The Truth About "The Zone" (Transcript)

Good Sport
The Truth About "The Zone"
February 15, 2023

[00:00:00] Jody Avirgan:
In sports, there's a lot of talk about a magical place called “the zone”. You've probably heard of it. That place where everything clicks, where no matter the weather or the crowd or the sweat in your eyes, nothing can break your focus, where you just do everything perfectly. You sink every shot. Nothing can stop you. Now, when I think about the zone, when I picture someone in the zone, I picture Steph Curry.

Do you believe in the zone?

[00:00:32] Steph Curry:
I do believe in the zone, ‘cause it's the one time that everything kind of goes autopilot.

[00:00:40] Jody Avirgan:
Well, if the greatest NBA shooter of all times says the legend is real, that the zone is real, it’s more than just a legend.

[00:00:48] Steph Curry:
There's just synergy with everything that you're trying to do, and even your intentions have been validated by the atmosphere around you, where it seems like everything else is going right at the same time. You kind of get lost in that moment.

[00:01:01] Jody Avirgan:
I love that phrase. Your intentions are validated by the atmosphere around you. I suppose if I were hitting every shot in the NBA finals in front of a roaring crowd, I'd probably feel like my intentions were validated by the atmosphere as well. But look, here's the thing about the zone. Almost by definition, it is special and fleeting, and you can't force it.

[00:01:24] Steph Curry:
You can't control any of that. It's just, for me, when it goes away, it's the reflection on the feeling you just had. I think it's just a natural experience.

[00:01:37] Jody Avirgan:
You can recognize when it's gone. But chasing after it is almost a guarantee that you won't get there.

[00:01:44] Steph Curry:
I don't think you can train yourself to appreciate it more than just you naturally do.‘Cause if you do, then you start to distract yourself from what's actually happening.

[00:01:55] Jody Avirgan:
So you heard it directly from Steph Curry. Nice as it is when you find yourself in the zone, obsessing over getting there—and there is a lot of obsession about the zone—that will get in the way of what you're trying to do.

So today we want to figure out what we can control, what we can train for, because even if the zone is elusive, there are still ways to perform at your best to keep your head in the game.

My name is Jody Avirgan, and from the TED Audio Collective. This is Good Sport.


[00:02:35] Jody Avirgan:
We think about athletes getting their bodies in shape to compete, but talk to top athletes, and a lot of them will say that the mental side of the game is the real key to peak performance. It's one of the things I've thought about most as an athlete: how to get my mind in the right place. To be clear, I'm not talking about mental health or emotional well-being.

Athletes like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka have started really important conversations about how an athlete's life on and off the court connect. And honestly, those deserve an entire series of their own. What we're talking about in this episode is the mental part of competition. That invisible force that I think shapes every game, every race, every match, and a lot of times, separates the winner from the loser.


[00:03:36] Jody Avirgan:
Dr. Nicole Detling is an expert on the mental side of the game. She's a sports psychologist who's worked with Olympic skiers and skaters, pro baseball and football and soccer players, college gymnasts, athletes at the very top of their sports. When she first meets with these athletes, all they want to talk about is being in the zone.

So when you ask people to describe what it feels like, what language do they use?

[00:04:02] Nicole Detling:
Interesting. A lot of them will say things like, “I don't remember much about it.” Like, “I just kind of was lost. I wasn't thinking. I was just doing it, and it was amazing, and I loved it, and I wanna get there more.”

[00:04:14] Jody Avirgan:
But as she starts to work with athletes, she tries to shift their thinking. She tells them not to think about the feeling of being in the zone that they're trying to chase after, but instead that they should work on building a solid and reliable skill. That skill is mental resilience.

[00:04:32] Nicole Detling:
Being your best self in all circumstances, whatever that looks like. You know what? I'm only at 70% today, but I'm gonna do my best to give that 70%.

[00:04:39] Jody Avirgan:
Mental resilience means being able to find whatever version of calm and focus you can, even when things aren't going your way. Those times when you're trying to get your focus or regain it when something is tugging at your attention. An unexpected move by your opponent, a mistake, bad weather. It's about recovering from those things to still play your best. Mental resilience is not elusive or magical. It's a habit.

