THE MENTAL-TRAINING PROGRAM FOR WINNING BEFORE THE GAME BEGINS
By JASON SELK
Copyright © 2009 Jason Selk
All right reserved.
Chapter One Centering Breaths Controlling Your Biology
There are five steps in the 10-Minute Toughness mental workout. The steps take varying times to complete depending on the athlete, but each is vital in its own way. Some sport psychologists recommend performing this workout either before going to bed or after waking up in the morning, and that's how some athletes do it. I know of athletes who believe that by performing the steps before bed, they can influence the dream state and thereby become more effective. However, my clients and I have found that the best results are achieved when the workout takes place within sixty minutes prior to every practice or competition.
Solid Foundation of Mental Strength
When I first developed this program, I emphasized game day more than training days. My original goals were to get athletes to use centering breaths, positive self-talk, and visualization in competition. For example, I worked with a promising high school wrestler who had all the requisite raw skills but who suffered from competition anxiety. Before matches, he would get himself so worked up that he would begin to sweat profusely, he would get dizzy, his stomach would hurt, and at times he would even hyper-ventilate. His head was spinning so fast before competition that he had no chance once the match began.
In our first session, I taught him how to use centering breaths and various relaxation techniques to help him control the anxiety he experienced before competition. For two months, we worked on mental skills designed to relax him in competition, but things were not improving for this talented wrestler. With my eye on competition day, I told him to take more centering breaths and to focus more on using his relaxation tools just prior to the start of the match.
Finally I decided to emphasize developing a firm basis of mental strength, more like what a weight-training program does for the body. I came up with a mental- training program that would give this young man a foundation of mental strength so that on competition day, rather than his mind being an obstacle to him, it would be an asset. What he needed was to develop mental toughness in training, as opposed to trying to use mental tools as a Band-Aid during competition.
An analogy illustrates my point. Imagine that you are a baseball player, and it's the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 of the World Series. Visualize yourself as the starting left fielder for your favorite team. You are up to bat with your team behind by one run, with two outs. With teammates at second and third, all you need is to get a base hit, and you and your team will be world champions.
Before the season began, you hired the best track coach in the country to teach you the most effective running techniques. All season, you have been working on your running form, and as you stand in the batter's box, you have all the techniques of running form mastered. There is just one problem: you have not done any strength training for your legs. Although you have the technical tools of running figured out, you have minimal leg strength.
As you face the opposing team's dominant closer, you direct all your energy to getting a hit. On the first pitch, you get your pitch and put a solid swing on it, but you are just a little out in front, and the ball is hit sharply to the third baseman. You realize it is going to be a close play at first, and you hustle out of the batter's box. You focus on your running form and try with all your might to beat the throw, but the leg strength is just not there, and you are thrown out at first.
Now let's take a different training approach for the same situation. It's still the bottom of the ninth of Game 7 of the World Series, with the same score and runners on base. Again, all you need is a base hit to make you and your team world champions.
The difference is that before the season began, you hired a strength coach to help you develop your leg strength and speed, which complemented the work you've done with your track coach. Every day of the season, you have worked diligently at developing the leg strength needed for speed, and as you stand in the batter's box, you are stronger and faster than you have ever been.
As you face the opposing team's dominant closer, you put all your energy into getting a hit. On the first pitch, you see your pitch and put a solid swing on it, but you are just a little out in front, and the ball is hit sharply to the third baseman. You realize it is going to be a close play at first, and as you hustle out of the batter's box, you don't need to think about running fast, because the strength and speed are already there for you. Before you know it, you feel yourself touching first base, and you hear the wild reaction of the crowd. Fans are chanting your name as your teammates cross home plate, and your team wins the game.
While the analogy is a bit dramatic, it is this concept that led me to create a mental-training program fashioned like a concrete, itemized weight-training program. I have found that the athletes who do the 10-MT mental workout every day before practices and games are the ones who then have the mental strength needed for mental control in competition. Even the business executives who follow my mental workout proceed to acquire the tools to better hold their own in the corporate jungle. Once the mental strength is developed, individuals can readily decide what tools to call on for different situations. I no longer concern myself as much with what tools athletes use on game day. I know that if athletes will commit to completing the mental workout as part of their practice routine (a minimum of four days per week during the season), they will effectively begin using their mental tools and strength during competition.
