The Zone: athletes' experience of peak performance

Athletes’ experiences of being ‘in the zone’ were the subject of a video installation displayed at the 2012 Annual Conference of the Society’s Qualitative Methods in Psychology Section in London in April. The Zone, a 10-minute film, uses athletes’ own descriptions of being in a state of peak performance, voiced by actors and set against imaginative footage of sports’ venues such as gyms, running tracks and swimming pools. It is the result of a collaboration between Victoria Tischler, a Chartered Psychologist from Nottingham, and David Bickerstaff from Atomictv.

“If I let go of everything — my thoughts, my words, my feelings, my fears, everything — my body can do anything and my mind becomes completely and utterly still.”

The words of real athletes have been used in a compelling new art installation video that offers an insight into the almost transcendental mental state they achieve which allows them to perform at the peak of their physical powers.

Commissioned by Dr Tischler, it is based on research data involving the universities of Nottingham, Bath and Exeter examining how athletes achieve absolute focus.

Dr Tischler’s research expertise lies in exploring the relationship between mental states and the creative processes and the use of the arts and humanities to improve mental health and wellbeing. She is also interested in public engagement with research, particularly using art as a vehicle for communicating complex scientific concepts to a general audience.

She said: “I thought the phenomenon of ‘the zone’ was interesting from a psychological perspective and having seen the data I thought it was poetic and could be presented in a visually engaging way. This has the potential for public engagement, for example, in explaining psychological phenomena to lay people and in motivating people to exercise.

“Qualitative data represents in-depth textual and visual information gathered from individuals to facilitate understanding of subjective experience and process. The aim was to make psychological data available to a wider public and, with the 2012 Olympics fast approaching, sport was an obvious subject to choose.

“The ideas for the film were collaborative and developed between the artist and myself over a series of discussions. I particularly wanted to capture the rhythmic, hypnotic and subliminal nature of the experience of being ‘in the zone’.”

Dr Tischler played an instrumental part in getting the film from research project to screen — she worked on the development of ideas for the visual representation of the research data, selected film locations — some of which were based at The University of Nottingham — co-writing the script and assisted with filming and editing.

The film will be shown at other venues to coincide with Olympic preparations and events. You can also watch it The Zone on Atomictv’s website.