Being in the Zone explores the theme of 'peak experience' or 'being in the zone' in music, sport and work. This project is an AHRC funded Research Network, led by Kath Woodward (OU) and Tim Jordan (King's College London). It involved Dr Wheaton and Dr Caudwell, and collaborations with Exeter, Oxford, King's College, and Canterbury Christ Church.
The phenomenon of individuals or groups who routinely perform creatively achieving a state of extreme competence in a specific performance is well known in psychology, where 'being-in-the-zone' (BITZ) has been studied. Musicians, sportspeople, creative workers and others all repeat certain actions and experiences but occasionally they repeat these actions—playing a clarinet, batting, or software coding—with an unexpected and extremely high level of competence, often beyond the competence the individual thought they were capable of; such experiences are when individuals are 'in the zone'. However, analysis of BITZ has focused on the internal states of individuals and thus underestimated the importance of culture to heightened creative performance and the cultural significance of achieving a personal best. This is particularly important for understanding a commitment to participate in activities that depend critically on 'care of the self' both in relation to body and psyche.
The project ran from August 2012 - March 2014
The main objective of this project derives from the fact that being-in-the-zone has been primarily, if not entirely, analysed from psychology with BITZ understood as an individual experience. Such approaches, most famously that of Csikszentmihalyi, fail to understand or explore the cultural dimensions of being-in-the-zone and in doing so fail to develop key understandings that would lead to improved practices. Culture is important to being-in-the-zone as it is only with culture that the constituent moments of being-in-the-zone make sense. Definitions of competence can only be culturally developed and learned, accordingly without situating the internal psychological experience of being-in-the-zone in a cultural context there will be significant difficulties in understanding this experience, thereby ensuring difficulties in developing practices for engendering it.
The project focussed on this neglected theoretical-practical nexus of culture and bitz across six two-day workshop events. The specific objectives of the workshop related to identifying key cultural factors that contribute to being-in-the-zone in the domain of sporting practices. The discussion included participating in 'competitive' sports such as football and/or tennis, in ‘expressive' sports such as surfing and/or parkour, and participation via the media and fandom. We also looked at developing innovative methodologies for recording creative performance and peak performance, and non-representational methodology that allows comparison across different cultural domains where being-in-the-zone may occur.
The six two-day events were themed on
Each event was overseen by a small group of scholars expert in these areas in consultation with the PI or Co-I.
This research project enhanced our understanding of the possibilities of 'being-in-the-zone'. The collaboration enabled researchers to highlight the specificities and particularities of different empirical fields. We have, in different ways, in cultural work, music and sport, identified the zone as special and in some way involving heightened experience, although it has mundane dimensions too. Likened to a state of grace and of harmony, it is both manifest in elite performances and accessible at more ordinary routine levels. Although competence is often cited as a necessary factor, BITZ is not necessarily the prerogative of those with the highest levels of competence.
Our work raised new questions about individuals and collectivities: agents and structures; musical zones often involve collectivities and group experiences, whereas sport is competitive and whatever the received wisdom about teams, can be very individualistic. The zone is also about resistance and defiance – it is personal and political.
Work relating to the temporalities – including athletes referring to a sense of being lost in time – fed into the Olympic Museum exhibition curated by Kath Woodward (5 June 2014 to 18 January 2015).
Dr Belinda Wheaton
The Sport and ‘Being-in-the-Zone’ event was held on 9th July 2013 at the University of Brighton, (Grand Parade Building).
Project blog and film
Kath Woodward (OU)
Tim Jordan (King's College London)