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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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times