A Touch of Zen in Sports

Energy is eternal delight—William Blake

Be water, my friend—Bruce Lee

Some weeks ago, randomly surfing the TV channels with nothing in mind other than an itch for some diversion to watch while chomping down a hastily-cooked beef stew, I came across a rare treat. It was a documentary about a surfer. His name I missed entirely; at the time it was immaterial.  

Before me on the screen was a swirling, twisting figure wrapped in a sweeping arc of water, his (webbed?) feet on the crest of the waves. My auditory and savoury senses seemed to have shut down. While I watched spellbound, the TV narrator’s drone receded into the background. Morsels of untasted food rested half-chewed in my mouth. All this I was only dimly aware of. Because the eyes took over, and the images dancing on the retina held me in a trance.

Riding the waves                                                                                                                        The surfer rose and fell, surging, flowing, turning and veering off, all the while in tempo with a rolling water-mountain. He looked small against the waves now in full swell, their jaws a wicked curl engulfing his torso. Yet for reasons both obvious and obscure, he wasn’t dwarfed by the whirlpool churning all around him.

The sea whipped up a storm, sending massive waves to crash down against the surfer. The bronze Viking took that as a beckoning call. Without missing a beat, he cut in to meet the waves head on, his knees bent to keep low, body leaning at an impossible slant. It was a breathtaking moment when grace and miracle and magic collided as he glided his way across the roaring waves. As the swell subsided, he eased off in a semi-circular swing not unlike a matador who has eluded a rampant bull’s charge, ready for the next round of assault.    

In my eyes, he was a blurred, slippery form, an ocean cat treading on cascading sheets of water, coaxing it to accept his water-jig as part of its motion. No harm would come to him. However long he rode the sea—I lost track of time—he was in a state of grace, an immortal almost.      

I have seen surfing before, even daring stunts that elicit all the usual superlatives. But this was no circus act. After recovering from the initial jolt, I tried to make sense of what I saw. At first, I attributed my heightened reaction to one of those instances when the mind, in full alertness, eagerly sucks in the images and mischievously goes into overdrive to set the neurons racing.

To be sure, receptiveness played a part in my awe, but it was more than that. It was a stunning feat alright, at once foreign yet not off the map. Foreign because I, a landlubber, have never surfed and don’t have a clue to the mechanics of water sports. But something about him—the majestic grace, the effortless ease, the calm focus with which he rose to meet whatever came at him—was familiar. Once I recognised that, something clicked in my head, and other great sportsmen soon sprang to mind.  

The maestro                                                                              

It was a parade of the icons of our time, too numerous to list here. Pele, for one, had the same qualities. Arguably the best all-round footballer ever, the Brazilian legend mesmerised legions of fans with his dazzling displays. Commentators said he was blessed with the gift of genius, his silky skills a fortuitous result of disciplined training and good genes. Not many understood his game or how he conjured up the magic, so beautiful yet simple and direct, for his club Santos week after week.

Besides sweat and genius, Pele was special because he was totally focused on his play. By that I don’t mean the ordinary sense of mental concentration or commitment, but rather a total immersion in the game one enters into effortlessly without knowing how. When Pele was on-form, his whole being was engaged, and this was apparent in his moves on the pitch—be it a measured pass into space for the winger to fetch, a jiggle to give himself room to shoot, or a run past a pack of defenders before driving the ball into the net.

With Pele in full swing—he was consistently in that blessed state— every part, every atom in him was in tune with what was happening in his vicinity. This heightened consciousness is not some extra-sensory perception, a drug-induced or mystical state of mind. It comes naturally to a person fully absorbed in what he or she is doing in the here and now.

That may sound pedestrian to some, but being truly focused makes a world of difference. It allows the player to perform at his best and sets the world-beating athletes apart from their competitors. It enables the privileged few to reach deep into the well-spring of life, unlocking a new set of possibilities.

Being focused and centred provides a window to another dimension, a vista forever off-limits to the non-members. That is how great sportsmen manage to respond creatively to any challenge, leaving the well-trodden territory of the training manuals to improvise on the fly.

One feat pulled off by Pele in a World Cup match always stands out in my mind, and it serves to hint at the deep repertoire Pele was able to draw upon and what a player at the peak of his powers is capable of. The set-up was simple enough. A Brazilian midfield lieutenant lofted the ball into the penalty area. The odds didn’t look good as the two Nordic full backs shadowing Pele stood a good three inches taller than our lone attacker. That didn’t stop him launching a perfectly-timed jump to soar, eagle-like, above them.

