In a recent article, I wrote about how cultivating resilient mindset using mindfulness techniques can help poker players play better

In this one, I want to teach you about getting into the zone and show you how mindfulness training can help.

What is the Zone?

Athletes typically talk about being in the zone when they have seemingly effortless performances where everything goes right. I interviewed several seven-figure poker winners several years ago regarding the mental game. They, too, talked about being in the zone when they were playing their best.

What exactly is the zone? 

In psychology, we often refer to it as being in flow. Generally, you'll feel calm and centred when in the zone (or in flow, as commonly referred to in sport psychology). Your attention will focus on highly the task at hand. 

Dr Csikszentmihalyi, the leading researcher in the area, further defined flow as a mental state where a person gets so involved in an activity that is so enjoyable to them that nothing else seems to matter. 

Flow is present when these nine elements exist:

  1. A balance between the challenge faced and the skills required to meet it
  2. Clear goals for the activity
  3. Unambiguous feedback in the pursuit of those goals
  4. A merging of action and awareness such that play feels almost automatic.
  5. Total concentration on the task at hand
  6. A sense of control
  7. Lack of self-scrutiny 
  8. A transformation of time (where it either speeds up or slows down)
  9. The activity is intrinsically rewarding (known as an autotelic experience)

Researchers have found that the first three dimensions are prerequisites for getting into the zone. When a person gets into flow, they experience some or all the remaining six elements. 

Finally, and most importantly, being in flow is associated with optimal performance

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As you can see, the concept of flow is extremely well-defined! There is still debate over whether one can train to get into the zone on demand. 

Flow is a complex issue. But research indicates that it comes from an interaction of the following variables – 

  • Preparation
  • Confidence
  • Attention
  • Control
  • Adaptability
  • Arousal awareness
  • Regulation of thoughts and emotions

If you want to spend more time in the zone, train yourself for the psychological conditions that can lead to flow. 

Luckily, mindfulness training can help with this! 

The Flow-Mindfulness Connection

Mindfulness, according to Jon Kabat-Zinn, is simply the following – 

A way of paying attention: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally to whatever arises in your field of experience.” 

To break it down even further, mindfulness is noticing what is happening when it is happening in an accepting way. 

At the tables, this aspect translates into paying attention to the action as it’s happening. At the same time, you are also aware of your thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and impulses or urges to act. 

In this state, you notice any preconceived ideas or biases in real-time. You can make decisions on how to respond in a deliberate and focused manner. You’re highly focused and can make choices that align with your goals (as opposed to being reactionary). 

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Studies show that practising mindfulness is helpful in many ways because it leads to the following –

  1. Physical changes in the areas of the brain related to emotional regulation, response control and decision-making.
  2. Increased attention
  3. Reduced feelings of stress and anxiety
  4. Improved emotions management (especially fear and anger)
  5. Learning to accept negative emotions without having to act on them.
  6. Balanced risk-taking.
  7. Less distractibility

Imagine how much your game would improve if you developed these skills!

Several studies have shown that practising mindfulness-based interventions (like mindful breathing) increases flow in athletes, resulting in improved sports performance. 

No studies have been done with poker players specifically (yet). But poker players could likely benefit from spending more time in the zone.

Mindful Breathing Training

Getting into flow on command at the poker table (or anywhere) can be tricky. One way to increase your odds of doing so is to start regularly practising mindfulness techniques. The most straightforward method is to use mindful breathing when your breath is the focus of your attention.

Start by sitting comfortably with your feet on the floor/ground.

Focus on the sensations of your breathing by following the rhythm and speed of your breath, and the rise and fall of your abdomen, the flow of air in and out of your nostrils. 

Your job is to simply notice these things without judgment

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When your mind wanders, as it indeed will, your task is to notice and gently bring your attention back to your breathing.

Repeat this cycle for several minutes. (3-5 minutes is a good goal if you’re just getting started, and 10-20 minutes is good if you’re experienced).

Do this exercise every day if you want to maximise your results.

Here are a few things to remember: 

  • If your mind keeps wandering, you may feel as though you’re doing this exercise wrong. Never fear; you are not! 
  • The process of noticing that your mind has wandered and returning your focus to your breathing is the purpose of the exercise. 
  • This process is what improves your attentional skills and emotional regulation

Refocusing without getting upset is part of the same skill set that will help you get into flow more regularly at the tables. 

In the Zone Conclusion

Your ability to regulate your attention and manage your emotions heavily influences being able to get into the zone (aka, flow state). If you can put 100% of your attention on the game without getting distracted or upset by negative emotions, you are much more likely to be able to play in the zone.

Imagine not being phased by a bad beat or an opponent you perceive to be better than you. Negative emotions like anger and anxiety hurt performance. Feeling confident, optimistic and committed to poker can help.

Your goal, should you choose to accept it, is to train yourself to respond adaptively to any emotion. And mindfulness exercises undoubtedly have a great chance of helping you with that! 

Dr. Tricia Cardner is the author of Positive Poker, Peak Poker Performance and co-author of Purposeful Practice for Poker. She podcasts at Poker on The Mind with her co-host Gareth James. You can find her at where she teaches poker players the most effective psychological strategies for optimal poker performance.