Bill Russell on Playing In The Zone
Playing ‘in the zone’ is what many athletes call their experience of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s flow state, the complete absorption in what you are doing.
Bill Russell, Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man
Every so often a Celtics game would heat up so that it became more than a physical or even mental game, and would be magical. That feeling is difﬁcult to describe, and I certainly never talked about it when I was playing. When it happened, I could feel my play rise to a new level. It came rarely, and would last anywhere from ﬁve minutes to a whole quarter, or more. Three or four plays were not enough to get it going. It would surround not only me and the other team, and even the referees. At that special level, all sorts of odd things happened: The game would be in the white heat of competition, and yet somehow I wouldn’t feel competitive, which is a miracle in itself. I’d be putting out the maximum effort, straining, coughing up parts of my lungs as we ran, and yet I never felt the pain. The game would move so quickly that every fake, cut, and pass would be surprising, and yet nothing could surprise me. It was almost as if we were playing in slow motion. During those spells, I could almost sense how the next play would develop and where the next shot would be taken. Even before the other team brought the ball inbounds, I could feel it so keenly that I’d want to shout to my teammates, ‘it’s coming there!’—except that I knew everything would change if I did. My premonitions would be consistently correct, and I always felt then that I not only knew all the Celtics by heart, but also all the opposing players, and that they all knew me. There have been many times in my career when I felt moved or joyful, but these were the moments when I had chills pulsing up and down my spine.
On the ﬁve or ten occasions when the game ended at that special level, I literally did not care who had won. If we lost, I’d still be as free and high as a sky hawk.