Eventually the wrestler and I figured out that it was best for him to complete the mental workout before practices and strive to develop the mental ability needed to better deal with competition. A couple of years later, the wrestler received a Division I college scholarship for wrestling. He sent me an e-mail after his freshman year and told me he was still doing his mental workout every day before practice. He said his teammates used to laugh and say that when he was doing his mental workout, he was going to his "happy place." After his sterling freshman year, though, those same teammates who were once laughing at him asked him to teach them how to do the mental workout so they could get to their happy place.
Pressure Is More than Butterflies
Athletes at all levels experience pressure during competition. Feeling nervous is a biological inevitability, whether a player is standing on a free-throw line, a pitching rubber, or the fairway of a golf course. This anticipation—or what is often referred to as "a case of the butterflies"—is natural and can fill a player with vivacity and adrenaline, but pre-competition nerves become a hindrance when an athlete does not know how to adequately control the body's ability to prepare for success.
From a scientific standpoint, one of the first things that occurs when a person feels pressure is the acceleration of the heart rate. The increased heart rate frequently causes people to rush what they are doing. This is why people tend to talk faster when they are nervous. On the athletic field, the same thing happens. A player who gets nervous will speed things up, and this typically will have a negative impact on performance. An effective way to control heart rate is to use a "centering breath" before and during competition. The centering breath, often referred to as a "diaphragm breath," is a long, deep inhalation of air into the diaphragm. Inhaling air into the diaphragm is a biological tool that helps control the heart rate. Taking a deep, centering breath allows individuals to keep their heart rate under control and perform at a more effective pace. Easy enough, right? Well, unfortunately it's not so easy.
About five years ago, I had taught one of the major-league pitchers with whom I was working to take a centering breath any time two opposing players got on base. In his next outing, he began the game with two scoreless innings. Then, he caught a bad break in the third inning when a bloop hit fell in for a single in shallow left field. He became noticeably irritated and walked the next batter. With no one out and two men on base, the television camera zoomed in on him. It was obvious to viewers that the young pitcher was angry with himself. He was shaking his head and talking to himself under his breath.
As I watched the situation unfolding, I found myself talking to the television screen. "Step off the mound and take a centering breath," I said, hoping the pitcher would somehow telepathically respond to my pleas. The next batter came up and hit a long fly ball off a pitch that hung up in the strike zone. The left fielder caught the ball at the warning track for the first out. Again, the camera closed in on the pitcher; this time, there was a look of relief on his face as he took a deep breath that lasted three seconds. Now my plea became louder, and I stood up to yell at the TV, "Step off the mound and take a longer, centering breath!" Four of the next five hitters reached base, and the pitcher was eventually pulled from the game after giving up five runs in four innings.
Afterward, when he and I spoke, I asked him why he had not used the deep, centering breath we had talked about. His answer was, "I thought I did." A centering breath is not the same as a normal deep breath. The centering breath should be a deep, cleansing breath that slows the heart rate. A three-second breath does not fit the bill, because air must enter the diaphragm for a true centering breath to work its magic.
Centering Breath = Diaphragm Breathing
I have tried to simplify diaphragm breathing by qualifying a good centering breath as one that lasts fifteen seconds. The formula is 6-2-7: breathe in for six seconds, hold for two, and breathe out for seven seconds. Individuals under the age of twelve should try to have the centering breath last eleven seconds (4-2-5). I have found that if players take a deep breath that lasts fifteen seconds, they will in fact get air into the diaphragm, and the heart rate will slow. My personal findings indicate that attaching time to the centering breath is more effective than monitoring oneself getting air into the diaphragm. It is much easier to count to fifteen than it is to determine whether air has entered the diaphragm.
Make sure as you're taking centering breaths to count a full fifteen seconds. Remember that when you are in a pressure situation, you will feel like rushing the breath. This is when you truly need it the most. If you can't maintain the full fifteen seconds, that is a sure indication that you need to take another one. Stay at it until you can get the fifteen-second centering breath. If you need to, imagine a stopwatch ticking off the full fifteen seconds.
One core aspect of training is known as arousal control. The heart rate is a primary control of a person's arousal state. It is important to control heart rate because using the mind effectively becomes increasingly more difficult as the heart rate rises. Once the rate gets to 120 beats per minute, the mind will not be nearly as sharp (unless proper conditioning and mental training has occurred), and at about 150 beats per minute, the mind will essentially shut down and go into survival mode. (In this state, even the best athletes will lose the ability to maintain mental acuity.) Additionally, an elevated heart rate increases arousal states. Athletes need to learn to control heart rate and arousal so that energy supplies are more present in the action moments of training and performance.
