Lawyer training shouldn’t be one size fits all


by Heidi K. Brown   |   Michigan Bar Journal


We talk about athletes being in the zone when they hit their stride in performance and competition. The type of training that enables individual athletes to tap into peak zones varies from person to person and sport to sport. Coaches and trainers recognize that individual athletes bring different strengths, talents, dispositions, life experiences, confidence levels, physiques, and motivational drivers to their sport and tailor training accordingly.

A one-size-fits-all training approach just wouldn’t work to get the most out of each athlete and cultivate them to fulfill their true potential. Like the athletic arena, the legal profession is performance driven. Yet legal training tends to reinforce a mostly uniform training model — the same general content and paradigms we’ve been drilling into law students and new lawyers for decades. Our current approach overlooks the reality that, like athletes, each of us learns, recovers from mistakes, processes stress, and flourishes differently.

Let’s borrow a few pages from athletic coaches’ playbooks. Let’s consider how we can adjust legal training so every individual can soar. As a start, let’s explore three zones familiar to many athletes: the individual zone of optimal functioning (IZOF), the eustress zone, and flow.


For decades, sports psychologists have studied the relationship between emotions and athletic performance. Athletes and their coaches realize that various combinations and degrees of positive and negative emotions can both enhance and hinder performance. The optimal tenor, mixture, and intensity of emotions for peak performance in sports training and competition depends on the person. In the 1970s, a Soviet sports psychologist named Dr. Yuri Hanin determined that individual athletes have a personalized state of emotional and physiological “arousal” — a condition of alertness and preparedness for movement and exertion — at which they perform at their best. He called this state the individual zone of optimal functioning.


Hanin’s early research focused on anxiety — specifically, the link between individual athletes’ optimal anxiety levels and their performances in sports training and competition. Later, Hanin and his colleagues broadened their inquiry by analyzing four categories of emotions and their respective effects on performance:

  • Positive emotions that can be optimal for performance, such as purposefulness and resoluteness.
  • Positive emotions that can be suboptimal for performance, such as easygoingness and satisfaction.
  • Negative emotions that can be optimal for performance, such as tenseness and dissatisfaction.
  • Negative emotions that can be suboptimal for performance, such as distress and fear.

Hanin and his colleagues determined that whether a particular emotion is constructive or destructive depended on the athlete. Importantly, when individual athletes became knowledgeable about their unique zones of optimal physiological and emotional arousal and consciously strived to operate within those states, they delivered peak performance. Outside such zones, performance declined. Great athletes, with the help of their coaches, study and get to know their IZOF.

Lawyers, like athletes, bear a lot of pressure to deliver peak performance in high-stakes scenarios. Emotion, along with logical reasoning and credibility, comprise Aristotle’s three pillars of persuasion. But often it seems we dismiss the role of emotion in legal training. It’s time we create space in legal training to talk realistically about emotions; study how different shades of positive and negative emotions can optimize or hinder our learning and performance; and consider environments, scenarios, interpersonal dynamics, and tasks in which we individually deliver our best work. Lawyers should get to know their IZOF.


Another concept we should incorporate into legal training is the eustress zone. In the 1970s, Dr. Hans Selye, a pioneer in stress research, introduced the concept of eustress. The “eu” in the word comes from the ancient Greek for “good, well, pleasant, or true.” Selye distinguished among stress, eustress, and distress. Eustress is a way station between stress and distress, a zone where we purposefully engage with stressors we know we are equipped to handle. In sports training, eustress is the zone where athletes intentionally step into temporary states of discomfort, pushing their brains and bodies knowing they have the coping skills to ride out the rise and fall of physiological and emotional arousal.

Instead of automatically leaping from stress to distress, athletes activate strengths they have honed, choosing to linger in eustress, building additional stamina to handle future challenges. Later, in performance moments when they encounter similar physiological and emotional responses to new stressors, they trust their training and deliver.

As lawyers, we can invest time learning how to toggle into a state of eustress — good stress — instead of blindly catapulting from stress to distress. Like IZOF, engaging the eustress zone requires self-study. We can observe the natural rise and fall of physical and emotional sensations triggered by inevitable stress, develop healthy coping routines, and practice activating stress management techniques to stay in the eustress zone. Ultimately, in moments of lawyering performance, we trust our training and deliver quality work.


Psychologist Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term “flow” to describe the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. He said flow can happen when “our body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” For athletes, flow is that zone in training or performance when everything just seems to click — a basketball player sinking one three-point shot after another, a gymnast nailing a floor routine, a marathoner hitting that runner’s high. But flow is not reserved for athletes. As lawyers, we can access and cultivate flow in our work.

Dr. Csikszentmihalyi and his colleagues compiled a list of nine components characterizing flow states for athletes, which likewise can apply to lawyers:

  • A balance between a given challenge and our skill level.
  • A clear goal for an activity or training session.
  • A sense of control over the interim steps needed to accomplish the task.
  • Unambiguous and immediate feedback, either self-generated or external.
  • An ability to tune out the world and concentrate on the task at hand.
  • A melting away of boundaries between action and awareness.
  • A loss of self-consciousness or self-judgment.
  • Transformation of time.
  • An autotelic experience, one where the activity is enjoyable without need for an external reward.

Maybe flow happens for you when you’re delivering an oral argument or an opening statement in the courtroom. Perhaps you hit flow when you’re negotiating, putting a deal together, or figuring out a creative solution to a tough legal quandary.

Legal writing is my flow state. I lose all sense of time and space. Challenge and skill settle into equipoise. When I eventually look up from my laptop, I’m disoriented. My hair is wild. I’m famished and exhilarated.

Everyone deserves a flow state. Flow can infuse meaning, purpose, and zest into our lawyering lives. But the circumstances and conditions that facilitate flow differ wildly for each of us. We can’t force or fake flow. To cultivate it, we must identify the particular activities, challenge levels, requisite skills, and environmental surroundings that get us into our individual groove. Flow is the opposite of one size fits all.


How can we tap into our lawyering IZOF, eustress zones, and flow states?

First, let’s carve out a place in legal education and training to highlight the individuality of our strengths, interests, and learning styles.

Second, let’s enhance our emotional literacy. Let’s honor the role that emotion inevitably plays in our day-to-day lawyering and professional development. Let’s investigate and study how different emotions affect our confidence, cognitive clarity, and communication skills.

Third, let’s improve our emotional self-regulation. Let’s learn how to engage with constructive emotions and reframe suboptimal ones. Let’s get better at toggling ourselves into our IZOF and lingering in our eustress zone.

Fourth, let’s find and facilitate flow states. Let’s amp up skills training so we can meet rigorous challenges. Let’s curate environmental circumstances that allow us to concentrate, everything in us to click, and our best work to emerge like athletes in the zone.


Author Caroline Williams wrote that “[we] are not a brain on legs.” Our intellect will only get us so far. Through greater appreciation and understanding of our emotional and physiological dimensions, we’ll reach new performance heights as individuals and professionals.

This article originally appeared on the Attorney at Law Magazine website on Jan. 22, 2022, at


Law Practice Solutions is a regular column from the State Bar of Michigan Practice Management Resource Center (PMRC) featuring articles on practice, technology, and risk management for lawyers and staff. For more resources, visit the PMRC website at or call our Helpline at (800) 341-9715 to speak with a practice management advisor.