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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?
| By Kenneth Shouler | From 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."

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.

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.