"At their root, sports are a theater for enacting the drama of self-transcendence. In the zone, the extraordinary capacities that lie within each individual are made manifest. To grasp this hidden dimension is to transform the very meaning of athletic play."
- Andrew Cooper, The Zen of Sports
It seems kicking's inherent capriciousness took human form in one Corey Smith last season, the physical incongruities seemingly trumped only by the mental. A shank here, a pulled punt there. Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat nor gloom of night could stay Smith from his appointed rounds with the kicking demons.
There was the lost starting job before Pitt, the equally offputting performance of back-up Michael Molinari, a reinstatement, and a couple of punts traveling 62 and 57 yards that paved the way for WVU's Backyard Brawl rally. A 32-yard average followed next week at South Florida, then another up-and-down segment in the Orange Bowl.
The physical results epitomized the mental approach.
"A year ago, mentally, I thought I was ok," Smith said. "When we got in game situations, I couldn't turn it on as fast as I wanted to. I would always get in the zone, as athletes say. But I had times when it was a little harder to click into that zone."
Enter special teams guru Joe DeForest, part of his satori being the metaphysical for which Smith strived. Lesson 1A: Focus. Don't think. It can only hurt the ball club.
"Blocking out anything that's irrelevant," Smith said. "The crowd, blocking it out, any external factors that you cannot control. Blocking it out and focusing on two or three things on the field. In reality, that's all that's going to make the difference. Making sure I come up through the ball or where I want my drop to be. It has to be just a few things or else you're going to overload yourself and take your mind off a key point that you need to be focusing on."
Smith has delved into a prescribed reading list,a personal enlightenment quest to finding the zone, the flow, the way. His search, whether he even realizes it, is more for a thorough lack of self-awareness than a striving toward it. Ultimately, what high-level athletes are experiencing, and Smith's eventual goal, is a meshing of deep concentration, highly efficient performance, emotional buoyancy, a heightened sense of mastery, a lack of self-consciousness, and self-transcendence - what professor Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi nutshelled in his book In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience .
There's an instinctive knowledge of the importance of mental preperation, as anybody who's visited a pregame locker room knows. But that too often stops at a surface level, the mere understanding of the schemes, plays, base-level execution. Smith has that; he's attempting the deeper conscious state, the next layer. It's his prep, his reading, his development via engagement of the rehoned physiological. What he could ultimately wrestle with is that it's quite difficult to get into the zone through an act of will. One primarily lays a proverbial groundwork and relies on the foundation to manufacture breadth and depth. And, it seems, Smith's continues to build that.
"I feel good, really good," he said. "I feel like I have gotten stronger, faster maybe. Leg speed, strength and endurence. I think at times at the end of games, my leg would feel a little worn down. Endurance is one thing I want to put more emphasis on so I dont get as tired or fatigued at the end of games."
While trying to define an experience often detracts from it, the thought holds: If Smith can gain even portions of the above, well, there's certainly no reason he can't kick a football adequately. It was evident last season the problem was at least as mental as it was physical. And with DeForest aiding both areas - "Another set of eyes, a guy who knows what he's talking about, who has had proven success with kickers," Smith said - thus far his punter has had as solid a fall camp as could be expected. The question is if it carries to clutch times.
The deck stack leans to a yes. Smith has embraced the negative. He's heard jeers, lost a starting spot, regained it, had addition difficulties. Really, there isn't much more on the football fear docket. Inhibition was floundered with and is in the latter process stages of release, liberation from past self-conditioning underway. It's simpler, then. No force, no fear. Do. Or do not. The try just trips into the attachment monster.
"It's big for your mental aspects," Smith said. "I learned a lot."