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Sustaining excellence in the "Zone"

Recipient profile picture Kevin Love
4 April
Dear Kevin Love,
I write to you as a longtime fan of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Firstly, I want to thank you for being a role model and global ambassador for mental health. For many communities and cultures around the world, topics of mental health are sometimes met with shame and stigma. Your work will help many young people to open up and find the support they need. Thank you for your sincerity and hard work on this front. But I want to write to you today about another aspect of the sports person's mindset and journey: the psychology of the "zone" — when time seems to slow down for the athlete, and his/her game elevates to another level. Celtics legend Bill Russell wrote about it briefly in his memoir, Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man, describing “the five or ten occasions when the game ended at that special level”. In those moments, he “did not care who had won… [he’d] still be as free and high as a sky hawk”. What a feeling. Flamethrowers in the NBA, like Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, and Klay Thompson, seem to reach zen-like levels of play every so often. To fans and commentators, they look calm and in their own world — almost unconscious. Many elite athletes describe feeling that way too. I believe you have experienced this many times before as well. I remember watching you light up Portland for 34 points in the first quarter a few years back. It was incredible. Mesmerizing. And this was just one of the many monster games you’ve had in your career, both with Cleveland and Minnesota. Many statisticians are skeptical of the zone or flow. They chalk it up to mathematical coincidence, suggesting instead that the hot hand is illusory. What these studies neglect, however, is how opposing defenders respond to an emerging hot streak. And if you’re able to maintain the same scoring efficiency and output, even after adjusting for defensive intensity and shot difficulty, then something unusual is indeed going on. I think statisticians struggle with concepts like the zone, flow and hot hand because they’ve never experienced it for themselves. Their craft is different to that of an elite athlete or gifted artist. I’m no expert on the brain, of course. But I suspect that mastery and practice affects the mind in different ways for different vocations. Kevin, I’d love to hear your perspective and experience on this. As a player that has experienced both the highest of highs and lowest of lows in basketball, what does the zone feel like for you? What triggers or facilitates such a state of mind? How do you stay zen-like once you're in the flow? How do you minimize second guessing or slow-conscious calculation from disrupting that level of play? As you can tell, I’m no athlete. While I love basketball, I will butcher the fast break at my local rec center. But there is so much, I think, for everyday folk like myself to learn from you and other elite athletes — from your work ethic to sports psychology to sustaining excellence. I hope you will share more about yourself in the years to come. Warm regards, Tobias Lim P.S. As a fan of the Cavaliers, I’ve really enjoyed the team’s recent resurgence. Wishing you and the team a happy, healthy run for the many playoff runs and seasons ahead. Take care.

Tobias Lim

Author profile picture Tobias Lim

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