For several time-stopping seconds, he hung in mid-air, gravity ostensibly humbled. Just as you think he was about to head the ball, Pele did the unthinkable. He somehow anchored himself, arching his back to receive the ball on his chest, his body still several feet off the ground. The ball bounced languidly off him to bob past the defenders before dropping into an ocean of space he had carved out for himself.

With the full backs caught completely out of play, the rest was easy. Swooping down from his Olympian height, Pele closed in and stabbed the ball past the helpless goalkeeper for the third and final act in a classic piece of football drama. The feat, aesthetically beautiful and exhilarating, was permanently seared into my memory. 

For the uninitiated, it was simply a wonderful goal, pure eye-candy, a chance that arose from a combination of sheer athleticism and superb ball juggling. Surely, just one of the many tricks Pele was able to pull out of his bag thanks to his unique skills, right? Yes, it was all of the above and more.

Ad-libbing                                                                                                                                  Even more remarkable than the wonderful display of gymnastics and ball control was his off-the-cuff response to the situation. A firm believer in simplicity, Pele wasn’t an exhibitionist. He didn’t opt for the spectacular to show off. He must have sensed that the angle proffered didn’t favour a direct aerial stab at goal.

What would you do? Lesser mortals would stick to their training and go for a header, hoping for the best. Not Pele. The maestro picked the path of least resistance. Improvising on the spot, he let the ball do the work to evade the defensive ring. As usual, it turned out to be the right move. Pele pulled it off not because he was trained to deal with that kind of scenario, but because he operated in a different dimension.                  

The surfer I marveled at was likewise in that rarefied state amid the ocean waves. Graceful as it was, you could tell his show wasn’t some choreographed water ballet. The treacherous sea would wreck any rehearsed maneuvers, no matter how well planned and practised beforehand.  

His act was a continual series of spontaneous mini movements—an adjustment of his stance here, a slight body twist there, an easing of his leg muscles at a crucial moment, all this plus myriad other moves known only to seasoned surfers—that responded to the ferocious waves to keep him afloat. His consciousness stayed in harmony with what was happening around him. He was in a state of flow thanks to his undivided immersion in his jig.                          

Pele and the surfer are not, of course, the only people privy to the extraordinary experience. Many elite athletes and sportsmen have stumbled on the same thing. In the past 30 years, what began as hushed whispers in locker rooms about the mystifying experience has grown into common knowledge among the pundits.

Not to be outdone, sport psychologists have got on the bandwagon, doing scores of studies on the ‘curious’ phenomenon. They even coined a phrase for it: someone who breaks into the heightened state of consciousness is said to be ‘in the zone’.

No New Age fad, the magical place is very real for those who have basked in it. The experience of being in the zone is summed up by Ken Robinson in his book, The Element: “We become focused and intent. We live in the moment. We become lost in the experience and perform at our peak. Our breathing changes, our minds merge with our bodies, and we feel ourselves drawn effortlessly into the heart of the Element.” 

In the zone                                                                                                                                  Top sportsmen are reluctant to talk about it—the athletic nirvana they all seek to bottle—as if reference to this ‘personal’ experience would break the enchantment. When they do, it is often in reverential tones. For the professional high flyers, it is the only faith worth keeping. But it is an open secret that some of the best athletes are cult devotees of the zone.  

In a study of elite athletes and their zone experiences, psychologists Janet Young and Michelle Pain found that “athletes recalled these special moments during sport participation as salient, highly valued and extremely meaningful.” But the man who put zone psychology on the map is Mihaly Csikszentimihalyi.

In a seminal work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentimihalyi writes “of a state of mind when consciousness is harmoniously ordered, and [people] want to pursue whatever they are doing for its own sake.” What he calls “flow” (and what others call being in the zone) “happens when psychic energy—or attention—is invested in [a] realistic goal.” In pursuing it, “a person must concentrate attention on the task at hand and momentarily forget everything else.”

The characteristics of flow, a phenomenon experienced by people the world over, regardless of race and gender, include deep concentration, exceptional performance, emotional buoyancy, a heightened sense of mastery, a lack of self-consciousness and self-transcendence. Flow is significant because it “obliterates all else out of consciousness,” according to Csikszentimihalyi. “It is the state of self-actualisation or transcendental behaviour.”

For those unfamiliar with the zone, the lack of self-consciousness may be puzzling, but it is reported by all visitors who have been there. In Zen in the Art of Archery, the German philosopher Eugen Herrigel sheds light on the experience: “The archer ceases to be conscious of himself as the one who is engaged in hitting the bull’s-eye which confronts him. This state of unconscious is realised only when, completely empty and rid of the self, he becomes one with the perfecting of his technical skill, though there is in it something of a quite different order which cannot be attained by any progressive study of the art.”

