Ed Smith: in the zone. Photograph: Getty Images
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The mystery of sporting form

When a sportsman is in “the zone”, he is in a state of total absorption.

All things considered, I should have spent more time in form – somewhere near the top of my game – than I managed during my 13 seasons
as a county cricketer. It was a deep frustration to me that I wasn’t able to find my “A” game more often and for longer periods of time.
But in one respect I am grateful that the trajectory of my batting career had such pronounced peaks and troughs. Although the lows were painful, the highs were correspondingly exhilarating. And now, from the safe vantage point of retirement, I can say without sounding conceited that there were moments when I played almost as well as I possibly could. I feel lucky that I know what that feels like.

I had two spells when I found myself batting with concentration and freedom, and without anxiety. The first was the middle of 2003, just before I was called up to play for England. The second was the end of 2004, when I was finally able to find an outlet for the pain of being dropped. In 2003 I made consecutive scores of 135, 0, 122, 149, 113, 203, 36, 108. In 2004, I ended the season with 70, 156, 106, 189.

What caused me to play well for those two spells? Each was preceded by a period of intense disappointment and a sense of thwartedness.
I think there was a direct causal relationship between my frustrations and the runs that followed. Failure begat success.

In 2003, I’d gone into the season full of hope and optimism, convinced it would be my year, but in April and May I’d been unable to convert good technical “form” into runs. The games were ticking by without me making a mark. I felt that I hadn’t got the runs I’d deserved, that I’d played better than the scorebook recorded.

Sustained performance often derives from that kind of distilled anger. Not anger itself – which is often self-destructive – but what happens once you have processed that anger and turned it into something useful. Playing with wild annoyance rarely works. But controlled fire is precious, the sense that you are righting
a deep sense of injustice, levelling a score. Prolonged spells of great form often derive from believing in a righteous reversal of fortune. Elite athletes have an uneasy relationship with the idea of luck. They don’t wish to invoke luck as an excuse, but the sense of having recently been unlucky can be recast as creative fuel.

Everything for a purpose

But “the zone”, as psychologists call it, is something more specific than merely a spell of good form. It is impossible to stay completely in the zone over the course of seven or eight innings spread over several days, no matter how successful they might be. The zone is an isolated experience of complete absorption, a period of time when there are no extraneous, irrelevant thoughts. If I had to choose one day when everything flowed as if batting was my truest nature, it would be when I made 149 against Nottinghamshire at Maidstone.

What does it feel like, being in the zone? You do no more or no less than what you have to. There are few inessential movements, little psychological or physiological waste. Every movement has a purpose, a reason behind it.

Let me use an analogy from another sport. The difference between a good footballer and a great one is in the clarity of thought that lies
behind every pass. In his glorious, imperious late years, Zinedine Zidane’s clarity of vision was so unerring that missed passes were usually caused by a team-mate who had failed to read the play. Zidane never passed a ball without purpose. Nor did he move around the field much. He had evolved beyond the point of needing to look busy. The husk had been discarded; only the kernel remained.

In the same way, being in the zone allows you to make small movements driven by a great deal of purpose. Concision of movement can
be hard to interpret. Very nervous players suffer from strangulated, constrained movement, their feet anchored to the ground. And yet a player in the zone, totally confident of everything he does, is equally sparing in his movements. The difference between anxious stillness and confident stillness is the fluidity and smoothness of the movements you do make. Anxiety makes you guess too early and move jerkily. When you are in the zone, you trust yourself and glide.

What of your mind? It is uncluttered, obviously, yet also surprisingly open. While you might not be cracking jokes or joking around, nor are you scared of human interaction. If a moment of levity inescapably crossed your path, you won’t deny it on principle because “you are concentrating too hard”.

Tunnel vision is overrated. True concentration is about taking things as you find them, with no preconceived ideas of how you “ought” to behave. Naturalness – a lack of self-consciousness, even self-awareness – is at the heart of being in the zone. You do not fear reacting to events intuitively, without prejudging them.

I would distinguish being in the zone from just feeling confident. There were days when I drove to the cricket ground feeling the odds were in my favour and that gave my batting a jaunty confidence. The zone is subtler, more mysterious. The confidence is further removed from the surface. You feel calmness more than cockiness. And you do not think about outcomes, only the process of the thing itself. You do not rush to anticipate what it might feel like to make a hundred. 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. The world is co-operative; you do not have to bend it to your will. 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.