Playing with Heart
A punter with whom I worked in the NFL used to have trouble catching the snap before delivering his kick. He would get nervous just before the play and would bobble the football at times, which hurt the quality of his punts. The speed of an oncoming rush of extremely large professional football players will do that to a kicker. Not only is a punter staring at eight or nine players rushing at him full speed, but also he must think about doing his job flawlessly—all in the span of about three seconds.
This particular player found that if he visualized taking a good centering breath right before the ball was snapped in his mental workout, then he was much more likely to take that same good centering breath in reality just before the ball was snapped. This discovery allowed him to be much more at ease and to slow the procedure down to the desired pace. His hand-to-foot times (the amount of time that elapses from when the punter catches the ball to when his foot contacts the ball) sped up, and his hang times (the amount of time the ball is in the air after the punter kicks it) increased as a result of his using the centering breath in his mental workout as well as just before kicking.
The best performances generally occur when the arousal state and heart rate are the same or similar in training and in competition. Many times, the heart rate in training is far lower than it is in competition. This change in arousal between competition and training usually has adverse effects on performance. With this in mind, it is a priority for athletes to learn to control heart rate so that training and competition arousal states are similar.
A client who is a collegiate golfer had this to say: "It's weird, because hitting balls on the range is easy for me; ninety percent of the time, my swing feels great, and the ball goes right where I want it to. When I get out on the course, I start thinking about results, and the next thing I know, I'm uptight, and I can't find my swing. That's when I use my centering breaths. It's still not as easy as it is on the range, but it definitely helps me relax and find my swing."
At rest, an athlete's heart rate is typically between 60 and 70 beats per minute. In anaerobic sports such as golf, gymnastics, and diving, athletes may experience a heart rate of 90 to 100 beats per minute when training. When the same athletes in anaerobic sports are feeling competitive pressure, the heart rate may be as high as 120 to 140 beats per minute. The increased heart rate makes it more difficult to repeat training success. This is one of the main reasons that athletes experience inconsistency in competition.
In the early 1990s, a study was performed on the men's golf team at a Division I university. The golfers were first hooked up to electrodes and heart monitors, and baseline putting-success percentages were established. Each golfer was then asked to try to match or beat his previously determined baseline. If the golfer could accomplish this feat, he would receive a small amount of money. What became obvious was that the heart rates of the golfers were going up and the success rates were going down.
Next, the researchers increased the amount of money in the kitty. As the money increased, the heart rates also increased, and the performances got worse. Then the researches invited the crew of a popular television show to come in, with all the lights and cameras, and record the goings-on for the whole world to view. Again, the heart rates of these elite-level golfers rose, and the performances continued to plummet.
The results of the study affirmed what the researchers already suspected to be true: only a small amount of pressure (in this case, money) is required to dramatically affect heart rate or arousal. If the heart rate in competition is significantly different from the training rate, performance ability typically suffers. What we need to learn to do is prepare for competition in training by increasing arousal states of normal, day-to-day practices and to deal with competition by controlling this pressure or arousal state in the competition setting. The centering breath is a biological tool to help accomplish this task.
Mike Mussina, a major-league pitcher with more than 250 victories in the regular season and postseason combined, discussed the importance of controlling arousal states in Bob Rotella's book The Golfer's Mind: Play to Play Great. He said that when he was a kid, his dad put a strike zone on their barn and built him a mound sixty feet away. When he would pitch to the strike zone on the barn, he would imagine he was pitching in the major leagues. He would project himself pitching well in various pressure situations.
When Mussina went from Baltimore to play for the Yankees, the local press asked him how he was going to handle the pressure of pitching under the scrutiny of the New York stage. He calmly and confidently answered that when he was a kid, he often imagined himself pitching well in the most important games. Now as an adult pitching in those games, he imagines himself hurling to the strike zone on the barn. Mike has thus come up with a way to increase the pressure and arousal in practice and decrease it in games. Perhaps Mike Mussina doesn't need centering breaths as much because he planted the seeds for confronting that kind of pressure at an early age. Many of us don't have the mental toughness of Mike Mussina, so it seems to be highly effective to prepare yourself to deal with pressure prior to competing and to have a functional method of controlling arousal during competition. The centering breath will be a great tool to help you deal effectively with pressure.
Excerpted from 10-MINUTE TOUGHNESS by JASON SELK Copyright © 2009 by Jason Selk. Excerpted by permission of McGraw-Hill. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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