The Inner Art of Airmanship

Mindset Ten: Inner Game

Are you gently grooving with gravity or do you have a death grip on the yoke? Can you flare with flair? “It is an action is which certain things are caused to happen and certain things are allowed to happen. Faults arise in trying to cause what should be allowed.”

The last two sentences are a direct quote about the mechanics of a golf swing by a lady best known as an auto journalist from her book on skiing. This is not the first place most of us would look for flying advice! But Sam led me here, for the truths she found about motor skills apply directly to the ‘good stick’ aspect of flying.

It is often repeated that during the Vietnam war, when some US Navy aviator’s chests were wired up by doctors, that their heart rates were fastest not during actual deadly air-to-air combat, but at the end of the mission during landing back on the boat. Now, while few of us land a F-4 fighter jet low on fuel on a tiny rocking rolling aircraft carrier deck, most pilots can agree that landing is a time of complete concentration. We lose ourselves in the task. There are many other maneuvers — from the airline pilot’s V1 cut to soaring a glider in a tight desert thermal to low-level airshow aerobatics — that are excellent examples of mind-to-eye-to-hand coordination of the highest order. We need smooth. We need precision. But just trying harder often leads to worse results — actions become jerky and forced. We need relaxed concentration, we need fluidity on stick and rudder and throttle and judgment. Sam liked to say that we are surgeons operating on our own body, in a cramped bumpy operating theatre hurtling at 360 knots indicated.

Ray Nitschke

F-4 landing on a carrier.

Like many sports or arts, the physical handling part of flying is far too fast, far too complex for one-thing-at-a-time reasoned thinking and careful consideration. It’s amazing what human fingers can do. A skilled pianist can produce finger movements at rates faster than visual reaction times. Over extended passages they can play 30 sequential notes per second. Humans can operate blindingly fast, the proof is seen in the first serve in professional tennis, a major league baseball fast-ball, or almost any play in ice hockey. Science has known for a while that there must be other modes of skilled human operation in addition to serial executive commands from the conscious mind. Famous psychologists David Rumelhart and Don Norman studied the problem back in the early 1980’s using the problem of typing. Yep, typing! World champion typists can type at rates up to 200 words per minute, so the average interval between keystrokes is only 60 milliseconds. That is close to the neural transmission time between the spinal cord and the fingers. Our 2 hands each have 10 fingers with 3 joints, and some of those joints have two degrees of freedom. And each hand is on a complex wrist and forearm assembly. Using computer simulation and several models of control schemata they replicated many of the characteristics of human typing — only by invoking multiple motor control programs that were distributed locally rather than running everything through a single central control program. They concluded that the skilled high-speed motor control system carries out its computations locally and in parallel (Rumelhart & Norman, 1982). Many people know this as ‘muscle memory’, but it’s fascinating to know that local control of skilled human movement is really carried out not by the central brain, but by many processes happening all over the body. How we control these unconscious processes is a major part of the inner art of skilled performance.

In the book Competing in Gliders, champions Leo and Ricky Brigliadori include this diagram; what they call the route to knowledge:

Training Process

The first stage is thinking we can do something, but it is in fact too complex to just see someone do it, jump in the cockpit and do it yourself. The second stage is leaning how it’s done but still not being very good at it. The third stage is being good at the task, but still having to think about it. After much practice, it is possible to enter the last stage, unconscious competence. They write:

It will be as if we had acquired a second nature, we shall be similar to a real bird. After all, have you ever asked yourself what decision-making process a bird carries out? …. Its nature, its intuition does the thinking. (Brigliadori & Brigliadori, 2009)

In the flare you directly control pitch, yaw, roll and thrust to manage airspeed, angle of attack, descent rate, horizontal, vertical and lateral orientation against changing winds and aerodynamic states, all this movement referenced against a fixed point in space that is the very solid runway. Hands and feet are all dancing. In the time it takes to say it, to think it through, you have flared and landed. How much rudder? Whatever it takes. How much stick pressure? Whatever it takes. Right now. So how do we best manage these multiple instant demands? How do we control the body that is run by programs outside the conscious brain? We enter what sports psychologists call the zone.

