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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 1)

Modest, but that doesn't mean Bryant is a nonbeliever in the zone. In January, 2006, after dropping 81 points on the Toronto Raptors, he described the zone perfectly to the Associated Press. "It just happened," he said. "I was just locked in, tuned in to what was going on out there and blocking everything else out." As Raptors head coach Sam Mitchell explained it to the Chicago Sun-Times, "He was in that zone."

"There is no telling," says Hall of Fame forward Rick Barry, who like many athletes is a true believer. "It can occur anytime. No rhyme or reason. If I knew the answer, I would put it in a bottle." A streak shooter with unlimited range, Barry averaged 36 points in the NBA Finals—the highest in history—including 55 points against Chamberlain and the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 3 of the 1967 Finals. "There are times when everything is working and everything has an unbelievable feel," Barry says. "It's just a whole different feeling you can't describe; it's euphoric. You can fall into the situation and this incredible state comes upon you. There's no control of the physical; it's a kind of out-of-body experience."

Most people believe that "zone states" are of short duration. It's doubtful that Joe DiMaggio was in the zone every day of his 56-game hitting streak or that Byron Nelson was during his streak of 11 straight PGA victories in 1945. Even Michael Jordan said he had two zone games per season at best. The zone is a nonvoluntary state and cannot be induced at will. It's another way of saying that when it comes to the zone, an athlete is not the cause, but the effect.

For the greatest of players, zone performances have often occurred during the playoffs when a championship is on the line. In 61 years of NBA competition, there have been three legendary "zone" games in the clinchers of Finals. One belongs to Bob Pettit, who scored 50 points in Game 6 of the 1958 Finals to lift the St. Louis Hawks past the Boston Celtics. Another was turned in by rookie Magic Johnson, who, in the absence of the injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, led the Lakers past the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1980 Finals with 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists and three steals. The other performance came courtesy of Walt "Clyde" Frazier, which many consider to be the greatest in New York sports history.

It was May 8, 1970, and Madison Square Garden hummed and vibrated with electric energy as the Knicks took the floor for Game 7 of the NBA Fnals against the Lakers and the immortal threesome of Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. With a severe leg injury hampering the efforts of league MVP Willis Reed, Knicks head coach Red Holzman was aware of his team's delicate balance. He told his playmaker, Clyde Frazier, to "hit the open man." The counsel worked. Frazier fed his teammates for 19 assists while dribbling off screens uncontested to find wide-open space to launch from. He hit jumper after jumper, pouring in 36 points and—Frazier will tell you—grabbing seven rebounds and five steals. New York drubbed Los Angeles, 113-99.

In the days and years to follow, neither Frazier nor the press referred to his being in the zone. Today it's different. "That was my zone," Frazier says, recalling his splendid flourish of 37 years before. "I was feeling that I couldn't miss. I was percolating, man. From the crowd I felt goose bumps all over my body. Everything that was going on was just electrifying to me. The basket looked like a bathtub—huge. Everything was in rhythm. Like they say, the stars were all aligned."

Twenty years after Frazier and the Knicks enjoyed their singular sync, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a University of Chicago psychology professor, published Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Agreeing with Aristotle's belief that happiness is the most sought-after human emotion, Csikszentmihalyi claimed that the best means to that end is to achieve a state called flow. The flow theory suggests that "zones" are a rare and dynamic state, characterized by self-rewarding experiences and enjoyable involvement in an activity. The enjoyment comes from a state of consciousness so deep that it amounts to absolute absorption in some activity. Such concentration leads to efficient performance—not to mention emotional buoyancy and a heightened sense of mastery—a lack of self-consciousness, and self-transcendence.

For some athletes, total concentration allows premonitions of what's to come. In batting practice before Game 6 of the 1977 World Series, Reggie Jackson hit pitch after pitch over the fence. He was loose and locked in. "Save some of those for the game," said teammate Willie Randolph, standing next to the cage. "There are more where those came from," Jackson replied with typical confidence. "I just had a feeling that Reggie was going to do something big," Randolph said later. Both were right. After belting a home run in his last at bat of Game 5, Jackson clubbed three more in Game 6 without a foul ball, swinging strike or called strike. All told, he swung four times and hit four home runs.

Phil Simms knew the feeling a decade later during Super Bowl XXI. Like Jackson, Simms thought he was in for a good game during warm-ups. "I kind of felt that way all week," he says. "I was throwing the ball in practice as well as I could have. Before the game, I commented to a couple of players that I felt like I could put it in there where I wanted." The result was legendary. He completed 22 of 25 passes for 268 yards and three touchdowns as New York marched through Denver for a 39-20 victory. "This might be the best game a quarterback has ever played," Giants coach Bill Parcells said. "[It was] technically as close to a perfect game as I've seen a quarterback have," agreed Giants offensive coach Ron Erhardt. Simms set Super Bowl records for consecutive completions (10), accuracy (88 percent) and passer rating (150.9, also an NFL postseason record).

Jackson couldn't miss and neither could Simms. And on a four-and-a-half-by-nine-foot baize, unnoticed by most of the sporting world, Mike Sigel experienced similar perfection. At the 1992 United States Open Straight Pool tournament at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York, Sigel was flawless. Mike Zuglan broke, then sat down in his chair and didn't get up again until it was time to unscrew his cue and put it back in its leather case. Sigel pocketed 150 straight balls, running 11 consecutive racks. For all but a few shots, he maneuvered his cue ball around on half of the playing surface, rarely heading up table to pick off a few strays. People call this kind of performance "textbook," but artistry at that level—the touch, the accuracy, the sequential thinking—cannot be learned from a textbook.


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