Physical exertion is not the only way to access the zone. Others have found it through physically passive activities such as painting, writing, playing music, meditation, and even math! Still, it would seem that sports are the medium through which most people cross the threshold.

Although researchers focus on top athletes, the zone is not completely barred to mere mortals. At some points in our lives, some of us accidentally hit upon the experience. I still remember vividly some of the extraordinary moments when playing soccer, the game I loved more than anything else.

It always began with a relaxed state of mind, playing purely for enjoyment and nothing else. Free of anxieties, mind and body would somehow work as one to focus on the present, on the ball, and what needs to be done. It was never forced. I didn’t snap my fingers and will the zone to come along. But when I was lucky enough to be in the zone, it was football paradise because every movement, every action was natural, intuitive, pure and perfect.            

(The following section is not intended to trumpet my sporting ability; it’s merely a factual account of my personal experience of being in the zone.)

Anything is possible                                                                                                          

Thirty-yard passes, for instance, invariably landed at the feet of a galloping teammate. The precision often looked uncanny, as if measured by a machine. But there never was a conscious intent on my part to aim the pass, much less to work out the geometry and the motion of the ball and the players.

It happened almost automatically. Amid the chaos of darting movements, I would look up, pick out the forward running through the middle and, spotting the space available just beyond the defensive wall, let fly the ball. As if guided by an invisible force, it unfailingly reached the target. It wasn’t a matter of the conscious mind imposing its command and deciding how to make it work. The obtrusive ego, the pesky I that intrudes into everything in our wakeful moments, didn’t even get a look in. On those occasions, it had the day off.

On days like these, when the mind and body merged as one, almost every move proved just right. With the ball at my feet, I improvised freely, doing just what was called for. Sometimes that produced inventive, unorthodox play. Techniques not found in training manuals, skills I didn’t even suspect were in my repertoire, rolled off my feet in the heat of play.

Actions were purely spontaneous, without the mediation of conscious thought. (This is distinct from conditioned, habitual reflexes.) If play dictated going past the defenders marking me and curling a shot on the 25-yard line, then it would be done, simply and effortlessly. I was merely a channel to transmit the flow of play. Every action was immensely enjoyable. It was nirvana on a football pitch.  

When you are in the zone, almost anything is possible; everything gets as easy as pie. Despite the glorious passes and all the goals scored, I didn’t feel a tinge of pride. I was playing without self-consciousness. Of course, I didn’t get into the zone in every match (I wished I did). But it happened often enough, probably because I had an intense passion for football. To gain admission to the zone, you must love the game.    

The only other sport in which I had experienced the blissful flow was table tennis, but only once, many moons ago when I played in a school competition. That match remains fresh in my memory. I was trailing by several points about one-third of the way through.

Ping-pong perfection                                                                                                            Then for no apparent reason, it happened out of the blue. The ball and the game became the centre of my universe. There was nothing else. I paid no heed to the noise and the umpire keeping score in the background. There was just the ball, my opponent and I in a cosseted space.

I wasn’t playing to win, but simply hitting every ball that came along the best I could. The focus was scary because I hardly missed a shot. I wasn’t just playing well; it was a self-transcending moment. It must have been unnerving for the other kid. The tide soon changed though the score didn’t matter to me at the time.

My opponent tried hustling my game by varying the pace. It didn’t work. He even played to my forehand to tempt me into making hurried shots. That didn’t do any good either. I returned everything he threw at me, blocking his shots or firing top spins to go on the offensive. Every shot was played with precision and verve. It was faultless table tennis. Everything flowed that day.

In the end his game fell apart, and the final result made the match look easy. I had never before beaten my opponent, a regular playmate after school and my equal in every respect, by such a big margin. After the match, the umpire, the undefeated champion of our school, congratulated me. Earnestness written all over his face, he asked, “Who are you?” Coming out of a trance-like state, I only managed a mumbled reply.   

Three days later, I played in the quarter-finals. My adversary was a kid I used to beat regularly. It ended badly for me. The night before, I had fantasised about getting through to the next round. I had to win, I told myself. In the match my jitters got in the way. I played abominably, making countless unforced errors. There was no trace of the sparkling performance seen earlier. I wasn’t even in it.

My game was rushed, uninspired and lifeless. Predictably, I lost. The reason was obvious: I was nowhere near the zone. Ever since that occasion, I have never found it again. It was a once-in-a lifetime experience for me in table tennis, and it remains an unsolved mystery I keep returning to years later. 