You are completely focused, tuned in, switched on, super alive, in the tunnel, or as it is most universally known, in the zone. Tennis champion Billie Jean King says it is a perfect combination of “violent action taking place in an atmosphere of total tranquility.” World downhill-skiing record breaker Steve McKinney knows it as “the middle path of stillness within speed, calmness within fear.” Golf great Gary Player credits dedication and hard sweat, telling a pair of sport psychologists in an interview that:

I have been in ‘the zone' on a number of occasions. I remember one time in particular, I reached the 18th hole and I did not know what the score was. The only thinking going on at that time was thinking about what was at hand. (Barrell & Ryback, 2008)

While the degreed psychologists standing to the side of the sports star have a good appreciation of the zone, we should know that there is a much older, more complete, deeper knowledge of the zone. Samurai swordmasters studied this as a matter or life or death for centuries. The zone is another place where ancient wisdoms, modern psychology, martial arts and flying airplanes meet.

Two old wise Samurai facing each other with swords will be perfectly still. Waiting for the other to move, to signal an attack. An attack that can be countered by an instantaneous reaction. The observer sees nothing. Two men motionless. For a long long time. We notice not a thing. Then a flash of blade and there is a winner. The master saw a weakness, saw an opening, and moved faster than the other could hope to correct. As a pilot we must become as the Samurai. Sitting still in the cockpit. Waiting for the change. Waiting for the slight movement. Waiting for the gust of wind. And reacting faster than thought to pick up the wing and land straight.

Four hundred years ago, the legendary Rinzai Zen Buddhist priest and swordsman Takuan Soho said:

The mind must always be in the state of ‘flowing,’ for when it stops anywhere that means the flow is interrupted and it is this interruption that is injurious to the well-being of the mind. In the case of the swordsman, it means death. When the swordsman stands against his opponent, he is not to think of the opponent, nor of himself, nor of his enemy’s sword movements. He just stands there with his sword which, forgetful of all technique, is ready only to follow the dictates of the subconscious. The man has effaced himself as the wielder of the sword. When he strikes, it is not the man but the sword in the hand of the man’s subconscious that strikes. (Soho, 1986.)

Zen calls this mental-state mushin (無心), which can be translated as no-mind-ness. The zone is the unfettered mind of ‘samadhi’, a state where you are not thinking about next week’s union contract negotiations or a pretty girl’s nasty comment about your beer belly last night, but your mind and body are one with the moment. Power to idle, touch of rudder, flare the plane and land.

In the movie Top Gun — that cheesy classic where a maverick learns a lesson and becomes the teacher, told with fighter jets and hot chicks — Tom Cruise’s character is an instinctive flyer. He wins a training dogfight by trusting his inner game, and going against the book. In a tense debriefing room scene the civilian instructor Charlie asks, “The MIG has you in his gunsight. What were you thinking at this point?” Maverick famously says, “You don’t have time to think up there. If you think, you’re dead.”

There is more to this than movies. The zone is not just a perceptual idea, it is an actual real state of the brain. Neurological studies of people experiencing the zone show that the brain expends less energy when they are in harmony than when they are wrestling with a problem. One reason seems to be that the parts of the brain most relevant for the task at hand are most active, and those that are irrelevant are relatively quiet (Goleman, 1992). EEG brainwave scans have shown calm states in athletes that report being in the zone. Sean McCann, a sports psychologist at the United States Olympic Committee headquarters, has experimented with several biofeedback machines. He reports success using EEG feedback from the frontal lobes of the brain (Lawson, 2000).

