Alice in Chains and The Soft Zone

By Ron Pereira Updated on January 13th, 2011

Bean Bag GameA few weeks ago I was hanging out with some of my neighbors. The kids were playing, the wives were talking, and the men were drinking a few beers while playing the bean bag game. You know the one… where you try to toss bean bags onto a little board with a hole in it (see picture if you still don’t know what I mean).

Well, I had never played the game but decided to give it a shot. Well… I stunk it up real good. I think I scored a couple of points (i.e. the bean bag stayed on the board a couple times). It was painful to say the least. I licked my wounds and went home. My kids still loved me and I guess that’s all that matters, right?

The Soft Zone

Later that evening, before turning off the light, I decided to read a little more of The Art of Learning. That night I read the chapter called “The Soft Zone.” In it Josh Waitzkin, a child prodigy chess player as a young boy and the subject of the movie Searching for Bobby Fisher, talked about how he learned to turn serious distraction into an advantage.

He explained how he experienced a serious earthquake during an intense chess match in India… and while everyone else ran for dear life he sat calmly and found himself entering into an extremely deep and centered state of consciousness. He called this the soft zone. This is the same zone athletes like Michael Jordan often found themselves in during intense competition.

Later in the book Waitzkin wrote about how he also turned certain sounds and music into “triggers of excellence.” I found this very similar to the things they teach in Neural Linguistic Programming.

It was all very interesting… but I wasn’t sure how to apply it in my own life.

The Rematch

Fast forward a few weeks. The same neighbors I mentioned above all decided to have a block party one particularly warm Friday night. I brought my grill to the front of the house and neighbors from all over showed up. We must have had 50 people. It was great. Again, the kids playing, wives were talking, and yes… the guys were having a few beers while playing the bean bag game.

I watched for a bit. There were some “new” players this evening so I wasn’t forced into action as quickly as before. But, alas, finally I was called to play by my good friend, and Chicago native, Nick.

The Rooster

Now here is where it gets interesting. Right at the start of my first game the song “Rooster” by Alice in Chains was playing on the radio. You know the one… “Yeah, here comes the Rooster…. oh yeah!” Anyhow, I hadn’t heard this song for years. But I loved it “back in the day” and quickly realized I still love it today.

Anyhow, on my first round I was very relaxed (maybe the Corona I was drinking helped). I did well. I actually hit the board with all three bean bags and one stuck. Sweet. The next round was similar. The third round I missed badly with all three bean bags and almost tensed up. But I didn’t.

The fourth round, even though some other song was now playing; I cleared my mind and softly sang, “Yeah, here comes the Rooster…” I nailed it. One bean bag in the hole and the other two on the board. My partner was liking my new found skills.

But instead of getting all pumped up and excited I didn’t say or do anything. Instead, I focused on how I was feeling. I was calm. In control. I knew the next round was going to be a good one. And it was.


The rest of the night (till 2:30 AM to be exact) I played that stupid game. And I couldn’t miss. I mean I was on absolute fire. There was one other guy, on another team, who was also very good. He never seemed to miss either.

So the last game of the night was just me and him. One on one. Winner takes… well nothing… but you know what I mean.

So, here I stood, literally 7 hours after that first toss and of hearing “The Rooster.” I won’t lie… I was a little nervous. I mean this game was for the bragging rights of my street. The stakes were high. We decided to play to 11 (instead of 21) since it was just me and him.

I smoked him on the first game… something like 11-5. I didn’t brag or boast (not really my style). But this guy was a serious competitor and he called for best of 3. I obliged

The Rooster Returns

He jumped out on top out straight away. He put two in the hole and one on the board (7 points) and I put 3 on the board (3 points) after round 1. He was also calm and focused. This would be a battle.

I then settled in and went back to old faithful… yes “The Rooster.” He faltered a bit the rest of the way and I didn’t miss. I was the champion of my street!

What does this all mean?

You might wonder what any of this has to do with leadership or lean and six sigma. Well, I contend I learned an extremely valuable skill tossing those bean bags.

I learned how to control my emotions on a seriously deep level. Sure, tossing bean bags is a silly game… but the fact is I went from being the worst player to the best player with no practice in between. All that changed was my mental approach to the game.

And if I can do this tossing bean bags… what’s stopping me from doing it when the stakes are much higher?

You know, like when I am about to make a huge presentation, or enter into a meeting with some knuckle head. What’s stopping me from quieting my mind and softly whispering, “Yeah, here comes the Rooster?” Nothing in fact. Nothing at all.

What’s Stopping You?

And, for that matter, what’s stopping you from also finding your own soft zone and triggering it with some song or sound or thought? Again, nothing.

And if you want to practice… go get yourself a bean bag game and call out your neighbors for war. If anything you’ll have a blast along the way.

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  1. Theresa Adams

    July 23, 2008 - 7:12 am

    Great story! I’ve been a NLP practitioner for several years and what you describe is a perfect example of setting and launching an anchor, or trigger as you called it.

    And while it does take some practice, it’s well worth the effort once you have it mastered.

  2. Ron Pereira

    July 23, 2008 - 11:15 am

    Right… I forgot that they referred to it as anchors. But this is really the exact same thing I did. Even today, to see if it was still there… I sort of hummed the song and I felt much more relaxed and confident… all in a few seconds. The mind is an amazing thing.

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