Identifying the zone performance phenomenon throughfMRI analysis and personal interview

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Science Teaching


Bo Fernhall


Zone, fMRI, Neural activity, Archery

Subject Categories

Life Sciences | Neuroscience and Neurobiology


An effective description of the performance condition that many refer to as being 'in the zone' has eluded athletes and investigators (McInman and Grove, 1991). This palpable, yet enigmatic sensation is regarded as coincident with enhanced performance (Krug, 1999; Young & Pain, 1999), however investigations designed to reveal the nature of the zone state of performance are limited. The purpose of this investigation was to observe, using current functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology, brain activity unique to a zone performance when compared with a similar normal performance. In addition, defining characterizations of zone performance were identified, and training protocols used to elicit the zone performance state were explored. To facilitate the collection of the fMRI data, hypnosis was used in both the zone and normal performance conditions in order to vividly enhance the recall of the participants' past experiences. An fMRI comparison among skilled, right-handed archers (N=8; age = 37.63 ± 9.30) revealed increased neural activity (P=0.05) during perceived zone performance in areas known to facilitate well-coordinated motor activity: the left cerebellar region, in the posterior-temporal region of the dominant hemisphere, the sub-cortical structures putamen, claustrum, and insula of the dominant hemisphere, the right occipital region, along with the left hemisphere regions of the sensory motor, primary motor, and pre-motor areas corresponding to the right arm, right hand, neck, and face, the supplementary motor area, and symmetrical activation of the primary motor and pre-motor areas. Thirteen adult subjects (11M, 2F; age = 32.62 ± 10.74) high-caliber athletes were interviewed individually relating to their zone performance experiences. In an open-ended interview format, the participants were asked to characterize their zone performance state. Any previous zone-related training was explored, as well as their opinions regarding conditions that may promote or prohibit achieving the zone. Our interview results suggest that the general characteristics that identify a zone performance state---effortless/automatic, confidence, relaxed/comfortable, and focus---do not vary in substance from those sensations that characterize the more researched and defined psychological constructs of peak performance and flow. It was also revealed that, consistent with empirical evidence, none of our subjects had received formal coaching or other source training directly related to a zone (or similar) performance state. For the most part, athletes are left to their own devises as they strive to achieve their highest level of performance.


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