[00:05:05] Nicole Detling:
We have these thinking processes and patterns and skills that we're teaching people to eventually get it to automate. So it's an automatic process. Rather than having to turn on that mindset, you become that mindset.

[00:05:16] Jody Avirgan:
And if we're gonna talk about the mindset required for mental resilience, I want to talk about a sport that I have come to believe requires more of it than maybe any other sport. A sport where a test of mental resilience is baked right into the rules. Biathlon.

Meet Clare Egan, Olympic biathlete. Imagine her cross-country skiing, whizzing through the mountains of northern Italy, consumed by the drive to go fast. In fact, so consumed that she would sometimes lose track of where she was and go off course.

[00:05:52] Clare Egan:
It did lead me astray several times, literally, because I was notorious for getting lost.

[00:05:55] Jody Avirgan:
Haha. When Clare Eagan would ski, she'd get lost in a sort of beautiful haze focused only on her arms, her legs, on pushing forward.

[00:06:06] Clare Egan:
I can just focus on my body, my breath. I'm pushing as hard as I can and harder and harder as much as I can.

[00:06:15] Jody Avirgan:
But here's the thing: biathlon isn't just a cross-country skiing race where you can allow yourself to get totally lost. No. There's another component, one that would often trip Clare up. Because in biathlon you go from flying across the snow to a full stop… And then, you take a rifle off your back, and on a shooting range that's nearly silent, you peer through a sight and you try and shoot five targets that can be as small as Oreos, 164 feet away. And those shots, it's hard to overstate how much making them matters. Everything is on the line. If you miss a target, depending on the race, you either have to ski extra laps or have minutes added to your total race time. The pressure is immense.

[00:07:05] Clare Egan:
I’ve grew up watching the Green Bay Packers, ‘cause my dad's from Green Bay. And, um, probably most Americans can think of a time when the kicker took the field and of course, there's two seconds or something ridiculous left on the clock. And, and, and you just know. And that kicker knows if they, if they hit that kick the right way, it's gonna be a win for the team. And if they don't, it won’t. And every biathlon race is like that for every competitor.

[00:07:32] Jody Avirgan:
Except for in football, that kicker didn’t spring up and down the sideline 200 times before having to then kick the ball.

[00:07:39] Clare Egan:
Exactly. Right? Right.

[00:07:40] Jody Avirgan:
So biathlon is this test of body and mind. That's the mental puzzle built into the rules. The big test of resilience. You have to shift your brain from skiing to shooting. Do it quickly. Keep your focus.

But when Clare would fly into the shooting range, dripping with sweat, almost delirious from her high-speed racing, her brain felt blurry and jumbled. Thoughts swirling around as she tried to slow everything down and shoot those five Oreos.

[00:08:16] Clare Egan:
I wasn't actually loose enough to be doing what I needed to do, and so sometimes I would leave the range having missed three out of five, and I'm thinking to myself, “What did I just do out there? I don't even know what I did.”

[00:08:30] Jody Avirgan:
Is it true that most people miss the last shot or people miss the last shot more than the others?

[00:08:35] Clare Egan:
The shooting statistics for the last shot would be worse than for the other shots, but, but that's probably only if you've hit all your other shots.

[00:08:42] Jody Avirgan:
Mm-hm. But what's going on there?

[00:08:45] Clare Egan:
You know exactly what's on the line. It's easy to become distracted because you start thinking about the outcome. It's such a distraction. It's a distraction that is being shoved in your face, and it's unavoidable. So you have to be strong in your mind. You have to be well prepared to say, “Okay, I'm distracted. Now what?”

[00:09:07] Jody Avirgan:
Now what? Clare was competing in major events, the world championships, the Olympics, and she wanted medals. She needed to figure out a strategy for how to handle the mental challenge at the heart of her sport. So she made a routine.

As a first step, Clare tried to identify what she called her transition area by looking at the race course. She'd show up early and plot out where on the course she had to start shifting her mind from “I need to go as fast as I can” to “I need to breathe and focus”. She'd pick a change in the terrain or a landmark, like a flagpole.

[00:09:42] Clare Egan:
And physically, at that point, I would bring my pace down to a level where I'm no longer accumulating more oxygen debt. So I'm not, I'm not, I don't wanna be getting any more tired than I already am.

[00:09:58] Jody Avirgan:
And once she got on the shooting range, she started using what she called an emergency check to make sure that she'd really made the transition.

