On November 16, 1962 Wilt Chamberlain – center for the Warriors, scored 73 points against the New York Knicks and 78 points in 1961 against the Lakers. But, it was the Warriors game against the Knicks earlier in 1962 that stands out above all others. Chamberlain scored 100 individual points cementing a win – he was in the zone. Tiger Woods was able to turn off the distractions that surrounded him on numerous occasions during his prime and make drives, chip shots, and putts that made everyone else scratch their heads – he was able to place himself in the zone at will.
Actors become one with the person or situation they are presented with and as such are able to push aside their own reality and assume the character of another. Writers occasionally find that the ideas and words are effortless and musicians frequently play with a dynamic that seems otherworldly. In a critical playoff game during the early 1990’s, the Buffalo Bills were behind by 30 some odd points at halftime. They returned to the field “on fire” where everything went right and it seemed that nothing could go wrong. They won the game and went down in the records as the greatest comeback of all time. Tom Brady has demonstrated time and again that he can turn on a supernatural performance almost at any point. Teams know that a lead is never secure if Brady has even a few minutes left to pull out a win. In all cases these individuals and teams were truly in the zone.
So what does this mean and how does it happen. Psychologists have referred to this as the “optimal performance state” – a time and place where individuals or even teams are totally immersed in a performance, totally in control, focused and confident, and able to even lose awareness of time in the process. Their mental and physical being is in total sync.
When we watch these occurrences we are likely taken aback, wondering what might be going on, scratching our heads in total awe of the situation at hand. It is hard to fathom, difficult to explain, but crazy fun to watch.
Those of us who have been part of the pleasure and pain of working the line in a busy restaurant, or one of those impossible large catered events of a few thousand guests know that these miraculous “zone” events can and do take place. Those times when orders are flying off the printer at breakneck speed, the expeditor is barking out orders in rapid succession, pans are flying on and off the flat top, steaks and the flames they create are lapping around the arms of a grill cook, and a seamless progression of finished plates are slid on to the pass while rims are wiped clean and servers arrive at just the right moment. Everyone is in sync, the work seems effortless, and line cooks are laser focused on what is right in from of them.
From the moment that the rush begins until a few hours of relentless cooking and plating occur and end, the cooks and servers are 100 percent with it – confident, skilled, and in control. We have all been there, we have all felt the adrenaline rush, and we have all ended those few hours of synchronicity wondering where the time went. Everything seemed to happen in a flash.
Like any athlete who has been in the zone we have also felt the endorphins that push our hearts to beat faster, allow our vision to be acutely focused, calm our nerves, provide that necessary rush of energy, and give us the chance to push everything else out of our mind and vision so that we can perform at a level that didn’t seem possible a few hours before. We have also known how hard it is to turn that energy level off at the end of service and even more difficult to try and recreate that zone performance the next day.
So, are these events simply an anomaly or can we set the stage for zone performance on a more regular basis? Although the planets may not always align (pace of orders, specific foods ordered, everyone in the right state of mind), there are some key elements that can set the stage for otherworldly performance. Successful athletes, talented musicians, accomplished writers, and excellent cooks and chefs share in the same preparation techniques:
 SKILL DEVELOPMENT THROUGH PRACTICE:
Michael Jordan shot 100 free throws just before every game, Tiger Woods played at least 18 holes of golf almost every day, Tom Brady is meticulous at studying film from other teams and other games, James Patterson writes constantly, and great cooks are always working on improving their skills through practice and repetition. The confidence that you can do the impossible comes from skill competence and practice.
 HONEST SELF-CRITIQUE:
The most important critique that exceptional players and cooks receive is the one that they generate themselves. BE YOUR OWN WORST CRITIC! Athletes review film of their previous performance so that they can improve, even if just a little bit, every time they hit the field, the course, or the court. Artists look critically at their own work so that the next painting, piece of music, or article is a step ahead. Take those few minutes at the end of each service in the kitchen to jot down the things that could have gone better and how you intend to improve upon them tomorrow.
 PHYSICAL CONDITIONING:
Cooking is a physical, emotional, and mental contact sport. We are no different than a professional athlete who understands that in order to perform at peak level, he or she must stay in great physical shape. Eat right, exercise, get enough sleep, and visit your doctor even when you don’t think it is necessary. When you take care of yourself you feel better. When you feel better you perform better.
 MENTAL CONDITIONING:
Do things to exercise your brain – to teach your brain to push aside distractions and stay focused. Read, spend time in the woods, go for hikes, ride a bike, or simply add a mile walk to your daily routine. If you can’t push aside those things around you – performance will be challenging.
Play some “what if” scenarios through your head. What could go wrong if this or that occurs? Watch those workers who surround you and become aware of their own state of mind, and how well they have prepared for service. Have some solutions to inevitable problems that might arise – don’t be caught off guard – have your backup plans.
 UNDERSTANDING THE IMPORTANCE OF TEAM:
As much as being in the zone is an individual phenomena, chances are less likely that it will occur without the help of others. Everything is important, everyone is important. There is little doubt that a football team can’t win without a zoned in game plan. Tiger Woods may seem to be totally in control, but he depends significantly on his caddy for guidance. Michael Jordan always depended on a team members screen, a great pass from Scotty Pippen, or the opportunity to pass himself to Steve Kerr. Being in the zone is a team effort.
 MISE EN PLACE:
Every cook understands that everything else may be critical, but unless you are prepped for crazy business, you will always fall short. Cooks also realize that if your mise en place is really tight you can handle just about any amount of business. This can never be over-emphasized.
 CONFIDENCE AND PATIENCE:
When a quarterback feels that he can pull the game out at the last minute then the rest of the team feels confident in the same. When a musician feels that as the band works through those opening songs then the energy of the concert will lead them to a memorable performance. If confidence is lost, if doom and gloom sets in because the clock is ticking, then goals will never be achieved.
BEING IN THE ZONE:
“It was almost as if we were playing in slow motion. During those spells I could almost sense how the next play would develop and where the next shot would be taken.”
-Bill Russell – the Boston Celtics
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
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