April 26, 2006
Lexington, KY (CSTV U-WIRE) -- Keenan Burton relishes it.
It's never happened to Hubert Martin, but he's studied it in different forms and knows it well.
Albert Einstein seemed aware of it, but not in the athletic realm.
Events unfold, like a lucid dream, as the universe centers on an athlete for a fleeting few fragments of time. Space is created and consolidated with a whim. Sound stops. Vision fades to black; all you can see is the field of competition, the space you will bend to your own means to achieve your end.
You will crush your blocker, catch the pass, and dash on feet that will scarely touch the ground. You will smash the pathetic offering from the opposition into the gap. Or the wall above it, if you feel like it.
It's your call. You run the show. You run the universe, if for just a spark's lifespan.
"It's a feeling you get where you can't hear nobody," Burton said. "You only see the field. It's like I'm playing me in a video game. I can do what I want to do. It's just me and the person on me.
"I can't hear the fans, I can't see them," he said. "You're at complete ease."
The ancient Greeks had a word for it. They called it "aristeia," which translated means a warrior's prowess or excellence.
They used it to describe the point in a battle when a warrior would reach or exceed the apex of his potential. It was documented on several occasions in Homer's "Iliad," as well as Virgil's "Aeneid." Not that going to war has many commonalities to competing athletically, but competition parallels remain.
"It's as though an individual gets absorbed in an activity, he enjoys what he is involved in," said Martin, a UK professor of classical studies who teaches mostly Greek and Latin literature and language. "There's something moving in him that controls him."
Martin called aristeia "a battlefield rage." He used the death of Achilles' best friend Patroclus in the Iliad as an example of Achilles' aristeia.
"(Achilles) moves into the battlefield rage; he operates in a way that would be totally unthinkable in other human context," Martin said.
Martin likened the warrior's lack of concern for human life, as they kill everything that moves, to an athlete's battling against someone he has a close personal relationship with off the field.
"There is some parallel to the behavior of an athlete where they're competing against their best friend. For a moment, that individual ceases to be their best friend and becomes their enemy or competitive rival," Martin said. "But there are rules to the game in athletics, whether it be football, basketball, soccer, or whatever. Rules that control, if you will, the game-time rage."
The feeling is the same when an athlete incorporates all the hours of abuse he puts on his body, all the battling in practice, all the drills he's run, to the one time when everything is attainable, when the athlete steps briefly outside the sport and becomes for a fleeting moment what all athletes wish to become.
"When you're in the Zone, your routes are perfect," Burton says. "The ball is soft, it looks like a beach ball. It's like no other feeling."
Though the game is the same, the rules are the same, time for everyone else is the same, all the problems for you just melt away and you concentrate on what matters most: beating the person in front of you.
"It's all moving the same speed," Burton said. "You just think ahead to what they're going to do."
It seems like it would be easier in battle or basketball, where the action is fast-paced. A shooter can stay in the Zone for minutes at a time, a la Patrick Sparks' six-for-six 3-point shooting against South Carolina Feb. 18.
"In basketball, I could do anything I wanted to anybody," Burton said, referring to the Zone during his illustrious high school career at Louisville's duPont Manual High School. "The shot goes up, I know I'm gonna get that rebound. It's a different feeling because it's so fast-paced."
But even those experienced with the Zone, like Sparks, lost the feeling from time to time.
Therein lies the one pain in the pleasure of the Zone: how can an athlete bend the game to his will for a period of time, then completely lose it? How close are the parallels between ancient Greek warriors, the most celebrated non-political figures of their time, to present-day athletes, the most celebrated non-political figures of our time?
"The thinking isn't utterly different from some soldiers in combat," Martin said. "Within ancient literature, it's a sense of one's reputation, what others think. Shame is heavier than guilt as a motivating factor."
Is it the same on the athletic field?
"(Athletes are) motivated by the reaction of people on the field, people such as (journalists)," Martin said. "I've read lots of reports on the shame culture operating on the athletic field."
So the answer seems to be that athletes, who are competing on a smaller scale than Greek warriors, stand to lose less than they do, but still can take some damage to their reputation.
Burton said the reason his Zone dissipates is a lack of confidence caused by one mistake.
"You might drop a pass, or miss an assignment," Burton said. "All the confidence in everything you had just gets thrown away when you make one mistake."
There's also the factor that we're talking about an almost paranormal event occurring during such a non-life-defining venture as athletic competition. Why is the Zone the same on the gridiron as it would be on a field of battle?
That's the wrong way to look at it. It doesn't matter if one Zones in during a basketball game, football game, fight to the death or scooping ice cream at Baskin-Robbins for six bucks an hour. Anything that one trains consistently enough at for a period of time can get repetitive, but if you keep working at it and getting better and better, it gets to be like a video game, like Burton said.
Time slows. No matter what your opponent does, you see it coming and know the right buttons to push, whether on a controller on a PlayStation 2 or within your own body to move your arms and legs, to beat him before he can react.
Burton put it best: "When you're in the Zone, you can do anything you want."
(C) 2006 Kentucky Kernel via CSTV U-WIRE