Professor Dan Landers, when he was at Arizona State University, found that with EEG feedback he can teach athletes to improve their performance. Brain-imaging research at Syracuse University recently found that when athletes relived an in-the-zone performance there was greater activity in parts of the brain that control coordination, while other brain areas became less active. This is the physical process that allows mental focus and precision performance. James Austin, M.D., is a neurology researcher who has extensively studied Zen. His neurological explanation is that “long years of authentic Zen training cultivate brisk, fluid actions arising from liberated sensorimotot pathways [in the brain], not navel-gazing apathy or metaphysical speculation” (Austin, 2009). And yes, there has been some research on pilots, including United States Air Force bomber crews wired up while flying simulators and airplanes to allow study of the human factors associated with pilot error. (Sterman & Mann, 1994; Sterman et al., 1995) This work is still at an early stage. EEG readings are usually studied for people with problems, and using them to study virtuoso pilots is still in its infancy.

Being in the zone can be described in many words. Sometimes people use the term ‘ecstasy’. It really does feel that good. The word is also appropriate as in Greek ‘ecstasy’ meant literally ‘to stand to the side’. It can happen when full concentration on the task rather than thinking about the self flows you into the sunshine of the endless sky. Let yourself stand aside, then let your whole body and brain and soul fly in ecstasy. In a magic moment of letting go that is somewhere between a sneeze and an orgasm.

Ray Nitschke

Ray Nitschke.

Ray Nitschke spent 15 years as the hard hitting middle linebacker for the Green Bay Packers, a career with coach Vince Lombardi that included winning the first two Super Bowls. In an interview he said that:

When I was in the zone, I got completely involved with whatever I was doing. It could have been in practice, the game, or whatever. At this time, I never heard the crowd. I felt relaxed, and in control, tranquil, and intense. I was ready for anything. (Barrell & Ryback, 2008.)

Jill Fredston has rowed twenty thousand miles of Arctic waters in a one-man boat. She described how it feels inside that little boat when a lifetime of practice comes together:

It is a sensation of being completely connected and disconnected in the same moment, a feeling of pure harmony an symmetry. It happens when my oars are just extensions of my arms and my legs seem to grow out of the boat. I am not consciously working or thinking in any disciplined way. The boat flows. I am a marionette, the boat is part of me, the water is air, the journey the ultimate magic carpet ride. Or maybe I am the boat — its heart, its motor, its spirit. My legs are pistons, I could row forever. (Fredston, 2001.)

Patty Wagstaff, who won the U.S. aerobatic championship three years in a row, tells on the zone in this way:

When people ask if I get frightened, I shake my head. “No” is the simple answer. The more complex, and unspoken, response is that in the air, I let myself go. It is cosmic, a Zen mode. I don’t think about anything but symmetry and dancing, lines and pirouettes. I indulge myself.

Patty Wagstaff

Patty Wagstaff.

Sam told students to stretch out your fingertips, your feelings, your awareness as far you can. Reach out and gently touch a glistening web of life that may be impossible to feel but is big and strong and real. It seemed crazy talk, but champion after champion talks about seemingly crazy stuff.Neil Williams won the British Aerobatic Championship eleven times, and he wrote, “there is no time to think of the handling of the aircraft; this must be automatic. One is not conscious of physical discomfort, such is the level of concentration.” George Moffat, who won the National Soaring Competition five times and the World Soaring Competition twice, says that when he is in the zone, “it almost seems unfair [to other competitors], as though another self, intuition, has taken over. — Wing Commander Bob Doe, one of the highest scoring ace’s in the Battle of Britain, said, “you’re not flying an aeroplane, you’ve got wings on your back. You are just flying. It’s a dream. It’s the most wonderful sensation I have ever known.”

Sam said in the zone you are feeling invisible lines of multi-dimensional energy, ripples and vibrations that intimately connect the multiverses and this universe. Strings that can be felt through astral and causal dimensions. None of this stuff has been seen by science. But elite pilots might just be this connected. Captain Rob Graeter, a USAF F-15 pilot and Aggressor instructor, describing one of his Gulf War air-to-air victories says, “you kind of drop into auto mode, where all the training you’ve done for so many years kicks in and you proceed almost subconsciously.” Captain Steve Robbins, another F-15 pilot and Fighter Weapons School instructor, recalls evading a surface-to-air missile: “your mind is on a different plane…. It’s so receptive to input that the normal time frame is slowed down.”


