Friday, May 28, 2010

Getting into the Zone

As the 32 World Cup squads are finalised, the weight of neurotic speculation from fans and media pundits has shifted from which players will go to which teams will win. I'm not above such speculation, and will cast more specific oracles of my own closer to the games, but right now, as in The Gods are Feeling Cheeky, I'm interested more in the question than the answer. What factors will decide?

My general thesis (well, it's hardly mine, but I've adopted it) is that different conditions make for different winners, and that furthermore South Africa will present us with new conditions that will throw the order of things in ways we can't yet see.

The factor of fate, 'the gods', or in the vernacular, luck, is a constant in every competition, and nobody can tell us what it will decree or why. So far the gods are working for Australia. The latest is that Essien is officially out of Ghana's squad, which makes Ghana a much less formidable proposition. Think of the Greek army against the Trojans when Achilles stayed in his tent and you get the idea. We cannot trust the gods of course, and should almost expect a counter-attack in our own camp. Pray that Athena is personally guarding and tending Harry Kewell.

One condition I haven't mentioned is that Australia was the first outside team in South Africa, nearly three weeks before the game with Germany. Germany arrives five days before the game. Acclimatisation is always an important factor, and with the rarity of a winter (Southern Hemisphere) competition, Australia doesn't have as much of it to do anyway. We come from approximately the same latitude. Another thing in our favour is the Socceroos are probably the most experienced at working in varying conditions in between travel than any team in the World. The Socceroos do away games in utterly different environments throughout Asia, as a matter of routine. Even the A-League, I should add, has our local teams routinely engaged in long distance travel between a variety of climates. Travel and hacking difference should continue to be a strength of our team.

But that's all just catch up. I want to get to the real point here. The coalface of the actual outcome (who gets goals and points) happens in the stadiums between whistle blows, with no other than the 2x11 blokes on the field. And once the whistle blows, and all the training, luck and conditions have come together in a single constellation that we shall call a moment, the game will be won or lost in the minds of those players on the field. In short it will all be about to what extent those players, every one of whom are capable of brilliance some of the time, can "be in the zone," right then, in exactly those (90 minutes of changing) conditions.

As individuals they need to find the zone and, even more mysteriously, they need to find a collective zone, where the team approximates a single mind. But I'll make a feeble attempt only to explain what I mean about the individual.

What is 'the zone'? I'm assuming a bit that readers kind of 'know what I mean', especially those who've played sport or maintained motorcycles, but I'll have a go at elaborating for the exercise.

Brains are plastic things and the zone is constructed in years of training. There was a study done on London taxi drivers (distinctive in that they are required to know the streets of London before they can get a cab license) which showed that their brains physically grew, and that what grew about them was the neurological database of London streets and the ability to know which was the best way from one of them to another. When you think about it it's an enormous task, but I think it's fair to say all of us develop software packages according to what we do. For myself, since dealing with books, I think my bibliographical brain has increased in capacity, sort of a recallable, efficient, store of authors, titles, publishers and other details that would give the impression that I actually have a good memory, which generally I don't.

A language is clearly a distinct package of software in our brains which can be developed to varying degrees and accessed at will. Musicians, dancers and soccer players, who dedicate a large portion of their childhood to practice, must, I think, develop a formidable neorological equipment dedicated to nothing but their craft. They also develop a capacity to access that software, even when they don't feel great or when things are distracting.

But as with language or playing the ukelele, the trick is to have the software working with no conscious interference. Most of us who have been driving a long time know the moment of arrival when you simply can't remember the journey because you were thinking about something else. It's like with enough practice you can put your body on automatic with just a watching brief for your conscious mind. Call it the sound of one hand clapping if you like. Every striker just like every golfer and archer knows that at the moment you strike, your brain cannot be interfering at all. Your body knows best, just as it knows best when to next make a beat of the heart.

But the soccer player cannot rehearse everything like a musician or dancer, and neither does he have the luxury of pause and poise that the archer and golfer has. Maybe he's a bit more like the driver in traffic, though in a far more challenging and difficult environment, and with the grossly difficult factor of an opposition.

I've heard soccer players say they can't remember anything about a goal except the ball hitting the net. In my forays into amateur sport I know that my own neorological and physical equipment, even barely trained, can, if I can find 'the zone', work brilliantly. A pro is someone so well trained that he can find it most of the time. Meanwhile, the greater mystery of the collective zone of a team, however non-understood, will then be the decisive factor.

In a way, when Pim says he's happy with his system but there's more work to do, he's saying that the team hasn't yet developed the personal and team software for the system to really work. With three weeks he's confident he can achieve that with them, and we must wish him luck.

There's no question that everyone on the Australian team can play football very well. When the whistle blows on the 13th June they will either enter a zone better than the German team or not. If they don't, as they didn't really on Monday night against New Zealand, they will lose. If they do, and the relative German inexperience (at international level, together) fails to do so, we will win. An important point behind all this raving is that when the game is on, all the history and statistics are playing zero part. What's happening is only what's happening right now, under these conditions.

That 90 minutes between Australia and Germany, like many 90 minute periods in South Africa, is going to be a very interesting 'right now'. Inherently, there's nothing predictable about it at all.

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