rehearsed the steps his coach had drummed into him during practice.

Look at most successful athletes, and you’ll generally find a commitment to (and often an obsession with) training excellence. They train as they play. That way, when the pressure’s on in a game, they’ve already experienced that feeling many times before, and have practised how they will respond – then they can simply focus on a set of repeatable steps, which is their routine.

Most steps in your routine will be unconscious due to repetition, so the player will often focus on basic truisms like ‘keep your head over the ball’. This helps us to stay in the moment, and avoid distracting thoughts. But it is vital to ‘practice’ the routine at training so you can carry over the exact same procedure to gametime.

And, of course, these concepts easily transfer across to any other skill you are trying to execute – giving presentations, responding calmly to as crisis, closing a sale, dealing with a difficult customer… whatever area you’re aiming to improve in.

Now, time out’s over. Get out there! Go play ball!

Bill Lang is the founder and CEO of Bill Lang International, a provider of business improvement solutions to organisations operating in over 50 countries, and the author of Scores on the Board. This article first appeared on Bill Lang’s blog The Business Improver.

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