[00:10:07] Clare Egan:
The last thing I need to do is sort of like put my cheek down on my, on my cheek piece and, and look out through the sights. The last thing I did before I would lower my head is I would make sure that I could see the target clearly with my eyes, like that I wasn't so tired and out of it that I was, like, blurry because sometimes I was really seeing blurry. And so, I would kind of double check, “Okay, like, am I seeing the target clearly? Okay, yeah. Now I can make intelligent decisions about what I'm doing on the shooting range.”

[00:10:40] Jody Avirgan:
It was all about finding simple, repeatable cues, a routine that could consistently get her mind where it needed to be. This would also help Clare handle the pressure of shooting. Quiet that inner voice that was saying, “If I hit this, then…”

[00:10:57] Clare Egan:
“Then I’ll have hit all five.” Like, that's not a helpful thought. And when you recognize “Oh, I've had that thought. That’s not helpful,” then you can replace it with something that actually is helpful like, “Okay, I had that thought. That's fine. Now I'm gonna take one more breath, exhale, and then do a really good job on the trigger.”

[00:11:17] Jody Avirgan:
Keeping her mind focused on process is how Clare learned to handle shooting mistakes as well. I asked her to tell me about a time when she really struggled with recovering from an error.

Sorry, not to take you there.

[00:11:33] Clare Egan:
Through every race… Um, I could think one of the most painful ones was a race outta world championships, where I hit the first 17 and then missed the last 3.

[00:11:46] Jody Avirgan:
That thing about biathletes struggling with their final shots, it happened to Clare. 17 in a row, then missed the final three? Brutal.

[00:11:56] Clare Egan:
It was a minute of time penalty per miss, You know, to be in medal contention and then miss the last, like to throw it away in three seconds at the end of the race was so painful.

[00:12:08] Jody Avirgan:
When Clare thinks back to that world championship race, she's struck by how certain she was that she'd make all her shots. In her mind, it was the only possible outcome.

[00:12:18] Clare Egan:
And my third to last shot, I think was probably really, really close. In fact, I know it was close. It was, like, what's called a split. It was like half in, half out, but it didn't, the target didn't go down.

And I got so distracted by that. I, it, I, like, I probably flinched. I, I was so shocked that I missed and instead of, um, resetting, I don't even remember taking the last two shots. You know, I was not, I was distracted.

[00:12:43] Jody Avirgan:
She lost sight of what she had to do to shoot well, like checking the wind direction, adjusting her sights, and having a steady trigger squeeze on every shot.

This process versus outcome thing, I think it's bled from sports into the rest of the world almost to the point of cliche. I've heard of people in office meetings talk about focusing on process. It's worked its way into the world of self-help books and podcasts. Oh God, is this a self-help podcast? But yeah, focusing on process is really, really hard because there are all these moments when outcome tries to rear its ugly head and throw you, and you have to try and refocus on the steps you need to take right now.

But thinking back to that world championship, Clare also sees a deeper lesson about the mindset it takes to perform at the highest level. After her race was done, she ran into a friend of hers who at the time was the best biathlete in the world. He'd made a similar mistake at the Olympics. He missed his last few shots.

[00:13:46] Clare Egan:
He was kind of joking, you know, “How badly did you just throw away your race?” And I'm like, “Real bad, real badly.” And I, but I said, “Hey, you know, but I, I think I remember you doing it in, in Korea too, so you know, I'm maybe not alone. Even heroes do this kind of thing.” And he said, “Yeah, that's true. That happened to me. But I won the next day.”

And that reminded me that what happens the next day is completely unrelated to what happened the day before. It's a fresh slate, and that's the beautiful thing.

[00:14:20] Jody Avirgan:
The one term I've always thought was just sort of, flush it, right? Something goes bad, flush it, and then you just move on. That was awesome.

[00:14:25] Clare Egan:
Oh yeah. This, and, and people who are awesome at their sport are flushing a lot. What can you learn and then move on and never think about it again?

[00:14:39] Jody Avirgan:
Okay, we're 15 minutes into this episode. You just learned something, flush it. Let's move on.


[00:15:00] Jody Avirgan:
Growing up, Dr. Nicole Detling loved sports.

[00:15:03] Nicole Detling:
In fact, I was the first girl in my school to play football.