So what can we do to encourage this Inner Game? Totally intuitive action can not be forced, but it can be helped. We can set the stage for the zone. Sam put it this way, “you do not produce it, you discover it.” He believed that you passed through knowledge to simplicity, passed from book to brain to being. The steps we have already talked about bring you close, and then you have to let go. Allow the plane to fly. Visualize the path in the sky, note the configurations and airspeeds desired, see the wind. But you must reach a point where you let go and just fly. I noticed when flying as an airline pilot during the week, while meeting with Sam on weekends, my best landings were off a low ceiling IFR approach in gusty crosswinds with other weather or operational factors. By the time I flared I was so one with the plane that I just flared and landed. My concentration was complete.

Birds flying

To get good landings under normal conditions I would try to concentrate as hard on all the details as I could. Set up defined gates, places in the sky where I had to be at a certain airspeed plus five minus zero knots. Accept nothing other than right on the middle of the centerline. And with this I could sometimes enter the zone and just let my hands and feet fly the airplane as only they can. Mushin. I was watching, ready for a go-around should a runway incursion or somesuch happen, but I was trusting the Inner Game. I was not the first to discover that it takes a lot of initial effort and practice to be effortless.

The smoothness and control you can achieve with this technique is quite remarkable. You are not longer thumping the controls around, holding onto the yoke with a death-grip forceful enough to impress new finger marks on the back. You do not force things, you do not drive against the grain. Rather than a bull, you are a bird. You are using just enough effort to get the job done, what is called basal effort or optimal tonus. And with this gentle effort you can feel the airplane, you can feel the wind. A light touch on the controls works wonders. You are now graceful pilot, grooving with gravity.

There’s nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do it hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.

Johann Sebastian Bach

The management of a flying machine should become as instinctive as the balancing movements a man unconsciously employs with every step in walking.

Wilbur Wright

You’re not flying it, it’s a part of you.

Mike Goulian

Certain contents issue from a psyche that is more compete than consciousness. They often contain a superior analysis or insight or knowledge which consciousness has not been able to produce. We have a suitable word for such occurrences — intuition

Carl Jung

You just start getting on a roll. Everything that you do is working.… It’s like you can do anything, you can take your time, you say anything to people, you seem to be just like you’re on a playground all by yourself.

Michael Jordan

During the race I felt like I wasn’t even moving fast. It felt like a comfortable jog around the track. It was easy; there was no struggle, and I felt a floating quality to the race … almost like I was in slow motion. I felt like I had been in that race in Stuttgart in those weather conditions in my mind already. I looked up and couldn’t believe my time…. It didn’t feel like a world record.

Danny Everett

When I’m in this state everything is pure, vividly clear. I’m in a cocoon of concentration. And if I can put myself into that cocoon, I’m invincible….  I’m living fully in the present. I’m absolutely engaged, involved in what I’m doing…. It comes and it goes, and the pure fact that you are out on the first tee of a tournament and say, “I must concentrate today,” is no good.  It won’t work.

Tony Jacklin

you’re involved in the action and vaguely aware of it — your focus is not on the commotion but on the opportunity ahead. I’d liken it to a sense of reverie … the insulated state a musician achieves in a great performance … not just mechanical, not only spiritual; something of both, on a different plane and a more remote one.

Arnold Palmer

The soaring became effortless as I forgot about the bank angle, airspeed, flap settings, speed-to-fly calculations, rate of climb and G-force leaving only the air around the plane…. Without any conscious effort, my body, my mind and the ship flowed into the lift, meeting it at just the right speed and bank and configuration. I was truly soaring.

Marc Arnold

I played the whole game in a trance…. I felt I could dribble through their whole team, almost pass through them physically.


All is empty, clear, revealed effortlessly, naturally. Neither thinking nor imagination can ever reach this state.

Master Seng-ts'an

When I’m really concentrating, I would say it’s almost like I’m playing uncounscious.

