Saturday, March 6, 2010

Spirit of your calling is not only in sport

Somewhere in the struggle to explain the seemingly inexplicable, “The Zone” became the catch-all phrase to encompass the range of athletic ecstatic experience.  But “The Zone” does not explain the actual experience; it is simply jargon.  Whether one seeks the explanation in philosophy, science, religion, or some combination thereof, there needs to be an open forum on the issue if we are ever to understand The Zone. My book and documentary tackles this dilemma, brings the marginal back into the mainstream, and provides that elusive context athletes have been seeking.

            In the martial arts, warriors strive to reach the point where they react to their opponents instinctively, without thought to strategy or technique.  This is the essence of The Zone.

            Four years ago, according to Golf Digest, “a poll revealed that although elite players believed mental skills were half to 80% of the game, the majority said they spent less than 10 percent of their practice on them.”  This is why The Zone has for most athletes remained elusive.

            Many credit Mihlay Csikszentmihalyi and his best-seller, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Performance, with bringing The Zone into popular culture.  Csikszentmihalyi’s book coincided with – perhaps was a product of – a growing interest in Eastern philosophies and a weakening resistance to discuss the emotional and spiritual side of sport.  It wasn’t that athletes hadn’t experienced The Zone, only that there had been strong cultural barriers to admitting to its existence.

            Though these barriers have not been entirely dismantled, many of today’s great athletes are openly sharing the joy that is The Zone and their techniques for finding and staying within it. 

            Though the search for the perfect technique will rightfully always remain an essential element of athletic achievement, we now recognize this must be balanced with mental techniques that allow players to access their skills regardless of the environment or the state of play.

             To this end, meditative disciplines such as yoga, which emphasize extreme yet relaxed concentration as an antidote to distraction, were the first to be mined for techniques which could be applied to sport.  The list has since grown exponentially and now includes hypnosis and psychology (to unlock unconscious barriers), neuro-linguistic programming and kinesiology (to create more effective mind/body communication), creative visualization, and nutritional balancing, to name but a few.  These and other areas of interest are explored in Owning the Zone.

            The third key element, the spirit, is finally finding its way back into the language of sport.  The term “The Zone” itself, with its connotations of the supernatural (the “Twilight Zone”), is indicative of this trend.  Progressively minded coaches are now putting as much emphasis on players’ spiritual health as their physical fitness.  For example, legendary basketball coach Phil Jackson combines elements of Zen Buddhism with the ancient wisdom of the Lakota Sioux to create the most successful teams in NBA history. 

            It is spirit, in fact, that many would argue is the most important element in finding The Zone.  Developing a relationship with a higher power, however one wishes to define or envision this, is essential if athletes are to step beyond the limitations of their physical selves and into The Zone.  As Andrew Cooper writes, “Mastery of one’s craft...and the techniques of sports psychology can enhance one’s physical and mental abilities, but they cannot produce self-transcendence.  For if there is one defining characteristic of those moments of pure’s that it is effortless and unpredictable, a kind of state of grace...The golden moment cannot be produced through an act of will.  You can only prepare the ground for it to happen.  As one Zen master has said, ‘Enlightenment is an accident, but some activities make you accident-prone.’”  To enter The Zone one must be open to the experience; to understand and appreciate the experience one must acknowledge, and not fear, the unseen.

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