In the Zone: The Zen of Sports
Though largely forgotten in contemporary culture, this understanding has been part of sports throughout history, from the Olympic games of ancient Greece to the marathon runners of Native America to the Ways of the martial arts. The zone. The term is a fairly new development in the lexicon of sports culture, perhaps ten or twelve years old. It denotes a place, as in the dictionary definition, but much more than that. It calls up imagery of the supernatural ("the twilight zone") and carries an implicit connection to altered states of consciousness ("zoned out" or "lost in the ozone"), a connection made explicit by less popular related terms: "He was playing out of his mind." "She went unconscious." But the zone, with its rich ambiguity and layers of meaning, says it best. It is indeed a place, but a map won't get you there.
While the term is recent, the experience it points to is not. In his autobiography, Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man, Bill Russell evokes the "mystical feeling" that would on occasion lift the action on the hardwood to the level of magic:
At that special level all sorts of odd things happened.... It was almost as if we were playing in slow motion. During those spells I could almost sense how the next play would develop and where the next shot would be taken. Even before the other team brought the ball in bounds, I could feel it so keenly that I'd want to shout to my teammates, "It's coming there!" - except that I knew everything would change if I did. My premonitions would be consistently correct, and I always felt then that I not only knew all the Celtics by heart but also all the opposing players, and that they all knew me.
As compelling as these experiences were, Russell says he never spoke about them: "I felt a little weird about it, and quite private." The subject was taboo, and he knew that breaking that taboo would invite the mockery of his peers. The situation has changed since Russell's playing days, but not all that much. Today, athletes and sportswriters will frequently allude to the zone, but rarely will they pursue its implications.
San Francisco sports writer Scott Ostler says he has tried on occasion to pursue the subject with athletes only to be met with blank stares, "like I was weird for asking." Perhaps the weirdest thing about the zone is the reticence that surrounds it. Former NFL linebacker Dave Meggyesy echoes Russell's view that the sports world is simply not a very hospitable place to talk about something so intensely personal and out of the ordinary. Nonetheless, he says, "the zone is the essence of the athletic experience, and those moments of going beyond yourself are the underlying allure of sport."
Meggyesy is now the West Coast representative of the NFL Players Association. The cramped bookshelves in his San Francisco office attest to the workings of a searching intelligence, whose interests range from contract law to Jungian psychology. Meggyesy regards the term "the zone" as a general one, referring to a spectrum of exceptional experiences -- perceptions, states of consciousness, and levels of performance -- with varying degrees of intensity. Taken together, these experiences exemplify an innate tendency to surpass one's limits.
For Meggyesy, sports are, at their heart, a way to unlock the hidden possibilities of self-transcendence. As a culture, we have come to associate epiphanies, revelations, and the like with poetic revelry, profound introspection, or communion with nature. But it is a fact that profound and extraordinary experiences are extremely common in athletics, perhaps more so than in any other field of endeavor. The passions that athletics arouse, the physical demands they make, and the mental focus they require bring to bear our most exceptional abilities.