Jordan, first game of the 1992 finals, after hitting his sixth 3 pointer in the first half.
The Zone is an ever-elusive upmost mythical place in sports performance, the peak of athletic experience. I haven't graced it's hallowed grounds nearly enough in my life but an insight struck me a few days ago while I was shooting baskets up in Bowling Green. I had the gym to myself and I was working my way through the Nash Drill, a phenomenal practice scheme created by the physics wizard himself, Steve Nash. You basically shoot ten shots from each side of the basket and you don't stop moving until you work through the whole routine of shots off the dribble, fading away, baseline jumpers, after a spin, running floaters, this, that and the others. I was running around the court shooting baskets and I couldn't quit thinking about this article in the Economist I had just read about our world being dominated by too much information. All of the sudden, a shot keranged off the rim and I hustled down after it (naturally before it went out of bounds). It was then when I realized how out of breath I was, how thoroughly soaked my shirt was and more importantly, how many shots I had just made in a row. The exact figure escaped me (more than ten), but it was one of those things where physically you can't really put a finger on it but subconsciously you can feel the weight of it all, very similar to passing a person in a big city and knowing you've seen that face before and can vaguely conjure up a memory of a fantastic conversation but you can't really pinpoint when or where. Right then and there, halfcourt of the practice gym, is where a slice of the mystery of the Zone was suddenly revealed to me.
I played in high school with this guy Tavarres who once told me that being in the Zone means "you never get tired." If perception is indeed reality, to be tired you must first realize the extent of you being tired. I believe he was saying that to be in zone, you never realize you're tired because it never occurs to you. You're not even thinking, you're just doing. Your form doesn't break down, you're still down low playing defense, you keep holding up your followthrough on the shot, you're still scrambling after rebounds. You're doing all this and not letting the effects weight down your performance. Self consciousness escapes you. The same applies to what's happening in real time during the game. It's akin to a real short memory, or even better, a mind that does not place emotional ramifications on the actions happening. One of the greatest books ever written, The Inner Game of Tennis, describes it like this. You've got Player A on one side who's serving and while he looks absolutely fantastic is his neon green headband, he keeps double faulting. As a result, he becomes increasingly frustrated. Each double fault only leads to three more, and so on and so forth. Player B, who happens to be his wife, is on the other end, just loving it. She's not working up a sweat at all, loves her swishey new tennis skirt, and best of all, is beating her husband without even trying. She's queen of Cloud Nine.
After the illustration, the book then implores the reader to consider which player is better off in this scenario. Impulse would dictate the common answer to be the wife because she's on the beneficial receiving end of the happenings that be. But turns out, she's as bad as her husband. Because they both are emotionally attached to the actions on the court. The book encourages folks to become more like the line judge, the observer who see's each action from a matter-of-fact perspective, good for just the moment in time when it happened. Not connected to the preceding events nor the ones to come in the future.
I was shooting baskets that afternoon, thinking about something completely different than the task at hand, yet consciously aware of every pivot, every dribble and every shot, all at the same time. A seemingly impossible contradiction? Nah, just a paradox. Still in a bewonderment after my shoot around, I found the article and read it again over dinner. Here's the three main points the author highlights...
I. Information can make people anxious and powerless.
II. Data overload reduces creativity.
III. Information overload also makes workers less productive.
While the article was most talking about the business environment, it's amazing how it relates to the sports and particularly basketball. In the regards to the first, I can remember plenty of times in high school where I'd march on the court and be analyzing everything. "Allllllright, we're on offense okay, ball's moving around the top, defense shifts, alllright cut baseline, very wide open, hoorah catch the ball, swing around, the guy's on me real tight can't drive, post is fronted isn't open at all, pass the ball back out, shot's up, run in to rebound, snagged by their pretty tall guy, run down the court now, gotta play defense....." Nothing good at all can come from thinking that much, especially in the touch and go world of basketball. Thinking that much gets in the way of simply playing the game, which is the first step towards achieving the Zone. Quit thinking, just do it. It's like being at a concert in Nashville and looking at all the industry folks standing round with their arms crossed. Quit staring y'all, just dance. To analyze that much is essentially to live in reaction, which is last place creativity can reign supreme. Creativity thrives in a place far away from the deliberations of the conscious mind. Analyzing and rationalizing are tools the brain uses to figure things out, absolutely fantastic gifts that speak to the magic of human ingenuity and our constant struggle to make the world a better place. But they play a minor role in the mystical realm of optimal sports performance. Up there, the realm of thinking isn't the normal rational everyday Either*Or way of thinking, its more of a Both*And, holistic colour of things. A expansive, intricately connected big picture way of seeing the world vs. the small details of each individual parts. It's seeing the puzzle for its picture rather than its pieces. Both are absolutely important in the big scheme of life and speak to the importance of balance in our everyday. Its Left Brain vs. Right Brain. Western philosophy vs. Eastern. Individual achievement vs. collective responsibility. The epitome of sports performance inhabits the same similarly paradoxical zone where you're doing but not thinking about doing. It's not produced by effort, yet without effort nothing happens. The great Bill Russell says it best in his autobiography...