Our ancient ancestors believed that sports were a gift of the gods—that they were potent rituals, which, if performed correctly, would placate unseen powers, honor departed heroes, or improve the harvests. Today, sports still speak to deep yearnings, imaginings, and the irreducible need people feel to resonate with themselves and their world. But the hidden meaning, or "secret life," that lies at the heart of sports and gives them their force and magic goes largely unnoticed. The old baseball hand Wes Westrum once said, "Baseball is like church. Many attend, but few understand"—and the same could be said for sports in general.
In Playing in the Zone, Andrew Cooper explores this inner dimension of sports, drawing on mythology, the history of religion, his observations on popular culture, and a wonderful array of stories and anecdotes about the world's most accomplished athletes.
The author—a clinical psychologist and longtime Zen student—compares the intense focus of the mind that is often required in spiritual practice with the experience of "playing in the zone"—that quality of mind where the most remarkable athletic feats seem to occur effortlessly. He explores the "dark side" of sports, its brutality and violence, showing how it can also provide fertile ground for self-awareness and self-transformation. Particularly insightful is the author's discussion of how the heightened drama of sports offers a powerful vehicle for the expression of mythic imagery and symbols in popular culture.
"As participants and spectators of sports, many of us are aware of those epiphanies in which a sporting activity or event seems to go beyond the basic play-by-play to a higher dimension or spiritual level. In these experiences, everything comes together in a flow, and the activity itself takes on a religious or mythic experience. Andrew Cooper's Playing in the Zone is a wonderful exploration of this secret life of sports.
"Without attempting to be systematic and comprehensive to its subject, Cooper's essay admiringly brings together many sources from psychology, religion, philosophy, and sports to investigate the higher attractions of sports for both those who play and those who watch. Sports is a sphere similar to myth, according to Cooper, in which meanings and connections are established between our everyday life and a deeper dimension where "the self is forgotten and experience is displayed in its primal power and pristine clarity."
"Playing in the Zone is most entertaining in bringing together descriptions offered by professional athletes such as Bill Russell, Billie Jean King, and Pelé of their playing experiences. But Cooper also synthesizes an astonishing array of psychological and historical research into the playing of sports, and successfully demonstrates that most criticism of sports is not aimed at the inner essence of sports but at the surrounding society of which it is part. Playing in the Zone goes a long way towards a deeper comprehension of the diverse meanings of sports, and hopefully will inspire more explorations into this under-researched dimension of our lives."—Michael Emerson, Independent Publisher
"A great book! Playing in the Zone is full of creative insights and unexpected discoveries, reminding us that athletics are spiritual as well as physical."—Bill Bradley, former U.S. senator and inductee in the Basketball Hall of Fame