[00:15:05] Jody Avirgan:
She ended up running track and playing basketball in college. Just focused on her game, wins and losses, points scored, having fun with her teammates. But one day, she was having a chat with her dad.

[00:15:17] Nicole Detling:
My dad called me and said, “Did you know there's a field called sports psychology?” And I said, “What? No.”

[00:15:23] Jody Avirgan:
A whole new world opened up. Eventually, it would become her career, but it also started to change the way she played. One of the first things that shifted, something she now works on with her athletes, was just a basic understanding that the mental side of the game is alway s there.

[00:15:41] Nicole Detling:
Every time you play physically, every time you train, every time you think about your sport, your mind is involved. If you don't know what's going through your mind, you're not aware of what's helping you and what's hurting you. And quite frankly, it's not even just sports. It's life, it's business, it's performance. It's everything we do every day.

[00:15:59] Jody Avirgan:
Yeah. And talk about something that feels like it's worked its way into larger culture, but just mindfulness, and staying in the moment and just going one moment at a time. I mean that's, you know, that's exploded in sports, but in real life too. We have a, we have apps, you know, that are trying to get us to focus on just this one moment.

[00:16:16] Nicole Detling:
Yeah. And it's so difficult in this world when we have so many things pulling on our attention. Our phone dings, our computer dings, the TV. You know, we always say in sports, the most important play is this play, and then this play.

[00:16:30] Jody Avirgan:
There's a line in one of my favorite books about the mental side of sports called The Inner Game of Tennis. It goes, “It is perplexing to wonder why we ever leave the here and now. Here and now are the only place in time when one ever enjoys himself or accomplishes anything.” And I think about that a lot. How performing well at anything—being an athlete, being a manager, being a partner, being a parent—is often about giving the present your full attention.

So when athletes come to Dr. Detling, she convinces them that they need to work on the mental side of the game, and then, she gets to work, to build that mental resilience.

[00:17:11] Nicole Detling:
What I'll often do is ask athletes, “Okay, tell me how you warm up, or what do you do between plays? What do you do? What's your process?” And then I'll say, “Okay, at each one of those points, what are you doing mentally?”

And most people don't know what they're doing mentally. So then what I'll do is say, “Okay, well here's what we've been working on. So I don't want you to change what you're doing physically, but when you do this, let's tie in that.” So maybe you were saying a confident statement to yourself. Maybe you're reminding yourself what your assignment is on that play.

[00:17:37] Jody Avirgan:
Yeah. I mean, I have, you know, memories; it's one of my favorite sort of things. It's like during a really high-level game, let's say, there's, you know, 10 people on the field or the court, or 15 people or whatever, you know, if you were just like, at a supercritical moment. You know, if you were to look around or even close your eyes and listen, you know, be like, “This person's muttering to themselves. This person's singing a song. This person's tugging on their, on their lucky jersey.”

[00:18:00] Nicole Detling:
Yes. Yes!

[00:18:00] Jody Avirgan:
“This person is like…” So, you know, but it's like everyone's just doing their own little, their little thing. But it's a, you know, you take half a step back and you're like, “Wow, look at these bunch—”

[00:18:10] Nicole Detling:
I know!

[00:18:10] Jody Avirgan:
A bunch of people up top.

[00:18:12] Nicole Detling:
Yeah. I couldn't agree more. And that's why I, I, that's what the, those are the things that I look for when I go and hang out with teams.

[00:18:17] Jody Avirgan:

[00:18:18] Nicole Detling:
Is I'm looking for baseline. “So I've noticed you do this. First of all, did you know you did that? Second of all, why are you doing that? And third of all, what's happening mentally while you're doing that?” If that's something you're gonna do, let's use it. Let's utilize it in a positive way that gets you ready for the next play.

[00:18:35] Jody Avirgan:
There are some things I do to try and keep my mind calm and my body ready. Before taking the field in Ultimate, I'd always do three tuck jumps, just the little routine to center myself, and I actually don't think I've ever said this to anyone, but for, like, 20 years as I've played sports or worked out, I've had this little snippet of a song that runs through my head, something I find myself humming.


