Performance: Sports and the Mind
At Play in the Zone
the 1992 NBA finals against the Portland Trailblazers, Michael Jordan
hit six consecutive 3-point shots in one of those displays of skill
and athleticism that seems to be otherworldly. It was one of those quicksilver
moments in sports where everyone -- coaches, spectators, even opponents
-- can only watch in appreciation of the genius on display before them.
Jordan was in the zone. In the moments after he hit that last 3-pointer,
and as if to say, "Even I don't know how I do this, it just happens,"
Jordan turned to the nearby TV commentators and shrugged his shoulders.
By that act of conscious realization the spell was broken. Jordan's
stay in the zone had come to an end.
describe being in the zone is something that leaves most athletes fumbling
for words. They talk of time slowing down, acute intuition, profound
joy, the effortlessness of it all. Sports psychologists may not have
any better handle on it, especially when it comes to opinions on whether
or not an athlete can consciously get to the zone. Some equate being
in the zone with an athlete's peak performance; that it just happens
when it happens. It can't be intentionally cultivated they say. Others
maintain that you can maximize your chances of getting to the zone by
the quality of your mental preparation.
There is, though,
this common ground. To play with the kind of unbridled inspiration that
seems to be one of the keys to getting to the zone, any athlete -- professional
or the weekend warrior, first must love their game. Without that devotion
it isn't likely they will be willing to put in the hours of practice
needed to hone their skills. One must be willing to work, and work,
and work some more until one's game is as much pure instinct and intuition
as it is skill.
Then there is this
idea: thinking about being in the zone gets in the way of it happening
at all. Transcendent moments in sport are not produced by an act of
will or effort. But it is only through years of diligent practice and
preparation that it becomes possible for such moments to happen. Andrew
Cooper, the author of Playing in the Zone, calls this the paradox
of inspiration. Or perhaps even better put by a Zen master, "Enlightenment
is an accident, but some activities make you accident prone."
With all the distractions
that come with the life of a professional athlete, it's no wonder that
the ability to stay focused is a common response by athletes to questions
about performance. Athletes like Jack Nicklaus, Billie Jean King, Bruce
Jenner, and teams such as the Chicago Bulls, the Detroit Tigers, and
Philadelphia Phillies have all incorporated mind/body training into
their practice regimen as a way of maintaining that concentration. A
few of the techniques they used are these: