If you are reading this article, you are breathing. Interestingly, the majority of us take this subtle automatic action for granted. Why not? Breathing is regulated by our autonomic nervous system. This means it happens without our conscious awareness. This is probably fortunate because in competition, many of us would be too busy to remember to breathe and would forget! Another unique aspect of our breath, largely unknown by most athletes, is that by bringing your awareness to your breath, it will calm you and help to reach that state of mind where you are focused and centered.
Our mind is usually in two places: The past and the future. When our mind is in the past, we are usually conjuring up thoughts, feelings and images of memories that have stayed with us. An example might be thinking about a missed shot from a previous game, set or even weeks ago. When our mind is in the future, we are usually focused on expectations of what we think is going to happen. An example would be thinking about winning the match when it is 5-2 in the third set. How many of us have done that only to lose the set? Both of these scenarios are mental traps for the athlete, as both scenarios fall into the realm of what an athlete cannot control. An athlete can only control what is presently happening, therefore focusing on the present moment and point is imperative.
Fortunately, our body and breath are always in the present. It is said that the “present” is named as such because being in the present is like a gift. The breath is one of the greatest gifts we have. When this tool is used properly in sports, it can serve as an anchor, helping us to stay centered and focused. Simply bringing our attention to the natural rhythm of our breath serves to distract us from stressful situations and focus our minds. Try this experiment. Ask yourself, “Am I breathing?” Sit silently for 30 sec. and notice what happens.
When you are focusing on something that you cannot control, such as winning or losing; what your friends, coach or parents are thinking; the weather conditions; or a future expectation, be aware that your focus is not in the present. Your focus is clearly on something out of your control (past or future). Center yourself by focusing your awareness back to your breath. While it cannot guarantee that you win the next point, you will have separated from the previous stress, centered yourself and given yourself the chance to calmly process what your next steps may be. In doing so, you have put yourself in the best possible mindset and have, consequently, prepared yourself for the next point as best you can. Tennis great Billie Jean King, in her book, Pressure is a Privilege, says, “I cannot emphasize enough how big I am on using breathing exercises to stay in the process, whether my goal is winning a match or completing another task … this calms me down, relaxes me and makes me feel secure.”
The following three breathing practices can be used to guide you to stay centered, focused and in a state of calm awareness. Practice them off the court for a few minutes each day. Then, use the one that feels best for you between points, games, or any time you find yourself losing focus. You can even use different breathing practices for different situations.
The object here is to bring your attention to your natural breathing, wherever it is at the present moment. Just being aware of one of the following senses: Sight, sound, feel or rhythm. How does your breath sound? How does it feel? Notice its rhythm at that particular moment. Don’t try to change anything or judge it. Just observe its natural organic pace. You may even prompt yourself by asking, “Am I breathing?” What you will usually notice after five or 10 sec. is that your breath will slow and you will become centered and calmer.
Word association breathing
As you breathe in, say to yourself the word “Relaxation” and imagine what it would “feel” like to be relaxed. Then, exhale and feel what it would be like to lose your stress and frustration. You may make up your own words to suit the situation, however, the key is to inhale what you want and exhale what you hope to rid yourself of.
The object here is to breathe to an established rhythm that feels best for you. What’s important with this exercise is that you find a pattern that works for you and stick to it. Try inhaling to the count of three, then holding your breath for two counts, and then exhale to the count of four beats. In fact, you may have a different pattern for different situations. Have fun with it.
Whichever breathing practice you are using, once you are centered with a soft focus on your breath, allow your attention to expand and take in everything around you. Be aware of sounds, sights and even thoughts as they pass by. Metaphorically, this breathing practice is similar to the eye of a hurricane … you are calm on the inside, but very active on the outside. Jim Courier once stated after he beat Marat Safin in an epic Davis Cup deciding tie match, “It was weird, I felt like I was in a hurricane, I was still on the inside, but acutely aware of everything that was going on around me.” This will allow you to calmly respond to the situation in front of you.
Incorporating these breathing practices between points, prior to a match, in the morning before you start your day, or any time you feel stress will help you approach a situation in a calmer, instinctual and more aware state, rather than being tight and reactive. In this state, you will be ready to respond to the situation versus spiraling downward with distracting self-talk and expectations. Using your breath, you have the ability to harness its calming power by staying focused and in the present moment.
Rob Polishook, MA, CPC is the founder of Inside the Zone Sports Performance Group. As a mental training coach, he works with athletes helping them to unleash their mental edge through mindfulness, somatic psychology and mental training skills. Rob is author of 2 best selling books: Tennis Inside the Zone and Baseball Inside the Zone: Mental Training Workouts for Champions. He can be reached by phone at (973) 723-0314, by e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, by visiting insidethezone.com, or following on Instagram @insidethezone.