I have no idea what that song is, but it just shows up whenever I'm trying to get into that flow state. Hundreds of times a year for 20 years. I probably owe whoever wrote that song serious royalties. But for all my humming and tuck jumps, I've still struggled with slipping out of the moment. So much of mental resilience is realizing that everything isn't gonna go perfectly.

I've worked on that. I've worked on, here’s one of my favorite cliches, getting comfortable being uncomfortable. The good news, Dr. Detling says, is that you can train for that.

[00:19:37] Nicole Detling:
Some of the things that we've done with some of the skiing Olympians that I've worked with, and actually I'll talk about speed skating too, is we've not waxed their skis, and they've had to train with unwaxed skis, right? With speed skating, you know what, your blades aren't quite as sharp as you would want them to be.

Train that way. Train with, you know, forgetting, you know, there's a little tiny little tear in your suit. Train without your goggles one time. That's why a lot of teams will pipe in crowd noise, so they can't hear during training sessions. They can't hear each other, and they're working on those things and training for those things, because at the end of the day, we all wanna show up and feel great, but yet there will be comp days, sometimes the biggest competition of your life, and you show up feeling like crap. If you've trained feeling like crap, then you know you can compete feeling like crap.

[00:20:28] Jody Avirgan:
Okay, so you can train for the uncomfortable moments, train to keep some focus when there are uncontrollable external circumstances. But what about the internal? What about when you, yourself are the problem? When your own thoughts are distracting you? That voice that pops up at all of the wrong moments telling you how badly you're doing, how much the game is slipping out of your hands.

When she was a college athlete playing basketball, this is the kind of thinking that really tripped up Dr. Detling and really propelled her to want to explore the mental side of the game.

[00:21:03] Nicole Detling:
I was basically my own living, walking, self-fulfilling prophecy where I'd get fouled, and I'd be going to the free throw line thinking, “Oh my gosh, I'm gonna miss this. Oh, I can't miss this. I really don't need to miss this. Oh, come on, Nicole.”

[00:21:14] Jody Avirgan:
I mean, listening to that, I just missed a free throw here in the studio.

[00:21:20] Nicole Detling:
So I was setting myself up for failure and assuming I was gonna fail before I even got there and gave myself a chance.

[00:21:24] Jody Avirgan:
Today, this is a big part of what Dr. Detling works on with athletes: self-talk. I think we all know what self-talk is, and we can understand that she was hurting her performance with all that negative self-talk. We get, too, that the opposite is positive self-talk. “I can do this. I got this.” That kind of thing. But Dr. Detling thinks it's a little more nuanced than just positive and negative. It's really about what does the talk do for you.

Here's her example. She's a runner, and she lives in Utah where it can get to a hundred degrees in the summer, but she's out there running anyway.

[00:22:04] Nicole Detling:
And there will be times that I will catch myself out there going, “Oh my gosh. It is so hot.” Yeah, that's true. “Oh my gosh, I'm so tired. My legs are so heavy.” Both of those things are true. And then I start thinking, “Oh, I could just call my husband, and he can come pick me up. Oh, I could take this short way home.” And what I'll recognize in the moment is none of those thoughts are helping me achieve what I'm out there to do, which is run. And that's negative self-talk.

I will catch myself, and Jody, I will literally say to myself: “Nicole, you're being fucking stupid. Run.” What it does for me in that moment is I flip a switch and I run. So in that moment, that is positive self-talk because it's getting me to where I wanna be to do what I want to do.

[00:22:51] Jody Avirgan:
So yeah, it's important to think about helpful self-talk and try and keep unhelpful self-talk at arm’s distance. But easier said than done. We all know what it's like for your mind to wander, and then all of a sudden you're back at self-doubt, that unhelpful voice in your head. This is where Dr. Detling introduces a concept I hadn't really heard before. Honestly, my biggest takeaway from our entire conversation: neutral self-talk; neutral self-talk is basically keeping your mind occupied and ready, but not exhausted.

[00:23:26] Nicole Detling:
What I’ll often tell people to do is just in your mind, commentate what you see around you. All right. Number 10 has the ball. They're moving up to midfield. I'm gonna run to that open space. Okay? They passed it to the right. I'm gonna drop back a little bit, make sure this guy's covered over my shoulder.

[00:23:40] Jody Avirgan:
Neutral self-talk is like hold music for your mind.

