I had shared in a recent post a synopsis of a symposium to which I listened at a sport psychology conference, on mental preparation for military readiness. The theme was about the mental strategies to help soldiers “keep their brain in the game” – that is, the mental techniques that help combatants use their thinking brain to analyze situations clearly, adjust effectively to unpredictable demands, and stay balanced emotionally, rather than the defensive brain which is responsible for intense emotions and impulsiveness.
The mental training done to achieve this is surprisingly similar to the type of training an elite athlete would do in order to excel on their field of play. Here are the 5 techniques addressed:
1) Deliberate breathing
2) Pre-plan thinking
5) Attentional control
Let’s cultivate our first tool, deliberate breathing. Simply, relaxing our breathing reduces stress, relieves aches and pains, normalizes blood pressure levels, facilitates healthy flow of oxygen into the brain and the cells of our muscles, and release endorphins. It’s at our disposal over 23,000 times per day. And it’s free! All we’ve got to do is bring our full attention to the nature of our breathing.
Consider the benefits of regulating our breathing rates at varying times as an athlete:
Before competition – it calms the body, reduces the tendency to overthink, and puts us in a relaxed state where we may feel more comfortable actively planning for the match. You can visualize the athlete who, amid swellings of intense anxiety, avoids any kind of preparation so as to escape the discomfort. Breathing brings our anxiety levels down, making it less likely we’ll avoid the pre-competition preparation and more likely we’ll tackle it head on.
During breaks in the action – between points, pitches and plays, a deep breath or two should be a non-negotiable presence in each player’s routine. It forces us to physically slow down and oxygenates our brains for enhanced clarity of thinking & better decision making. We may not have strokes or footwork that mimic the pros, but we sure can – and should – mimic their respiratory patterns!
During the action – this may seem like a surprising one. However often during the action, whether it’s in response to a moving target (hitting a baseball, returning a tennis serve) or a still one (shooting a basketball, throwing a dart), our breathing gets short, or even held. Athletes with poor self-awareness commonly hit shots or throw pitches with contorted faces, or with heavy and abrupt sighing immediately after the task – telltale signs of breath-holding. When our breath is held, our bodies will follow with tension.
The way you think is the way you breathe, and the way you breathe is the way you think. Consciously bringing your breath to a measured, relaxed state will bring your mind to balance and tranquility.