Ed Smith
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Former England, Kent and Middlesex batsman; writer for the New Statesman

The zone and the importance of imagination

A sportsman in the zone, like an artist, has both a wider and a narrower focus. He has the ability to be in the game and yet stand above it, seeing it clearly

Ed Smith

December 16, 2012

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Mike Brearley throws the ball to Bob Willis, fifth Test, England v Australia, Old Trafford, 16 August 1981
Mike Brearley: went beyond merely visualising a desirable outcome Adrian Murrell / © Getty Images
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Mike Brearley, the former England and Middlesex captain, recently gave a talk about "the zone". Before cricket, Mike was an academic philosopher; after cricket, he became a psychoanalyst. Taken as a whole, professional sport is a relatively small proportion of Mike's career. But it afforded him an intense period of practical absorption and experience. Looking back on three careers spread over one varied life, Mike spoke to an audience at the London School of Economics about what cricket had taught him about concentration, technique and freedom.

Sometimes the best way to define something is to describe its antithesis. "The zone" can be a slippery concept. But we all know what bad form feels like. Brearley began with a memorable description of a player in crisis: "We try to focus on all sorts of things that should be unconscious - like the centipede, who, trying to think about each leg before it moves, ends up on its back on a ditch."

"The zone" is the opposite. When we are in the zone, there is a sense of effortlessness, your body acting as though it does not require instructions from the mind. Many batsmen have written about the zone, but this was the first time I've heard anyone describe "captaincy in the zone".

It was 1982 and Brearley was captaining Middlesex against Nottinghamshire. It was a bouncy pitch, and he was trying to think of a way to dismiss the opposition star player, Clive Rice. Brearley not only sensed there was a chance of Rice misjudging the bounce - many captains would have done that - he also began to imagine as though he, Brearley, was in fact the batsman.

In Brearley's phrase, "Here I felt my way into Rice's body and the shape of the shot. I sensed there might be a thick outside edge, and I pictured the ball flying to a deep wide slip, perhaps 20 yards back. I put Clive Radley in this position, and shortly afterwards it went straight to him at catching height. When something similar happened in the second innings, this time on the leg side, Rice thought there was something magical about my captaincy; in fact, it was a mixture of bodily intuition laced with a great deal of luck."

Brearley is describing something rarely discussed in a sporting context: the practical value of imagination. It transcended merely "visualising" a probable outcome. Brearley used his imagination, as a novelist might, to bring to life a very unlikely potential scenario. "Many years later," he added, "I saw a film of Bushmen hunting a deer on foot. As they followed the tracks of the deer in the stony ground, the hunters 'became' the deer, using the identification to find the faint footprints in the ground; they shaped themselves into the way of moving and likely course of the deer."

It is a rare perspective. We hear a lot about plans, very little about imagination; much about strategy, little about adaptiveness. Brearley's point is that a captain has to balance conscious planning with imaginative hunches.

A team can also enter "the zone", just as a single player does. Brearley explained what happens when a team is "hot": "Each player breathes in the others at their best, is strengthened by that identification, and gives off similar vibes to the rest of the team."

Note how the positivity becomes self-perpetuating, even contagious. That is why good teams always have a strong core of senior players: this core takes the weaker "waverers" with them on the journey towards self-belief. Thus the team - rather than being just a list of individuals - becomes an organic entity in its own right. One of the truest phrases about good teams is that they become "more than the sum of their parts".

What of the individual? One of the thrilling aspects of watching a player in the zone - and I am thinking more of football and rugby than cricket - is the sense that he is both aware of the whole pitch and yet totally absorbed in the small details; he is ahead of the game, yet also living in the here and now.

I once had a memorable conversation with the film director Stephen Frears about the French footballer Zinedine Zidane. Frears saw parallels between a football playmaker in full flow and a film-maker in the zone. "What I really admire - and you see it particularly in players who are just past their prime - is the feeling that what they have lost physically they make up for by seeing the whole picture. They grasp the shape of the game. They can somehow stand above it and see it clearly."

Brearley calls this "seeing the wood and the trees: he looks and takes in the detail; but he also looks with a broader gaze, in a way that allows unconscious ideas and connections to flow". The sportsman in the zone, like the artist, has both a wider and a narrower focus.

