One of the most frustrating aspects of trying to get better at anything is seeing your knowledge outpace your performance. Poker players read books, watch videos, and observe pro players and can often clearly outline profitable techniques. Yet when they put their money on the line they struggle to execute, finding that doubt, anxiety, and tentativeness creep in to sabotage their efforts.

Why do many of us fail to play optimally when money is on the line? The answer lies in our response to stress in performance situations. Rather than working in the learning zone, we settle into the comfort zone or veer into the panic zone. Neither is ideal for peak poker performance.

Problems in the Comfort Zone

According to researchers, people revert to our “Comfort Zone” when faced with challenges that cause stress. Potentially losing money in a cash game or getting knocked out of a tournament is stressful. Thus, many players engage in a style of play that feels safer: playing a narrow range of premium hands, calling a pre-flop raise instead of 3-betting, and folding to aggressive players.

However, the Comfort Zone is not a place for growth and expansion of skills. Playing the same game you did five years ago, you’ll likely see, at best, similar results. Lingering in the Comfort Zone begets other problems as well: most critically, boredom and inattentiveness. Playing a predictable, safe strategy requires very little thought. You start drifting at the table: watching a game, surfing the Internet, doing everything but attending to other players and thinking through the action.

Drowning in the Panic Zone

The opposite of the Comfort Zone is the Panic Zone. In poker, the Panic Zone looms when you have either changed your style too radically or have entered a game with far more skilled players than you are accustomed to.

In the first situation, sick of your reputation as a “rock,” you start randomly aggressing. In a cash game, you 3-bet your pocket sixes preflop (intending to take it down), get called by two players, and fail to improve on the flop. Your 3-bet swelled the pot bigger than you intended. You feel your blood pressure rise. You have no idea what c-bet size makes sense, and it looks like one of your opponents is dying to call. After a period of self-loathing, you revert back to the Comfort Zone…and check.

Alternately, you decide to “take a stab” at a higher-stakes cash game or buy-in tournament. Sick of playing your weekly $50 game you decide to take that stimulus check and roll it into the $600 monthly main event at your local room. Problem is, the players you encounter are not the same mix as your $50 game. No one lets you see a flop cheaply, you face c-bets 70%-80% of the time, and, double and triple barreling is not uncommon. Every hand you’re in is stressful. You find yourself fluctuating between the Comfort Zone and the Heck-With-It Zone. Tired of players bluffing you, and smirking when you fold – you blow it all off with second pair. You are guided by emotion rather than reason and careful planning.

Finding the Ideal Poker Learning Zone

Between the Comfort and Panic Zones, is the Learning Zone. In performance-based activities – golf, acting, or even traditional day jobs – this is where improvement, growth, and satisfaction lie. You “stretch yourself” outside your Comfort Zone, but not so far you become overwhelmed. In the Learning Zone, you intentionally create challenges for yourself so you can learn how to address them.

In poker this may mean setting a goal for your next session to take a more aggressive line in two hands where you would normally call. Following those hands, you write a few notes on how the hand played out. You look at your experiment objectively, remove the emotion, and assess the execution and results. In the next session, you take three hands and do the same. You find that 3-betting with non-premium hands is not impossible, does not create a wave of anxiety, and is now another tool in your skill set.

Attention and engagement are maximized in the Learning Zone, creating optimal conditions for skill development. In the Zone, you are an active thinker and observer, attending to your own play and that of others. You play with logic and intention rather than emotion. Try setting a couple goals next time you play, and you’ll quickly see your game start to evolve.

Training for the Ideal Poker Learning Zone

To maximize success in the poker Learning Zone, the work starts before you reach the table. You must practice as you will play. Here on, you can challenge yourself with various tasks and improve your skills in the ideal Learning Zone.

If you want to get more creative playing small pairs in 6-Max cash game, you can take James “Split Suit” Sweeney’s Beat the Pro Challenge. You can listen to Sweeney’s advice, try a set of hands yourself, then watch him play the hands and hear his commentary.

Or, if you want to practice neutralizing aggressive tournament players, you can go to Kenna James’s Combat Trainer scenario about taking the lead pre-flop against such players. You can practice a balanced strategy of calling and 3-betting such a player with various holdings. Then play out the post-flop action. Play dozens or even hundreds to hands and assess what goes right or wrong, all without risking any actual money.

Or of course you can just pick your favorite game simulation on APT (cash 9-Max or 6-Max, MTT, SNG) and alter the level of competition you’ll face. You can play anything from an easy home game to pro-level games. Playing hundreds of hands an hour allows you to encounter situations repeatedly and to step up your challenge level in a way that keeps you in the ideal Poker Learning Zone.

Whatever you do, make sure that your poker game has not settled into a Comfort Zone that bores you and has your opponents licking their chops. Evolving and continuously growing within a poker Learning Zone will help you enjoy playing more and executing at peak performance.