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Zoning In

It's called The Zone—an elevated state of consciousness and focus where athletes perform beyond normal levels. But is it real?
Kenneth Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Nov/Dec 2007

When Jamal Crawford stepped onto the court at Madison Square Garden for the New York Knicks' January matchup against the Miami Heat last season, he wasn't thinking it would be the most memorable game of his career. Seventeen minutes into the game, he surely wasn't. By that time, it was shaping up to be a forgettable night for Crawford. The shooting guard had missed his first four field goals and was having difficulty finding open shots. • Then, with six minutes and 26 seconds remaining in the second quarter, Crawford hit a 19-foot jumper. A minute later he drove for a layup. Forty seconds after that, he hit a 27-foot rainbow, and then drained two 23-footers and a 27-footer. All of a sudden, Crawford couldn't miss. Next, he treated the crowd to some medium-range bombing: a running jumper, a 12-footer and a 19-footer. On and on it went until he finally misfired with 2:15 remaining in the third quarter. Crawford had hit 16 straight shots—the longest NBA streak in 10 years—including eight from three-point distance. When the game finished, Crawford had logged 52 points on 20-for-30 shooting.

Following the game, Crawford explained the performance as many athletes who ride the wave of an unexpected or uncanny streak would. "I was in the zone," he said.

The Zone. It sounds like a spooky, astral place; a place of magic ensconced in some thick forest mist. But the zone has nothing to do with exotic or mystical geography. Rather, it is a state of mind and body—pure concentration that produces a level of performance so unapproachably sublime that everything turns out right. It happens to athletes in all sports, and when it does, they recall elevated states of consciousness and hyperfocus that allowed them to execute their tasks with ease. "Typical descriptions of being in the zone involve feelings of being physically relaxed, being mentally focused and having a heightened state of awareness," says Gregg Wilson, associate professor of sport science at the University of Evansville in Indiana. Others, he adds, include "low anxiety," "mind-body unity" and having "total control of the situation."

"You kind of get lost in the game," Crawford explains. "You don't remember every shot. You're just in a rhythm. It's like you're playing in the backyard—no pressure, no nothing. You just get lost in the zone."

Players and psychologists, authors and high-paid consultants swear by the zone. "It is an optimal state of performance," says Vern Gambetta, president of Gambetta Sports Training Systems. "It's very much mind-body; you don't separate the two. It takes a physiological and psychological convergence to put you in a zone." Some psychologists refer to it as "Self 3," a place where the mind and body are united in purpose. It's been referred to as "flow," but it's most commonly known as the zone.

The zone has its skeptics, of course, with the obvious question being: if an athlete plays enough games, isn't it expected that he will play through extraordinary peaks and dismal valleys? Take Jamal Crawford. During his seven-year pro career, he's shot 40 percent, giving him the dubious distinction of being in the lowest 5 percent of all current NBA players. When a player of that caliber—or even a superstar for that matter—goes off on a streak, why do we need to resort to mysterious and metaphysical-sounding "zone talk" to explain it?

"I understand the zone to mean a subjective psychological state where one feels he or she can, with ease, perform at an amazing level," says Alan Reifman, associate professor of human development and family studies at Texas Tech University, who has studied streaks in basketball, baseball and even in games such as bowling. "For example, someone in the zone might say that the basketball rim looks like the size of a hula hoop." But the crucial question is what, if anything, this mental state proves about the actual experience. "As a description of the player's subjective psychological state, reference to the zone may not be misleading," Reifman adds. "What is misleading is that virtually nobody among the players, announcers and fans takes into consideration the possibility that what they're witnessing is a chance occurrence, like getting several heads in a row when flipping a coin 1,000 times. There's not a lot of evidence in basketball that these streaks do occur any more often than would be expected by chance."

Such skepticism toward the zone is bound to persist. But if you're not dropping zone terminology these days, you're lagging behind the curve. Athletes everywhere use the z-word in narrating their feats. Broadcasters broadcast it. Scribes inscribe it. "Zone talk" makes for colorful stories. It sells books, creates buzz and supports a cottage industry for high priests preaching positive thinking. Zone talk holds out the hope for every duffer that maybe, just maybe, he can shoot a 68 in his next round. It surfaces so often that it now reads like an official version of history. We half expect to hear a radio report saying, "It was cold and rainy yesterday, and Peyton Manning was in the zone. Stay tuned for world news in five minutes…"

Consider the performance last year of the peerless Tiger Woods. A lot of people would say he was in the zone for the second half of 2006, winning seven consecutive PGA tournaments before faltering at the World Golf Championships—Accenture Match Play Championship this past February. Others would say it was nothing more than total dominance by a player who has cemented his reputation as one of the greatest golfers of all time. How does Tiger feel about it? "I will never say that I have telekinesis," he said in an interview following win number seven at the Buick Open in January. "I do think that when I am in that moment when my concentration is the highest, when it's at its peak, I see things more clearly, and things happen slower. And I think they happen easier. When that moment happens, it's like it's magic. I wish I could be down the stretch in a major championship every week, because it's the calmest I ever feel."

How about Kobe Bryant's scoring rampage last March? The Los Angeles Lakers guard scored 50 or more points in four consecutive games, making a run at Wilt Chamberlain's scoring torrent of 50 or more in seven straight. In the zone, right? Bryant downplayed it. "I just feel like guys are finding me," he said after scoring 60 points against the Memphis Grizzlies. "It's not like I'm taking difficult shots outside a couple of them, but I'm already in rhythm by the time I take those, so I feel pretty good."

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