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Peak Performance: Sports and the Mind
At Play in the Zone

In 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.

To 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:

  • Creative Visualization: Jack Nicklaus has said that before every shot he makes, he goes to the movies inside his head. Mentally picturing the successful completion of a particular move or succession of moves has been shown to improve performance. Repeat the procedure until the perfected move comes naturally, then assimilate that mental image into your practice.
  • Meditation: Meditation is simple in practice. The Zen form of meditation involves simple attention to the breath or the passing contents of your mind. There are other forms as well, but how you do it is less important than the regularity with which you do it. Two sessions a day will have its effects if you are patient.

Program Description
Hardwood Warriors
Craig Lambert
At Play in the Zone
Tell Me More
Help YourSelf

Body & Soul is currently airing Monday-Friday at 7:00pm and 8:30pm on PBS YOU.

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