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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

(continued from page 2)

Recently voted the greatest living pool player by Billiards Digest, Sigel has spent time in and out of the zone. "When I was younger it was easier," Sigel says from his home in Orlando, Florida. "Someone could shoot a gun off and it wouldn't bother me—my focus was so acute. I was oblivious to sound, noise, disturbances, everything. Concentration was 96 percent of it. If I was in 'dead stroke,' then all things being equal it was rare that I lost, unless some minor miracle happened. But when you're not in the zone, everything bothers you."

If such concentration is a key component of peak performances, so is a noncritical approach to one's own activity. "Your biggest enemy is when you start thinking; your reaction time is different," says Luc Robitaille, a former ice hockey player who leads all left wingers in NHL history with 668 goals. "If you analyze your own performance as it happens, you get in trouble. Being in the zone in hockey is when everything is going right. A guy in the zone is in his own world, but not once is he really thinking about what he's doing."

Reaction without thinking. One essential ingredient for succeeding in sports is the control of fear—the control of that critical voice that puts the slightest doubt in your mind. "Tiger Woods said he gets nervous before every shot; he is aware of fear," says Michael Clarkson, the author of Pressure Golf: Overcoming Choking and Frustration. But Woods and others "tap into the benefits" of that fear. They manage fear. Other players choke or develop what golfers call the "yips." "Some people are born to use adrenaline better than others," Clarkson points out. "Put a spotlight on them and they flourish. When [some] athletes are going well, they trust themselves; they are getting out of their own way." Meanwhile, "others are born worriers."

While all these experiences ring true for athletes, the skeptics still have their say. Consider a statistical study of the Philadelphia 76ers conducted in 1985 by Thomas Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell University. Some 91 percent of the knowledgeable basketball fans he interviewed thought that "a player has a better chance of making a shot after just having made his last two or three shots, than he does after having just missed his last two or three shots." The fans were wrong. Gilovich's data showed that a player hasn't increased his odds of hitting the next shot just because he made the last one. We've also heard the flip side—about how a player who has missed several shots is "due" to hit the next one. Both conclusions are wrong.

It makes sense. As Texas Tech's Alan Reifman points out, "If Michael Jordan hit only two of 12 shots on a certain night, does that mean that you want one of his teammates taking the last shot?" Hardly. Jordan was a 50 percent career shooter, someone who could always create his own shot, more so than any of his mates on the Bulls' six championship teams. By contrast, Jamal Crawford's career shooting average is just 40 percent, lower than most of his New York teammates. Sure, he's hit the game-winning shot seven times in his career, including four times with the Knicks in 2005-06. But despite what he did in previous contests, what kind of statistical reasoning makes a team want to give the last shot to someone who has a 60 percent chance of missing it?

Sure enough, in a late February game against Miami—exactly one month after Crawford's serendipitous encounter with the zone—it was Stephon Marbury who went off. With New York trailing, 77-71, and 9:06 remaining in the fourth quarter, Marbury clapped his hands impatiently on the perimeter, demanding the ball from teammate Nate Robinson. Marbury drove and was fouled. From that point on he took over the game—scoring free throws, layups and three-pointers. He posted 18 fourth-quarter points in a 99-93 victory. With two minutes to go, a man sitting nearby volunteered the opinion that "Marbury is sooo in the zone."

But was he? Could the more boring conclusion be true: that he was cruising along on a chance streak, the kind of streak that will be enjoyed by most athletes sooner or later?

Kenneth Shouler, a resident of Harrison, New York, is a regular contributor to Cigar Aficionado and an editor and writer for Total Baskeball: The Ultimate Basketball Encyclopedia.

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