[00:23:44] Nicole Detling:
And when you're thinking neutral, you're not thinking negative, and your confidence can rest. You can play in neutral. You can live in neutral. Neutral's a great place to be.

[00:23:57] Jody Avirgan:
Man, I wish I knew about neutral self-talk years ago. Because when I played sports, it was rarely neutral. I'd often ride a rollercoaster of emotions, and often the emotion I most felt was anger. I've always been one of those athletes fueled by anger and a bit of animosity towards my opponent.

Anyone who's played against me probably didn't have a very fun time. I often didn't have much fun playing. Maybe I was kind of a dick, but it was also hurting my game. I didn't have Dr. Detling all those years ago when I was driven by anger, but I have her now.

How do you handle someone who is, who's driven by that?

[00:24:39] Nicole Detling:
Well, let me ask you. Let's do it. Let's do a little bit of work here. So, how do you find that place of anger where you like to be? How do you get there?
[00:24:46] Jody Avirgan:
Um, just get petty, but like intentionally, right? But just, you know, or if it's a rivalry and it's someone I know, you know, use something from a previous match. But, you know, I always find that spark. Like, I don't think I cheated, but I would often early in a game, find a way to scuffle with someone or talk a little shit or be aggrieved in some way. Just something, a spark to get me motivated and fired up.

[00:25:15] Nicole Detling:
Okay, and if we go, like, think of a scale of one to 10, where 10 is like as angry as you have ever been. Like probably maybe even a little too far anger. One is you have zero, you're just kind of there playing. What's your ideal level of anger?

[00:25:29] Jody Avirgan:
I mean, it's definitely not a 10, right? Because I think I know what it feels like to be out of control. Um, and be, and the diminishing aspect of that. But you know, it's close. An eight.

[00:25:44] Nicole Detling:
Mm-hmm. Mm-hm. Eight, okay.

[00:25:45] Jody Avirgan:
Or seven.

[00:25:45] Nicole Detling:

[00:25:46] Jody Avirgan:
You know, I can't be, I can't be at a four.

[00:25:48] Nicole Detling:
So let's say if it's a, if it's an eight, then your ideal range would be a seven to a nine. So eight's where you wanna be. Seven, a little too low, but you're okay there. Nine, a little too high, but you're okay there. And so if you get to that 10, you have to have your strategies to bring you back down. And if you are at a six or lower, what are your strategies to bring you up? And it sounds like for you, beginning a game, sometimes you have to fabricate it. It's just not there naturally. So then let's go to what are your specific strategies to fabricate that anger that's not there inherently?

[00:26:20] Jody Avirgan:
Right. I mean, yeah.

[00:26:20] Nicole Detling:
And you talked about opponents. Yeah. Go ahead. What else do you have on that?

[00:26:24] Jody Avirgan:
Right. No, and I mean to me, you know, I think the thing that I've always prided myself on and I think has put me in a position to, when I've performed well, performed well is just a level of intensity in everything.

[00:26:36] Nicole Detling:

[00:26:36] Jody Avirgan:
And so, you know, it's, it's the warmup, it's the behavior on the sideline. It’s maybe, you know, mixing it up with teammates in what feels like a way that it’s, we're pushing each other up. Um, but, you know, I can't, I can't just flip the switch. I kind of have to be in this stew of intensity.

[00:26:54] Nicole Detling:
Okay. Well, there you go. So now you're using the word intensity instead of anchor, so which is it? Is there a difference between those for you?

[00:27:04] Jody Avirgan:
Mm-hm. Right. Yeah. And maybe that's, maybe that's the difference between 7 and 10, right?

[00:27:08] Nicole Detling:

[00:27:08] Jody Avirgan:
And, and anger, feeling like something that you're sort of holding onto the live wire, um, and intensity feeling like something you something can ride a little bit.

[00:27:15] Nicole Detling:
There you go. Now, now thinking about the difference between those two. Anger can be really hard to facilitate, but intensity is a lot easier. And so—

[00:27:23] Jody Avirgan:

[00:27:23] Nicole Detling:
—even identifying the difference between those two for you can be incredibly powerful.

[00:27:29] Jody Avirgan:
Listener, I promise, going forward I will podcast with intensity, not anger. Deep breath. Deep breath.

