In his book Everything Belongs, author Richard Rohr writes about the edges and the essence of life; about the circumference and the center, and how we live our lives at the edges, on the circumference of life’s true essence which is love, unity, fullness, wholeness – the same things you experience when you are in the zone.

I look at playing in our normal performance state as playing on the edges of the game while playing in our peak performance state, playing in the zone, is playing at the center of the game and experiencing its essence. With playing in the zone you get right to the essence of the game as well as to the essence of your being. The essence of who you really are as a human being and athlete.

That says a lot about playing in the zone as a transformative practice. As humans, we are always looking for the essence of life, its true meaning, but there is really no way to define the essence of life in words because the essence of life must be lived. So, too, playing in the zone is the essence of sports, and to try to define it in words always fall short of the experience itself. But it is an experience of wholeness and unification that once experienced is not soon forgotten.

The transformative power of the zone lies in its depth of experience. A depth that draws us into a closer relationship with not only the game we are playing but also with ourselves. You see, to experience the essence of the game, we must bring to the game the essence of ourselves. It’s a fair trade, yes? Your essence for the essence of the game. It takes one to experience the other. Remember, the zone is a co-created performance state; you in a state of presence connecting to and interfacing with the flowing presence of the game. Presence is the essence of the game, of any game, of any relationship, and to experience the essence of any relational environment, you must be present to that environment. Presence is all that is required of you, but presence requires your all, your whole being, as well as the full-potential of your sensorimotor operating system.

When you are in the zone, you experience the essence of your sport by building a full-potential interface between your sensorimotor operating system and your athletic environment. This full potential interface also creates a one-to-one connection to the flowing presence of your sport. You and your sport interfacing in a co-created state of flowing presence. That puts you squarely at the center of the game, and it is at the center of the game that you will find its true essence.

As a transformative practice, playing in the zone gives you direct access to this athletic essence, and as you experience your sport from its very center, you will also experience the center of yourself, your own true nature. When you are in the zone, you are no longer playing at the edges of your sport, no longer circling around its circumference in an endless quest for greater meaning. Rather, you are experiencing the essence of the game through your own essential being.

There are thousands of coaches in the world of sport who will teach you how to smooth out the edges of your game, and that’s a good thing. But the edges of your game, no matter how smooth and well-oiled, are still the edges. They are never the essence, and the future of coaching lies in teaching the essence of the game, not its edges.

Is that a future you will choose as a coach? As an athlete?

I can only speak for myself, but through my own experiences over the years, I’ve found out something about the essence of the game. I know it’s the truth. When I first stumbled onto a simple way of getting into the zone, I knew it was a happy accident, but I also knew something else. I knew it was the truth. And not just the truth about tennis, but also the truth about myself, who I really was, who I really am. That awakening was as brutal as it was honest. It shouted to me that I had been lost among the edges, circling the circumference of the game and of my life, searching for the essence and finding only more edges, only more of the same.
Then suddenly, and accidentally, I fell into the very center of the game, and just as suddenly everything was different, everything changed. The person I thought I was became a partial picture of the whole me, this new me that was blown into existence by an explosion of pure essence. The raw essence of the game of tennis experienced by the raw essence of my own essential self, suddenly awakened, suddenly present in all its truth, goodness, and beauty.

For me, there was no turning back. No resting on my meager laurels. No mucking about in my comfort zone. A comfort zone that was suddenly a thing of the past, blown away by the reality of this vast and unexplored territory called the zone. As a coach and an athlete, there was only one way for me to go, only one direction to take, and that was forward into this territory that I had fallen into by mistake. But as it turns out, I had fallen into the territory of essence, and to this day I continue to explore its infinite expanse.