Tony Meola

Everything goes by in slow motion. Your swing feels like it’s in slow motion, it seems like you’ve for forever, timewise, to make a decision. you’re at peace with yourself. You never second guess when you pull out a club. Your hand goes automatically to the right club. There’s never an in-between yardage. It’s the most singular experience any athlete could ever have.

Greg Norman

When you’re in the zone no one can even get close.

Jeremy McGrath

Through preparation and hard work, you can prepare yourself for a mental attitude — a 'zone.' When it happens, all you see is the ball and the hole.

Payne Stewart

In the zone, everything is in slow motion. I can slow the ball down and almost stop it…. I can hear the ball and see the seams. I know what the pitcher is going to throw. I am relaxed and focused on a good smooth swing. I am very quiet 'inside.'

Ken Griffey, Sr.

You’re right in the work, you lose your sense of time, you’re completely enraptured, you’re completely caught up in what you’re doing.… There’s no future or past, it’s just an extended present in which you’re making meaning.

Mark Strand

People ask from time to time if we were scared or afraid…. That word, scared or afraid, I guess if you allow that to grab hold of you, it paralyzes your ability to think clearly…. En route to the Moon, not much is happening, but you’re thinking, what should I be ready to do if things go wrong? … Give me clarity of thought. Give me the unfettered mind to be ready to react, to respond.

Buzz Aldrin

Fear is not real, it is a product of thoughts you create. Do not misunderstand me; danger is very real. But fear is a choice.

Will Smith

The body moves naturally, automatically, without any personal intervention. If you think too much, your actions become slow and hesitant. When questions arise, the mind tires; consciousness flickers and wavers like a candle flame in the breeze.

Taisen Deshimaru

I felt as though I was actually creating the music as it went along, able to do anything that I wanted to do…. It was like riding a wave or being in a groove. I felt a profound happiness.

Carter Brey

In all activities of life, the secret of efficiency lies in an ability to combine two seemingly incompatible states: A state of maximum activity and a state of maximum relaxation.

Aldous Huxley

The less effort, the faster and more powerful you will be.

Bruce Lee

When I play my best golf, I feel as if I’m … standing back watching the earth in orbit with a golf club in my hands.

Mickey Wright

Don’t play the saxophone. Let it play you.

Charlie Parker

There are moments of glory that go beyond the human expectation, beyond the physical and emotional ability of the individual. something unexplainable takes over and breathes life into the known life. One stands on the threshold of miracles that one cannot create voluntarily.

Patsy Neal

The focus and the concentration and the attention to detail that flying takes is a kind of meditation. I find it restful and engaging, and other things slip away.

Harrison Ford

I can almost feel it coming. I am able to transport myself beyond the turmoil of the court to some place of total peace and calm. I know where the ball is on every shot and it looks as big as a basketball.

Billie Jean King

I felt like I was floating in cruise control, as if other energies had taken over. Reflexes were at work but my body had given itself over to a perfect oneness of mind, body and spirit. I was dancing to an inner rhythm with everything.

Evonne Goolagong Cawlay

You lose track of the time, what quarter it is. You don’t hear the crowd. You don’t know how many points you have. You don’t think. you’re just playing. Offensively everything is instinctive. When the feeling starts going away, it’s terrible. I talk to myself and say, C'mon, you gotta be more aggressive. That’s when you know it’s gone. It’s not instinctive anymore.

Ben Gordan

It’s like an out-of-body experience, like you’re watching yourself. You almost feel like you don’t even see the defense. Every move you make, you feel, God, that guy is slow. you’re going by people. You don’t even hear the regular noise you hear. It’s muffled. You go to practice the next day, and you say, 'God, why can’t I do that every night?' Guys have wanted to bottle that feeling.

Joe Dumars

As your faith is strengthened you will find that there is no longer the need to have a sense of control, that things will flow as they will, and that you will flow with them, to your great delight and benefit.