Zone mechanics                                                                                                                      While the zone has entered our lexicon, explaining how it works is not easy. Words are ill-equipped to pin down a purely existential experience that lies outside of every-day conventions and language with its fixed subjects and objects and rigid boundaries. What follows is, at best, an awkward attempt at rationalisation.

The game, or any activity, has its distinct rhythms and energy. If you can zero in on that and merge with it, you have a perfect fit. When you are so drawn into the game that you become a channel, your internal energy becomes part of the flow. William Blake, the 18th century poet, painter and visionary, once wrote somewhat cryptically, “Energy is eternal delight.” What Blake had in mind, of course, is not physical energy but something far bigger.

A player or athlete in the zone is in touch with his core. He taps into a primal source of energy, the inexhaustible spring that breathes life into everything. The liberating experience sets him free to transcend his limitations, and the outcome, naturally, is breathtaking performances.               

All this is, of course, a post-mortem account. When you are in the zone, you don’t stop to dwell on what you are experiencing. If you do, you would soon find yourself shut out. Being detached and questioning is not the way to stay in the zone. In sports, self-consciousness is your worst enemy. That, apparently, was what led to Michael Jordan’s fall from grace. At the height of his career, he was a man on fire, a demigod on the basket ball court. For Jordan, it seemed nothing could go wrong.

Alas, fate is capricious. In the first game of the 1992 NBA finals, he had just sunk six consecutive three-pointer. “In that moment,” sports writer Andrew Cooper notes, “it appeared as though even he was overwhelmed by the immensity of his gift…..And that was the giveaway. He had become self-conscious, and so he had lost that edge, that intensity of concentration…..Even for Michael Jordan, visiting hours on Olympus are limited.”        

For top players and athletes, being locked out of the zone is tantamount to professional suicide. In an age obsessed with winning and success, that is worse than purgatory. Often forgotten is that the zone is about much more than achieving peak performances and victory. It is a portal for us to cross over to the other side, to catch a glimpse of the sublime landscape that lies beyond, of what is possible when we soar above our drab selves.   

Although this aspect of sports gets shoved aside in contemporary culture, it is what drew people in ages past—from the athletes of ancient Greece to the Shaolin monks and masters of martial arts in the east—to their pursuits of excellence. They understood that the zone is the essence of the athletic experience and that at their root, as Cooper puts it, “sports are a theater for enacting the drama of self-transcendence.”    

The philosopher warrior                                                                                                          In recent times, perhaps no one was more aware of this than Bruce Lee, the kung fu icon still worshipped by millions of followers 40 years after his premature demise. Back in his day, vocabulary for the zone didn’t even exist, but he constantly exhorted others to be fluid, to move and act spontaneously.

Here’s a typical statement from Lee: “A good martial artist does not become tense but ready. Not thinking yet not dreaming, ready for whatever may come…..To have no technique, there is no opponent, because the word ‘I’ does not exist. When the opponent expands I contract and when he contracts, I expand. And when there is an opportunity, ‘I’ do not hit, ‘It’ hits all by itself.”

Most people associate kung fu with a stylised set of lethal techniques, a form to be unleashed on an opponent. Lee, on the other hand, talked a great deal about a return to simplicity, about having no technique: “Take things as they are. Punch when you have to punch. Kick when you have to kick.”

That may seem paradoxical. But he was, of course, referring to the spontaneity that comes with the zone. A person in that state is poised to act freely. In the words of Lee, he is “using no way as a way, using no limitations as a limitation.” This is not to be confused with rejecting training. After all, you can’t simply improvise without a complete mastery of technique.    

Lee drew much of his home-brewed street-fighting wisdom from Taoism, the arcane Chinese philosophy that stretches back thousands of years. Like the Taoist forebears before him, he was emphatic about casting off the shackles of norms, conventions and rules. “When there is freedom from mechanical conditioning, there is simplicity,” said Lee. “The classical (read conventional) man is just a bundle of routine, ideas and tradition. If you follow the classical pattern, you are understanding the routine, the shadow—you are not understanding yourself.”  

What is the ultimate in the departure from set patterns and ideas? For Lee, that can only be fluidity, a form that can’t be categorised or pinned down. Moving from this premise, the philosopher warrior offers the following counsel: “Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless—like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup, you put water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle, you put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can   flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend.” 

The elusive path                                                                                                                     What does it mean to be formless? The question dissolves once you are in the zone. For that’s what you have become, a being freed from fixed forms. Lee’s insights, of course, apply not only to the martial arts but to other sports and even life. What he didn’t, and couldn’t, say is how to get into the zone.

