You’re in the zone: we’re in the zone

by Prof. Kath Woodward

Immersed in a fantastic summer of sport, 2018 seems to be a most appropriate moment to discuss the phenomenon of ‘being in the zone’. Sport offers opportunities to explore and promote the experience, but what is it and who gets the chance to get into the zone? The idea of being in the zone is invoked in a variety of contexts, not least in sport, where trainers and coaches exhort their athletes to greater heights of competence in the pursuit of excellence, by getting into the zone. The zone, however is much more than that. The concept has generated a growing literature, both popular with ‘how to manuals’, and academic explorations of what this state is, with increasing emphasis on the zone’s social and cultural aspects as well as its psychological features and focus upon individual consciousness. As I argue in this blog, the zone is psychosocial; it involves inner and outer, social worlds, and some theorists suggest, occupies a liminal, seemingly timeless space.

The zone is in time, but also out of time

The zone offers the harmonious experience of being lost in the moment in a ‘state of grace’, as being in the zone is expressed in French, for everyone, even those who lack resources, privilege and high-level skills. At a time when everyday life is marked by pressures of time, the desperate need to fulfil expectations and schedules and to appear busy, the space for being out of time looks like a place to be. The zone is in time, but also out of time; lost in the present moment but not attentive to linear time, which marches inexorably from A to B.

Medium readers may be familiar with Csíkszentmihályi’s concept of flow (The Origins of Flow — Ten Quotes by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi by Fyndario) an article, which goes a long way towards making sense of what happens when everything comes together. Bowlers are ‘on a roll’, jazz musicians are ‘in the groove’, boxers are in the zone, computer programmers just keep going all night because it’s working so well and elite athletes, even in the 100m sprint, report feelings of timelessness, as if a period of time as short as under 10seconds ‘seems to last forever’ (Chevalley and Woodward, 2015).

The zone is not all about pleasure

My arguments are based upon an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project, with Prof Tim Jordan, on Peak Performance and the phenomenon of being in the zone ( which we called bitz) in the areas of sport, music and creative work (see Jordan, McClure and Woodward, 2017). Our research has much in common with Csikszentmihalyi’s especially in terms of the temporal dimensions of the zone, when understanding of the passing of time is altered such that the experience is described as timeless, the associations with enhanced performance, harmony, pleasure, intensity and focus, all of which make the zone a great place to be, however elusive access may seem to be. The zone is also not all about pleasure. Pain can be part of the mix too. Boxers and ballet dancers, for example, claim to be unaware of injury, when they are in the zone.

You don’t have to be human or only with humans to get into the zone

Our aims in our project were to draw upon and develop the idea of flow to include its collective dimensions and potential for wider, more democratic participation. Bitz is not just the preserve of elite performers. Clearly there is more chance of getting into the zone if you have a reasonable level of competence, whether as an individual or as a group or team, but the zone can be accessed byspectators as well as performers, by children and those who lack the capacity to perform themselves, for example because of degenerative disease or the impact of age. The exuberance of children running free, mindless of responsibilities and constraints suggests the joy spontaneity of the zone, which nonetheless demands particular circumstances such as a safe space. Such joy has been described as akin to the psychoanalytic concept of jouissancebecause of its creativity, which disrupts the routines of the everyday and expresses the joy of being alive, of thinking through the body and lost in the moment. Donna Haraway describes similar experiences in agility training with her dog, Cayenne, as ‘outside time; it exceeds time in something I will call the sheer joy of that coming together of different bodies’ (Haraway, 2008:244). You don’t have to be human or only with humans to get into the zone, as anyone who works and lives with animals is likely to concur. Bitz is often described as a transcendent experience, but it can also be routine.

Flow has largely been seen as an individual phenomenon

Even in the kind of paid work, which is at the lower end of the pay scale and higher end of hard work, Lynne Pettinger cites the stories of restaurant staff on a good shift, when it all comes together and it runs smoothly in Jordan et al 2017). What these examples suggest is the multifaceted nature of the zone as well as a consistency about the experience of time-and especially timelessness-and what the context can offer in releasing participants from anxiety. Flow has largely been seen as an individual phenomenon and often associated with elite performance, whereas Bitzis marked by the reaffirmation of a positive, and often surprising, spontaneous experience for all who experience it. Thus spectators too can get there, whether at a sporting event, in which, however limited the timescale of the action, they too are lost, when past present and future time come together in the intensity of the moment of ‘real time’ of the game, or the match, which becomes one of those memorable events. Similarly, music can offer the experience to audiences as well as performers, such as a jazz gig, which becomes memorable and iconic, because of collective improvisation in a total experience of musicians and spectators.

The zone offers an open, if contradictory and somewhat disruptive, space, which demonstrates the tensions between competence, often at a very high level and spontaneity and exuberance. Its creativity and spontaneity may be resistant to formulaic handbooks, but understanding the importance of the connections between the psychic investments of individuals and groups and the social worlds they inhabit means, can make bitz a more democratic productive experience for everyone.

References:

Chevalley, A. and Woodward, K. (2015) Le Temps et le Sport, Lausanne, Olympic Museum

Haraway, D. (2008) When Species Meet, London, University of Minnesota Press

Jordan, T. McClure, B. and Woodward, K. (eds) (2017) Culture, Identity and Intense Performativity: Being in the Zone,London, Routledge