Immanuel Teney

The true pilot will attempt to master his craft; to treat it like art. The perfectly executed approach, the crisp aileron roll, the precise altitude control are all components of a larger palette. The artisan pilot must do all those things in a way that is so smooth and deliberate that it not only seems effortless, it feels effortless. It is not enough to fly to Practical Test Standards, you must strive to do it in a way that suggests man and machine have coalesced into one being.

Brent Owens
The Pilot’s Manifesto

The real trick in prosecuting a successful attack lies in the ability of the pilot to visualize what is going to take place and then to follow the script. The more experienced you become, the more flying seems to be a matter of acknowledging the accomplishment of a preconceived set of milestones. It’s what I referred to as my 'automatic mode' where, as I entered the target area, I felt myself withdraw from the immediate tasks at hand and assume a monitor role. I became aware of the feel of the stick grip beneath my gloves. I heard myself breathe. At some point, the airplane became an extension of my body and, for a magic few moments, I was at one with my surroundings.

John Trotti
Phantom Over Vietnam: Fighter Pilot, USMC

When I am in the zone, my perception of time both speeds up and slows down simultaneously. Actions that would take minutes can be done in seconds; second-long tasks are completed in fractions of seconds. I am flying my jet, operating its systems, doing the routine tasks of aviation without conscious effort. It feels as if my central nervous system is plugged directly into the Phantom’s flight controls. In normal time, if I want to climb or turn, I manipulate the stick, rudder, and throttle to accomplish the desired maneuver. In the zone, I need only to think about where the jet and I need to be and we go there. My hands on the throttles and stick need no commands; my brain’s inputs go straight to the engines and control surfaces. The jet and I are one living organism with a single purpose, to fly, to fight, and to win.

While time is speeding up in the physical world, it is slowing down in the mental realm, when I am in the zone. Relieved of the requirements to think about flying the jet, my mind is free to contemplate information about the spatial relationships between all the friendly aircraft, our location, the fuel state, and where we are in the world. I am planning action based on when and where I think the MiG’s will appear. I need to be ready for anything and I have the mental time to prepare for everything.

This is the scenario and all its alternatives that I ran and reran in my head last night when I was supposed to be sleeping. The night before a big mission such as today’s is a waste of time for sleep. I laid awake for hours visualizing the mission and every conceivable option and preparing for every eventuality, I hope.

Ed Cobleigh
War For The Hell Of It: A Fighter Pilot’s View of Vietnam

When you are really driving well and get into the rhythm of driving a racing car, you feel your whole body is integrated with the car. You get into a rhythm of braking and changing gears automatically so that you do not really have to think about them…. You are married to that rhythm like a great musician to his instrument. You are as one with the car. This rhythm is an ethereal thing. It is this nebulous quality, this total unity with a car at speed, that when carried to its ultimate, sets apart great racing drivers from drivers who race.

It is that mastery of technique, that flair and harmonious rhythm, that oneness with a complex instrument, that composes the art of motor racing.

Emerson Fittipaldi
The Art of Motor Racing

Always, there was the quick, unanticipated move. It all took place in a timeless frontier, in fractional divisions of moments unrecallable, as Ben fed on the noise of the crowd, the plankton of applause as he drove and passed and shot, as the lungs strained, as the heart thundered, and as the father watched. On the court, the court he loved, the court he ruled at times, Ben felt disembodied, running to the point of exhaustion, but felt more alive and more human than he would ever be again. Every pore was open to the action swirling around him, every vibration, every stirring, every cheer, every carnivorous roar. The basketball was a part of him, an extension of him because of the long years of dribbling around trees, through chairs, down sidewalks, past brothers, away from dogs, past store windows, and before the eyes of men and woman who thought his fixation was demented at best. But he had lived with the basketball, had paid his dues, and could now exult in this one small skill of boyhood. This sport in all its absurdity did a special thing for Ben Meecham: it made him happy. The court was a testing ground of purpose. There was a reason. There were goals, rewards, and instant punishment for failure. It was life reduced to a set of rules, an existential life.