This sounds very abstract. What does it feel like in more practical terms? I would say I felt fully "in the zone" only a few times in my career. One day, when I made 149 for Kent in about a session and a half, stands out. And, looking back on it, there was that sense of both narrower and wider focus. I remember being aware of gaps in the field. In fact, there seemed to be a ready-made "channel" - it seemed to exist in its own right - running in a line to the boundary, dissecting mid-off and extra cover. Time and again I hit the ball into that channel, as though I had only to aim vaguely in that direction and my body subconsciously directed the ball exactly into the gap between the fielders. Without straining or thinking about it, I could both watch the ball onto the bat, and yet also see that channel leading to the boundary rope.

Later I tried to recall what batting felt like that day: "You stay in the present, enjoying it for what it is: the feel of the bat in the hand, the rhythm of the ball arriving in sync with the shot, the feel of the earth under feet, a lightness and yet a rootedness. Your mind is revving at the same rate as the pace of the game. There is no sense of being rushed (the ball arriving too soon) or impatience (wanting the balls to be delivered quicker). There is harmony. I felt very clearly, on that day in July 2003, that my role was to not get in the way - to make myself the conduit more than the agent."

Brearley described batting in "the zone" in similar terms. But on one point I disagreed, or at least had a different take on things. Brearley interpreted "the zone" as an extreme version of the more common phenomenon of "good form". At one level that is obviously true. But I feel that "the zone" exists in a different sphere to the question of form. Form is an achievement, the zone is a feeling. A batsman can enjoy a spell of scoring heavily without getting anywhere close to the zone. The zone is subtler than form, more mysterious.

 
 
I would draw a distinction between success that follows from an effort of will and success that is just allowed to happen. I associate the zone with "letting go", relinquishing the controlling grip of your own will power
 

In particular, I would draw a distinction between success that follows from an effort of will and success that is just allowed to happen. (I acknowledge that even the latter relies on a great deal of preliminary hard work and practice.) I associate the zone with "letting go", relinquishing the controlling grip of your own will power. In the zone, the world is co-operative; you do not have to bend it to your will.

An awkward, perhaps impossible, question follows: what is the sportsman's optimal relationship with his own will power? On the one hand, we know that will power drives athletes to many of their victories. And yet I also believe that your controlling mind prevents you from playing at your absolute best.

So would you achieve more if you trusted yourself just to "play", instead of trying to manipulate events with your will power and strength of character? I suspect the answer is different for different players.

A good example of two opposite approaches is the rivalry of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. Nadal relies on his phenomenal will power - as though he draws confidence from the strength of his own character. Federer, in contrast, seems to play best when he does not interfere with his own talent. It is as though Federer's brilliance exists of itself, in its own right: he merely has to set it free. It must be difficult to advise Federer when he is losing: "try harder", "fight more" - those ideas seem entirely inappropriate for his game.

Maybe for some players (the Federer type), the zone is almost a prerequisite of performance. For others (the Nadal type), the zone is practically an irrelevance.

****

At the dinner after Mike's talk, where the guests were mostly LSE professors, I reflected how easily he could be mistaken for a distinguished lecturer in philosophy. And yet each of the worlds he has touched - academia, sport, psychoanalysis - has benefited from insights and experiences he developed in the others. Had Mike lived a narrower life, and focused on one strand to the exclusion of the others, I suspect he would have had a less surprising life - and, I think, a less influential one. Breadth, paradoxically, can lead to depth.

By nature I am an optimist: my firm conviction is that sport is getting better in many respects. But I could not escape a feeling of sadness that it is highly unlikely that a similar career could happen in today's ultra-professional sporting world. I doubt an academic philosopher in his 20s would be persuaded to return to professional cricket, or that a professional cricketer, having retired from the game in early middle age, would subsequently pursue a full career in psychotherapy.

Perhaps Mike's insights will help a new generation of players get into the zone more often. But I suspect the particular zone he experienced is an increasingly uninhabited space.

Former England, Kent and Middlesex batsman Ed Smith's new book, Luck - What It Means and Why It Matters, is out now. His Twitter feed is here

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