Do you want to perform consistently at your best? Do you struggle to stay in the zone? You need techniques to stay in your winning mindset. Read this post to learn the strategies top athletes use to perform in competition like they do in practice.

What is the Zone?

The zone is your winning mindset. It is when you are in your ideal mood, you have the right intensity and, your mind is focused on how to play well and your game plan. You are using helpful thoughts, and your confidence is high. You are mentally and physically prepared to compete and overcome any obstacles you will face.

Why is being in the zone important?

If you are consistently in the zone and mentally prepared, you will perform consistently at your best.

  • In the zone you are at your optimum confidence level so you can overcome tough situations and bounce back quickly from mistakes

  • You are in your best mood, you are composed and don’t let unwanted emotions get in the way of playing well

  • You don’t make unnecessary errors

  • You are using helpful thoughts and are focused on game-related information

  • You are more likely to execute your game plan and ignore distractions

  • You have the right intensity and energy level so you will stay motivated and energized even when things don’t go your way

  • You will be ready to fight for every point and be resilient under pressure

How to stay in the zone:

First it is important to identify your winning mindset. Everyone has a different optimum energy level and mindset – their zone. To begin think about when you play your best what mood or emotion are you in.

For example some athletes need to be calm and relaxed compared to others who need to be excited and have high energy. Write down your ideal emotion and also your ideal energy level out of 10. Where 10 is the highest energy you get and 1 is the lowest. Remember both of these need to correct for when you play your best so don’t just guess, really think about it.

To get in the zone before you compete you need to use a pre-game routine. Every athlete needs to develop a pre-game routine that mentally and physically prepares them to perform at their best. Read Part 1 here to develop your own successful pre-game routine.

When you are competing it is important to be able to get back in the zone. There are going to be times during every game or competition where you are in and out of the zone. No athlete can be in the zone at all times, not even the pros! What is important is to have techniques you can use to get back in the zone quickly.

The athlete who is more consistently in the zone is more likely to perform at their best for longer and more likely to win. Read the techniques below to get an advantage over your opponents.

There are two types of techniques you need to have:

  1. For when you need to improve your mood or increase your energy level

  2. For when you need to calm down or decrease your energy level

You need to be able to use both types successfully to return to the zone. I have included examples of both techniques below that top athletes use to get back in the zone.


Examples of when these can be used are: When you are sad/upset, if you are lacking motivation or not putting in enough effort, you have lost confidence, you are tired or too relaxed, you are losing focus or thinking too slowly or, if things are not going your way and you are being negative about yourself.

  • Cue Words e.g. dominate, play hard, be aggressive

  • Visualization:

  • Past successful performances

  • You performing successfully in the upcoming game

  • You dominating your opponents

  • Powerful/Motivating Images

  • Use Motivating Songs or Music that pumps you up. Obviously you can’t listen to music when playing but athletes have successfully played music in their head when performing and it has had the same effects

  • Positive Affirmations (specific to how you want to feel)

  • Review your game plan

  • Remind yourself of your strengths

  • Psych up Breathing with psych up words

  • Mood Words: Words that focus your mind on a specific emotion or feeling

  • Review your goals to motivate you

  • Use thought control techniques

  • Extra Physical Activity e.g. jumping, bouncing up and down on your toes


Examples of when these can be used are: When you are frustrated or nervous, if you are over-confident or have out of control energy that is stopping you from focusing correctly, you are over-thinking, your breathing or heart rate is fast or, if you are struggling with fear of making mistakes.

  • Cue Words e.g. focus, relax and go, calm and collected

  • Use Calming Music or Songs that remind you to stay calm. As discussed above you will have to play this music in your head as you obviously can’t actually listen to it when performing

  • Visualization:

  • A calm scene e.g. a beach

  • Calm colors e.g. blue

  • You correcting your mistakes

  • You overcoming obstacles/tough situations

  • Relaxation:

  • Deep breathing

  • Psych down breaths with psych down words

  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation

  • Mood Words: Words that focus your mind on a specific emotion or feeling

  • Focus on things in your control for example you and your play, your game plan or, your mindset

  • If you are nervous focus on external objects such as the ball, the net, other players etc. and avoid focusing on thoughts. Do something to distract yourself

I have included specific examples below of how athletes I have worked with have applied these techniques successfully:

  • In-between games analyze different situations I may face so I can be prepared

  • Play music in my head to pump me up

  • Review my game plan and visualize myself executing each play successfully

  • Check your equipment and make sure everything fits comfortable

  • Go over my game plan in my head or read over my notes during breaks

  • Breathe into each step, focusing on getting muscles really loose

  • Focus on game strategies/back up plans, visualize myself doing everything at my best and beating my opponents

  • Read over positive affirmations to remove negative thoughts

  • Visualize performing key plays, focusing on how my body feels

  • Visualize the energy of the crowd and what it feels like to make a big play

  • Use cue words during warm-up to stay focused

  • Focus on mine and my teams goals and imagine achieving them

  • Use cue words to stay focused on my technique

How to apply these techniques?

First practice all of these techniques. You can then decide which ones work best for you and quickest. Choose 2-3 techniques from each category. Finally remember to use these when performing as soon as you realize you are out of the zone and not in your winning mindset.

If you want help to develop your own techniques to stay in the zone, Contact Me here to schedule a mental training session.

If you want to get more tips and exercises, sign up for my free newsletter here. You will receive my free e-book: Top Ten Mental Mistakes Athletes Make In Competition: What Every Athlete, Coach and Parent Need To Avoid To Improve Mental Toughness. Plus you get the strategies top athletes use to become mentally tough and get an edge over their opponents.

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Zoe Littlewood, M.A. -
Sport Psychology Consultant & Mental Skills Coach

Zoe specializes in working with individuals, teams, parents and coaches to produce performance enhancement, mental toughness and a winning mindset.

© 2020 by Zoe Littlewood.

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