The mental side of sports, it's a new frontier. No surprise. With all the money in sports, people are trying to figure out shortcuts. Shortcuts to focus. Some kind of magical zone pill or resilience wearable or whatever. Athletes are experimenting with computer simulations to train their minds. There's research into supplements and hormones that might calm our brains. I tried to put Steph Curry in an MRI machine during our interview. He was not having it.

I want to tell you about the vagus nerve. It's a bundle of nerves, we all have it, that runs up your neck and around your ear. It connects all the way down to your heart and your gut. Some people think it might be the key to how your brain and body interact.

There's a lot of research into vagus nerve stimulation and devices you can wear to activate it with the goal of relaxing your mind and body. A lot of these devices attach at your ear and create a sort of low-level sound and vibration. There's these videos that show someone wearing a vagus nerve stimulator and they're on a putting green, and they just stand there calmly sinking one putt after another.

In fact, over the last 45 seconds or so, we've been playing a version of that sound. If you are wearing headphones right now, you are likely entering the zone. Try it out. Go take some free throws, do some writing. Take a knife, throw it in the air, you'll catch it by the handle.

Nah, I'm just messing with you. Dr. Detling says vagus nerve stimulation might help some athletes in some sports. It seems to depend on the person and the situation, and it's hard to know how much is just placebo effect. It's just not that simple, which is actually what makes this so wonderful. Think about how dynamic sports are, how complicated the ecosystem of a game is.

Every time you go out there to compete, there's you, there's your opponent, different players, different plays, a different field, different weather. But research is done on controlling variables so that someone like Dr. Detling can say X caused Y.

[00:29:59] Nicole Detling:
I will often get asked, you know, where's the objective evidence or the data that shows that what you do makes an impact?

And there isn't any, I don't have any other than athletes saying that it makes an impact. Coaches saying that it makes an impact. People continuing to come back to me year after year, after year, hire me year after year after year. It’s, it does make an impact, but we don't have the scientific evidence to prove that. It’s just not… We just don't have the capacity to study it yet. Perhaps someday we will.

[00:30:31] Jody Avirgan:
I love the idea that sports are too dynamic to study: the drama, the constant change, the unpredictability. It's what can make sports feel like life. Life is usually more messy than clean. Lord knows it's uncomfortable. But that's where the lessons you learn in sports can teach you something about the rest of your life, too.

[00:30:52] Nicole Detling:
I've personally had what, 10, 12 surgeries now related to sports. So an athlete comes to me with an ACL, I'm like, “Yeah, I know. I've been there. I got you. Okay, let's do this.”

You know, so whether it's, you know, having those injuries or it's having, you know, personal struggles. I'm on my second marriage. My first husband just walked out the door one day when my kids were six and three, and so as horrible as that experience was and to go through that experience, it's helped me help other people who go through similar things. We are all so much stronger than we think. We can get through so much more than we think, and that's part of what mental toughness is all about, is not that you're always this stud out there, but that you're pushing through whatever it is that you're dealing with, you're figuring it out, and some days it's easier than others, but you continue to persevere.

[00:31:44] Jody Avirgan:
You do your best on your worst days. You leave your mistakes behind. Flush it. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. And on those days where everything is clicking, where you race across the snow and make all your shots, where you're the Steph Curry of reading books to your kids, you just try to stay in the moment. Why would we ever leave the here and now? Here and now are the only place in time when one ever enjoys oneself or accomplishes anything.


[00:32:25] Jody Avirgan:
On the next episode of Good Sport:

[00:32:28] David Samson:
“What should we do here, ethically?” never, ever comes up when you're negotiating a stadium deal.

[00:32:34] Jody Avirgan:
Is there such a thing as a good stadium deal or maybe just a less bad one?

Good Sport is brought to you by the TED Audio Collective. It's hosted by me, Jody Avirgan. This show is produced by TED. This episode was written and produced by Camille Peterson. Our team includes Isabel Carter, Poncie Rutsch Sarah Nics, Jimmy Gutierrez, Michelle Quint, BanBan Cheng, and Roxanne Hai Lash. Jake Gorski is our sound designer and mix engineer.

Fact-checking by Nicole Pasulka. We'll be back soon with more Good Sport. Make sure you're following Good Sport in your favorite podcast app so you get every episode delivered straight to your device and leave us a review. We love hearing from our listeners. See you soon.