It's Game Day Every Day

Whether we’re the Patriots facing the Super Bowl or just regular folks confronting life’s challenges, there are ways to deal with the pressure

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady

Jack Fultz won the Boston Marathon in 1976, in conditions that made Heartbreak Hill seem like a mere bump in the road: the temperature hit 100 degrees an hour before the race started, and spectators along the route sprayed the runners with water to cool them down. That marathon became known as “The Run for the Hoses.”

Fultz had to hang up his competitive running shoes in 2000, after he developed arthritis. Now a lecturer in psychology in the School of Arts and Sciences, his specialty is sports psychology—specifically how athletes prepare for competition and continue to strive toward their goal, even as they face daunting challenges.

He offers some thoughts about how professional athletes get ready for the “big game”—in this case the Super Bowl, coming to a television set near you on Feb. 5—and how we can employ some of the same techniques in our own lives.

Tufts Now: How do athletes prepare for that big moment such as the Super Bowl?

Jack Fultz: They try to frame everything positively, eliminating any doubt that they belong there and are going to win. Obviously these athletes have been at this for most of their lives, so it’s not like something they’re preparing for over a month, or even a season. Every professional football player starts with the Super Bowl as the end goal.

Most players on the New England Patriots and the New York Giants will be playing in their first Super Bowl. How do they get ready for something they’ve never done before?

Nothing really trumps experience, but athletes usually go through a mental rehearsal and visualization. I use as an analogy The Right Stuff, Tom Wolff’s book about the astronauts chosen to be the first to participate in manned space flights. You can’t have had the experience of going to the moon for the first time—or going to your first championship game. When you get there, everything is novel. All the doubts and fears come along, as well as the excitement and the positive stuff. But if you have mentally rehearsed that, and visualized it and played it through your mind hundreds of times, the novelty is much less threatening.

How do players recover during a game after they make a mistake?

The best strategy is to forget about it and move on, but it’s not something you can do at the flip of a switch. On the other hand, these guys get a lot of positive reinforcement. If they fumble the ball, their teammates will say, “Don’t worry about it, shake it off—we’ll get it next time.” The guy who made the fumble must say to himself, “There’s nothing I can do about that. It’s history, move on.”

What they don’t want to do is think about what they don’t want to do. The mind doesn’t hear the “don’t.” If they think, “not the left hand,” they’re likely to switch the ball to the left hand. Instead, the best thing to do is make it a positive: “Keep it in the right hand, keep it in the right hand.” So framing mental instructions in a positive manner helps—for pro athletes and for those of us who don’t play sports for a living.

What do athletes mean when they say they are “in the zone,” and how do they get there?

It means being in the moment and not dwelling on past events—successes or failures—or what they will do next and get too far ahead of themselves. Negative emotions don’t reside in the present. They exist in the past in the form of resentment or frustration, or they reside in the future in the form of anxiety or doubt about something that might not happen. When athletes get out of the moment, they’re by default thinking of some future or past event, and their ability to perform their best starts to deteriorate.

Were you in the zone when you were a competitive runner?

With competitive endurance racing, you typically don’t interact with your opponent, especially when you’re out on a road as opposed to being on a track. There’s a lot of space around, and yes, you can get into a zone and really focus on what you’re doing in the moment. My best races were very much like that: I got “lost in the moment,” which was like having an out-of-body experience. It’s like it’s just happening to you, and your conscious mind is just along for the ride.

How does it feel to be in the zone?

It’s a moment of transcendence, and you can never be fully aware that you’re in the zone while you’re there. It’s almost after the fact that you look back on it: I was enjoying acting in the play and not thinking about being on center stage.

When you’re in the moment, the conscious mind is not engaged in your actions. It’s the subconscious that controls the action. But the conscious mind more often than not gets in the way and takes you out of the moment. It focuses on the consequences of actions in the future, or that fumble that happened, if that’s the case, and there’s nothing you can do about it but worry that it will happen again.

Can non-athletes enjoy the zone?

Definitely. It’s like sitting on a hillside and watching a beautiful sunset. You’re just happy to be right in the moment, right there. When words are flowing for a writer or painting for an artist, they are in the zone.

Marjorie Howard can be reached at


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