• By: Pedro Candeias
  • Date: 01/03/2017

IZOF – Individualized Zones of Optimal Functioning: YOUR MIND RULES



“How do you feel when you’re about to start a match on a Karate Tournament or the next belt exam? Sometimes you feel too anxious and your movements feel like they are stuck; other times, you feel like too much passive with lack of energy; but there are those times when you feel a positive anxiety, that makes you feel confident, your movement feels perfect – you are in a Flow-Feeling”.


This is what Hanin (1997, 1999) called IZOF – Individualized Zones of Optimal Functioning.


Each person and athlete has an ideal state of anxiety. In this ideal anxiety, you can produce your best performance; but out of that zone, your performance is lower.


This zones of optimal functioning vary from Karateka to Karateka. Some athletes have their ideal zone of activation on a low level of anxiety, but others can have it on higher levels of anxiety.


Your job as a trainer is to help your students to find that Individual Zone of Optimal Functioning before and during the graduation exams or competitions.


You must help them to reach that ideal state of activation. How? Through a variety of positive emotional states like determination, anxiety, enjoyment, flow-feeling, among others.






Evidence from IZOF scientific studies clearly challenges this belief…


You can have the notion that pleasant emotions such as happiness and vigor always help performance and unpleasant emotions such as anxiety and anger harm performance.


However, a consistent finding in scientific studies is that high-activation unpleasant emotions can be associated with optimal performance (one more reason for the term “Individual Zone of Optimal Functioning).


Hanin (2003) said that if a person associated feeling angry or any other emotional state (positive or negative) with positive efforts to pursue goals, then a connection is made between anger and goal-achievement.


Imagine that one of your students argued with his/her mother or brother right before a competition; that energy helped him/her to win a match. In this case, that athlete can associate that anger with success. And this is valid to every kind of emotions.


According to Baumeister et al (2007), emotions provide learning rules for subsequent behavior.


So, a key aspect of the IZOF approach is that the Karate athlete/student, with the help of his/her Karate Sensei, identify the emotional states associated with optimal performance.


Harmison (2011) defended that many athletes are not aware of their emotional states and their relation to optimal performance. So, a key role of Karate Instructors is to develop their athletes’ self-awareness of that optimal states.





In the IZOF process, you must ask your Karate athletes to identify how they felt at a number of different times during performance – how they felt before, during and after a performance.


For example, pre-competition emotions are anticipatory and emotions such as anxiety and anger might have a function in preparing the Karateka for action. Post-competition emotions are more evaluative and closely related to the outcome of a competition.


Hanin (2010) points out that an emotion such as happiness might be a more functional emotion to experience after competition rather than before.


After the competition, feeling happy and the associated signal from happiness that “all is well” might imply that performance met expectation (with or without a medal), whereas Hanin argued that happiness before competition might be associated with complacency and underestimation of task difficulties, which could be detrimental to task performance.


Terry (1995) argued that assessing pre-competition mood one day before competition could leave a Karate Trainer enough time to implement interventions if needed.


You can do it, for example, in the beginning of the last training session. At that time, you can use that training session to change or reinforce the Optimal Functioning Zone.


Therefore, it is proposed that asking individuals to reflect on what emotional states they experienced before best and worst performances represents a useful starting point.





Another theory that links affective states to performance and is linked to the main assumptions of the IZOF is the IPCT – Individual Psychological Crisis Theory (Bar-Eli & Tenenbaum, 1989).


The IPCT views the athlete/student as a dynamic, open system that responds to environmental stimuli at different levels.


The Karateka continuously processes information and makes decisions aimed at the maximal adaptation of the system to the environmental conditions. It makes it through the reduction of uncertainty.


In a practical way, continuous exposure to similar situations and conditions shifts the operational mode of the system from intentional (conscious) to an automated mode.


This is true with tournaments, exams or simulations in the Dojo, during regular training. According to Nitsch, automaticity reduces the vulnerability of your Karate students/athletes to “choking” under pressure and/or uncertainty.


If you want your students to be in their optimal functioning zone, on the graduation exam, you must simulate that environment in your regular classes; if you want your athletes to improve their performance in the next National Championship you must take them to several tournaments so they can be more used to that specific environment.


The acquisition of expertise in Karate in an anxiety-provoking context requires one main thing:

  • Deliberate practice with exercises and conditions of high arousal and uncertainty. Your students/athletes have to develop cognitive mechanisms (in quality and quantity) that allow them to use simple and relevant responses to the challenge they face in Kumite, Kata, Kihon, etc.


In other words, when your Karate athletes/students are in a stressful situation, they experience high pressure and anxiety. This way they cannot pay attention to the task. If you don’t prepare them in advance they will lack self-regulatory mechanisms to reduce pressure. This will take them to an obvious, expected and significant performance decline (say 90% of chance).


The probability of a psychological crisis occur in a competition or Karate test increases as the individual shifts away from the optimal state toward the hypo- or hyperactivation states.






And now you’re asking how can you help your students/athletes to reach that Individual Zone of Optimal Functioning. Well, you already know two big and important strategies:


1. Increase your Karate athletes/students self-awareness so they can identify the emotions that lead them to their IZOF;


2. Create exercises and plan your classes/training in a way that they simulate as much as possible the conditions of a tournament or graduation test. In the specific case of athletes, take them to regular tournaments, so they can prepare themselves for the main competitions. This is called Simulation Training.


But, there are a great number of Psychological Training techniques that you can use on a regular and consistent basis:

  • Perception Training (so your students and athletes can develop better responses to random and non-planned situations, as in Kumite)
  • Cue Words
  • Competitive Routines
  • Visual Control
  • Focusing
  • Energy Control Measures
  • Attention Orientation Techniques
  • Refraining
  • Relativization Technique
  • Cognitive Techniques
  • Stress Control Techniques
  • Imagery
  • and many, many others (keep following us, because Karate Science Academy will give you all this scientific knowledge)


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P.S. – Psychological factors are crucial so you really can help your students and athletes to be better Karateka, but above all better persons: more confident, happier and fulfilled!