I wish I could have had more days when everything flowed as a cricketer. But perhaps it is better to have known true form and to have lost it than never to have known it at all.

Featured in the exhibition “Everything Flows: the Art of Getting in the Zone” by Film and Video Umbrella, at the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex, until 16 September

 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Honey, I shrunk the Tories

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View from Paisley: How the Conservatives are wooing Labour's Scottish heartlands

Not so long ago, Conservative activists in Paisley could expect doors slammed in their faces. A referendum has changed that.

Tony Lawler, a Labour activist, was recently knocking on doors in the Scottish town of Paisley, when he came across a disgruntled resident. “I’m really disappointed in Douglas Alexander,” the potential voter complained. “I haven’t seen him. He used to be in Morrisons.”

Douglas Alexander, of course, has gone. He was the longstanding Labour MP and onetime International Development secretary who lost his seat in 2015 to a 20-year-old rival, the Scottish National Party’s Mhairi Black. He does not plan to stand again. But when I visit Paisley, a short train ride from Glasgow, I find that memories of him linger on. 

Two years after Alexander’s defeat, I meet Lawler and other local Labour activists in Morrisons, where Alexander used to hold his surgeries. As checkouts beep and trolley wheels roll over linoleum, they point to an empty table in the corner of this hallowed ground: “He used to sit just there.”

In 2015, the SNP’s victory in this former manufacturing town seemed to epitomise the earthquake in Scottish politics. But as the Labour activists know too well, no political fortress is undefeatable. And in Paisley, the home of one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world, the party with the most to gain is one that previously never dared to canvass in the high street – the Conservative party. 

The town the Brexiteers forgot

In 1988, the historian Sylvia Clarke reflected on Paisley’s lost industries, wondering what was next for the former weaving towns. “Paisley as a tourist centre?” she wondered, in Paisley: A History. “Paisley as a place for visitors to come to, rather than a send-out of goods and emigrants?” 

For all Paisley’s industrial decline, it’s a pretty place. The town is in the running for the 2021 City of Culture, and has the second biggest number of listed buildings after Edinburgh. When I visit in the middle of April, blossom floats on the trees, and a river meanders through a neighbourhood of old, stone houses. It takes a moment to notice weeds tightening their grasp on the window frames. When I try the door of the ancient Paisley Abbey, it’s locked.

Perhaps if Paisley had been located the other side of the border, in Sunderland or Northumbria, it would be voting Leave and flirting with Ukip. But in the most deprived areas here, Labour activists tell me the EU referendum tally was still almost 50-50, and overall the town voted Remain.

There is a view that Brexit is an English concern. “We haven’t picked up anything about the EU referendum,” says Lawler of his doorstep conversations. “What people are talking about is the independence referendum, Jeremy Corbyn and the kids’ ward.” Scotland’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is due to make a decision on whether the specialist ward should be moved to a large hospital in the First Minister’s Glasgow constituency, against the wishes of many Paisley residents. The hospital in question is nicknamed “the Death Star”.  

Another concern, reminiscent of small towns across the UK, is the decline of the high street. When I walk down the historical shopping area Causeyside Street, I find mother and daughter Kate and Linda Hancy packing up what remains of The Pattern Café and Gift Shop. The wallpaper is a glorious Paisley print, but the scented candles are in boxes and a spray soap bottle hangs from a chair. After two years of trying, they are closing down.  

“People just don’t have money to spend,” Kate says. “A lot of people have been on the same wage for more than five years.”

Linda chimes in: “The cost of living going up but wages aren’t the same. I work in a supermarket, and people come in and say ‘How did I spend this much money?’ A lot of people are paying by credit cards.”

The Hancys voted to remain in the UK, and the EU. Although they knew Alexander, they have never met Mhairi Black, and feel devolution, if anything, has made politicians less accountable. “Why are we picking 1,2,3,4,” demands Kate, referring to Holyrood's voting system, which rejected first past the post. “Why can’t we pick one like we used to?”

Without the EU to blame, the most obvious culprits for Paisley town centre’s decline are the out-of-town shopping centres, where cinemas are opening just as historical ones in town close their doors.

Gavin Simpson, owner of Feel the Groove, a new record shop, remembers the 1980s, when a new release would have shoppers queuing round the block. However, he believes the town is over the worst. (As we speak, a customer comes in to reserve such a record and cheerfully warns Gavin that “even if I ask for my money back, don’t give it to me.”)