Pat Conroy
The Great Santini

His pleasure was only disturbed by his row not being well cut. “I will swing less with my arm and more with my whole body,” he thought, comparing Titus’s row, which looked as if it had been cut with a line, with his own unevenly and irregularly scattered grass…. He thought of nothing, wished for nothing, but not to be left behind the peasants, and to do his work as well as possible. He heard nothing but the swish of scythes, and saw before him Titus’s upright figure moving away, the crescent-shaped curve of cut grass, the grass and flower heads slowly and rhythmically falling before the blade of his scythe…. Levin lost all sense of time, and could not have told whether it was late or early now. A change began to come over his work, which gave him immense satisfaction. In the midst of his toil there were moments during which he forgot what he was doing, and it came easy to him, and at those same moments his row was almost as smooth and well cut as Titus’s. But as soon as he recollected what he was doing, and began trying to do better, he was at once conscious of the difficulty of his task, and the row was badly mown…. The old man, holding himself erect, moved in front, with his feet turned out, taking long, regular strides, and with a precise and regular action which seemed to cost him no more effort than swinging one’s arms in walking, as though it were in play, he laid the grass in the high, even rows. It was as though it was not he but the sharp scythe itself that was swishing through the juicy grass…. and more and more often now came those moments of unconsciousness, when it was possible not to think of what one was doing. The scythe cut itself. These were happy moments.

Leo Tolstoy
Anna Karenina

All our preparation in music is designed to make our instincts more reliable, our execution more free. Gut-level playing is mastery born from a lifetime of discipline and thought. The more you think, analyze, study, practice, the stronger you internalize the natural flow of music. You are free to think less when on the bandstand and trust your feelings more.

Randy Napoleon
Describing how jazz is made to 'Psychology Today'.

The crowd gets quiet, and the moment starts to become the moment for me … that’s part of that Zen Buddhism stuff. Once you get into the moment, you know when you are there. Things start to move slowly, you start to see the court very well. You start reading what the defense is trying to do.

Michael Jordan
After making the game-winning shot to clinch the 1998 championship, his sixth.

When you get in that zone, it’s just a supreme confidence that you know it’s going in. It’s not a matter of if it’s going in… . Everything slows down. You just have supreme confidence. When that happens, you really do not try to focus on what’s going on [around you], because you could lose it in a second… . You have to really try to stay in the present, not let anything break that rhythm… . You get in the zone and just try to stay here. You don’t think about your surroundings, or what’s going on with the crowd or the team. You’re kind of locked in.

Kobe Bryant
Five-time world champion, on his 81-point game in 2006.

The power goes beyond that which can be defined as physical or mental. The performance almost becomes a holy place — where spiritual awakening seems to take place. The individual becomes swept up in the action around her — she almost floats through the performance, drawing on forces, drawing on forces she has never previously been aware of.

Patsy Neal
Sport and Identity

In the sport of rowing there’s a revered, almost-mythic state when the crew operates as a unified front, the strokes of the oars on both sides matched in force and technique, the rowers in a kind of perfection, where time melts away as the shell glides across the water with majestic speed. Rowers call this state swing.

David Zweig
Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion

You learn to trust your self-control. By and by, your attention become so intensely focused that you no longer notice the raw knuckles, the cramping thighs, the strain of maintaining nonstop concentration. A trance-like state settles over your efforts; the climb becomes a clear-eyed dream. Hours slide by like minutes. The accrued guilt and clutter of day-to-day existence — the lapses of conscience, the unpaid bills, the bungled opportunities, the dust under the couch, the inescapable prison of your genes — all of it is temporarily forgotten, crowded from your thoughts by an overpowering clarity of purpose by the seriousness of the task at hand.

Jon Krakauer
Into the Wild

If this stillness was the ultimate end of action, then the sky about me, the clouds far below, the sea gleaming between the clouds, even the setting sun, might well be events, things, within myself. At this distance from the earth, intellectual adventure and physical adventure could join hands without the slightest difficulty. This was the point that I had always been striving towards.

Yukio Mushima
Describing a ride in a F-104.
Sun and Steel