He wasn’t being evasive. No one can take you by the hand to the promised land. In Tao Te Ching, an ancient Taoist text, Lao Tzu begins by saying, “The Tao (the path) that can be told is not the eternal Tao.”  For the next 5,000 characters, the Chinese sage went on an allegorical carousel, alluding to the Tao but never quite saying what the path or way is. Evidently, enlightenment in life—and by the same token, the zone in sports—is not to be grasped intellectually. If the zone is a place, you must find it yourself. No one can draw a map for you.

That hasn’t stopped legions of sport psychologists from trying. In the US, where athletic prowess can buy the American dream, an entire industry has sprung up to cater for athletes wishing for permanent residence in the zone. Much of it is pseudo-science.

But because it is so lucrative, an army of quacks is actively pushing services and psychological aids to those in need. I have seen on the net a range of products advertised—DVDs with such titles as Sports Psychology, Hypnosis for Golfers. And if you are a baseball player, no worries, you can always avail yourself of 101 Ways to Break a Hitting Slump for a mere US$129.95. That is a modern miracle without the clumsy participation of the divine, Viagra for those unable to penetrate the zone.

Whether it works is another matter. To be fair, the emphasis by top sport psychologists on mental preparation is not to be sneered at. Done properly, it is as important as physical training. Removing stress, for instance, goes a long way toward clearing stumbling blocks. But restoring psychological balance is only half the story. The rest is about reaching a state of intense focus. Therein lies the rub: no amount of visualisation and meditation can produce self-transcendence, and no psychologist can wave a wand to summon the zone.

Does that mean there is nothing athletes can do except hope? Not quite. Although entering the zone is largely accidental, some activities, to paraphrase a Zen master, make you more accident-prone. You can prepare the ground by engaging in certain activities.

As Cooper points out, readiness for the zone depends on the cultivation of three components: skill, devotion and immersion. So these preconditions must be satisfied to enter the zone:

—The athlete must have a mastery of the core skills to be equal to the task or challenge at hand. Without perfect technique, he simply is not worthy;

—He or she must wholeheartedly love and commit to the sport;

—Immersion is likely only if the other two conditions are met. With complete mastery, the athlete can anchor his conscious mind in technique so as to distract it from making ‘noise’. Passion for the sport is a precursor to enjoyment and hence total absorption in the activity. 

For those disinterested in sports, here is something to think about: if the zone in sports is a spiritual path that leads to self-transcendence and joy, imagine the bliss from entering the zone in life. Personally, I am planning to reread my tattered copy of The Way of Zen by Alan Watts in the hope that it may provide clues.

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9 Responses to A Touch of Zen in Sports

  1. Kristin Brænne says:


  2. Ian says:

    Hey Bob, I am going to admit that I never read any of the other articles than this one, but I will now! I have some comments regarding ‘being in the Zone’ in life, and would like to share these with you, but later, as I am now going back to the pub, to get into ‘the Zone’ – if only for a brief period of time!


  3. Pingback: Tao Te Ching

  4. Nice Blog with Excellent information

  5. He gives no thought to his many years of preparation that led to this moment of excellence. He moves with grace, time seems to slow, and now we zoom in on his hand moving swiftly through the air with guileless confidence and then the sound of impact! Who knew chess could be this exciting!
    Okay, so the passage above sounds more like a description about an active physical sport. With small changes, it could also apply to a wide variety of activities where people are so engrossed in what they’re doing that they become fully focused. A well-known psychologist has spent most of his life studying this state which he calls flow.

  6. Bob Behull says:

    I agree, at least in principle, with your comment that people have got into the zone through physically passive activites, including chess. After all, my article did point out that “others have found it (the zone) through physically passive activities such as painting, writing, playing music, meditation, and even math”, though I did not explicitly mention chess.

    Still, you have raised a good point. While I acknowledge it, I myself have never experienced the state of flow in ‘passive’, mental activities; I only read about it in books.

    And it puzzles me because I always associate the zone or flow with the shutting down of the conscious, cerebral mind. If that is the case, I can only conclude that in physically passive, ‘mental’ activities, a person can only enter the zone by being so fully focused that all thinking is done at a subconscious level. In other words, he or she is thinking without conscious thought. What I would give to have a taste of this experience in chess!

    By the way, being a chess player with an interest in the ‘royal’ game, I am curious to know who it is that you referred to in your comment. Correct me if I am wrong, but in my mind only a handful of geniuses are capable of entering that twilight zone.

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