One thriving business is the longstanding butchers, Wm Phelps. Manager James Peacock tells me it is down to the trustworthy Scottish produce, which is carefully tracked and labelled. But the business has also embraced globalisation.  After noticing a large number of South African customers, Peacock began selling boerewors and biltong.

The other referendum campaign

If Paisley has been spared the divisions of the EU referendum campaign, its “buddies” – as residents are known – are still reeling with the repercussions of an earlier referendum, that on Scotland in the UK. In 2014, the town voted for independence, although the county overall opted to stay in the UK. 

The town is home to a particularly brash strain of indyreffers, including the “Smith Commission burners”, three SNP councillors who gathered in front of the council headquarters to burn a copy of the report setting out new powers for Scotland. One of them, Mags MacLaren, went on to manage Black’s constituency office.

But if the Paisley independence movement has been well covered, less is known about its opposite - the rise of pro-unionism. 

Of the three mainstream parties opposed to independence, it is the Scottish Conservatives, with their unconventional leader Ruth Davidson, who have most effectively capitalised on the pro-union message. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, the Tory Jackson Carlaw captured the West of Scotland constituency of Eastwood, which had been held by Labour since its creation. 

In Holyrood, the Scottish Tories benefit from proportional representation, which allows voters to choose a constituency MSP but also rank parties. 

According to Paul Masterton, the secretary of the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Scottish Conservative Association, the Conservatives are now getting huge numbers of first preference votes, including in neighbourhoods like the suburb of Ralston, where both Black and Masterton are from. So who are these voters? Masterton describes them as “New Labour voters who were happy with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn and get tied up into knots by [Scottish Labour leader] Kezia Dugdale flipflopping on the union stance".

The 2016 election saw the Scottish Conservatives surge to second place in Scotland – a superb comeback for a party once ridiculed as being rarer than pandas. The next electoral test is the local council elections. In Paisley, even Labour activists acknowledged the Conservatives were likely to be the most notable winners.

“For a long time we simply didn’t go out in Paisley," says Masterton. "We were written off and we allowed ourselves to be written off.”

But the referendum has changed this. “What I found was that last May, people weren’t shutting the door in your face," he adds. "Once you started the conversation they were far more receptive to that.” 

Like the Labour activists, Masterton argues that the constitutional question matters more than Brexit. “When Theresa May said ‘now is not the time’, I think a lot of people across Paisley did a small quiet fist pump,” he says of a second independence referendum.  

Ironically, after the early election is called, the Scottish Conservatives do everything they can to mention the prospect. “Don't mention the 'i' word,” crows a recent press release about the “SNP indyref ban”. Davidson tweets: “Nicola doesn't want to stand on her record. She knows the country doesn't want her #indyref2.” A Panelbase survey commissioned by The Sunday Times Scotland published shortly after the early election was announced finds support for the Conservatives at Scotland at 33 per cent, 18 percentage points higher than in 2015. 

What you stand for

For now, Paisley remains a Scottish National Party stronghold. George Adams, the MSP with an office off the high street, proves elusive – Labour activists confirm his reputation as a hardworking local. Black’s aide turns down my request for an interview for similar reasons, but I bump into her that evening at a protest against cutting child tax credits in Glasgow’s George Square.

Black, an admirer of the left-wing Labour figure Tony Benn, once said she feels "it is the Labour party that left me". I ask her if she, like her Labour predecessor, holds surgeries in supermarkets. Black says she’d considered it, but given the sensitivity of some of the issues, such as benefit problems, she thought her constituents might appreciate a more private space. “The main thing that crosses the door in my offices is Universal Credit changes,” she explains. She says she has raised her concerns about the children’s ward.

As for the independence debate, she argues that the Scottish government have been “incredibly compromising” since Brexit, but adds: “A lot of folk want another chance at the question.”

Black is standing for re-election. With a majority of more than 5,000, and neither of her previous challengers in the running, she’s likely to keep her seat, even if buddies' discontent over local issues rumbles on. 

Still, as I have discovered, the 2014 referendum continues to reverberate in towns like Paisley. It has divided friends and neighbours on constitutional lines, galvanised new strains of politics, and brought a Labour heavyweight crashing down, with no appetite to return. 

The Tories believe their unionist message is enough to flip seats like East Renfrewshire, once Conservative, then Labour, and now an SNP marginal. Could Paisley, with its long tradition of the left, one day follow? It no longer feels implausible. “The one thing about the Scottish Conservatives - and this is true whatever you like us or not,” says Masterton. “You know what we stand for.”

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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