2/3/22: The power of a centering breath
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This week's Think Better Newsletter is about how to take a "centering breath."
One of the biggest challenges of performing in high pressure moments is accurately processing the signals you're receiving and sticking to your plan.
Last year I discussed this with Sanya Richards-Ross in terms of executing in the 400 meter final at the Olympic Games. Your adrenaline spikes, your heart rate accelerates, and your ability to process the signals your body is sending gets impaired. You go out too hard because your body is telling you it feels fine, only to seize up on the final homestretch.
My daughters are ice skaters. Most of the girls can execute their routines perfectly in practice and then find themselves struggling to land their jumps in competition. They skate a little faster, jump a little higher, and get out of sync. Missing by a fraction of an inch on a jump can be the difference between landing and ending up on the ice.
My best friend growing up is truly brilliant but used to struggle on big tests. Her mind would start racing, she'd get stressed and anxious, and then questions she'd studied for would feel new and confusing. Her scores wouldn't reflect her knowledge or ability.
I experience a version of this at work. If it's a low key meeting, it's fairly easy to prepare what I want to say and to say it. But when there are "important people" in the room or "high stakes" it gets harder. My adrenaline spikes. My heart rate accelerates. And that can lead me to talk too fast, jumble an explanation, or misinterpret feedback.
High pressure situations are a part of life. If we want to perform well, we need to prepare for them. There are two basic approaches.
The first is to simulate the high pressure environment in order to anticipate how it will feel. To visualize the participants, how you will feel, and exactly what you will do. This is about practicing better.
The second way is to take that high pressure environment and de-pressurize it a bit. To make it feel a little more like practice. To get yourself in a mental and physical space that allows you to execute better. This is about performing better.
Taking a deep "centering breath" is a simple, proven system for performing better.
This idea of a centering breath is not a new one. Since I was a kid stuttering to get my words out because my mind was moving faster than my mouth, my parents would gently tell me to "take a deep breath" and then say what I wanted to say.
But they never taught me how. And how you breathe can be the difference between pausing briefly and truly improving your ability to perform.
Sports psychologist Jason Selk argues in his book Ten-Minute Toughness that there's a specific approach to taking a centering breath to maximize its effectiveness. The ideal centering breath should take 15 seconds in total, and follow a 6-2-7 formula.
Breath in for six seconds. Hold for two. Then breathe out for seven seconds.
The key is to get air into your diaphragm, because that will trigger your body's physiological response to calm your heart rate. And it's easier to count 15 seconds than to judge whether you took a "deep enough" breath.
Here's the key, though. Don't just take these breaths when you entering (or in the middle of) a high pressure situation. Build them into your practice and preparation, too, so that you establish a baseline approach to centering yourself before you do the activity.
Then, when the pressure increases, the centering breath will not just calm your nerves, but it will trigger the calm, focused mental state that allows you to execute in your preparation.
When the pressure increases, what is your system for keeping your nerves calm and your mind sharp?
Go Be More,
Author of Make the Leap: Think Better, Train Better, Run Faster and the companion Think Better Workbook
Co-host of the Go Be More Podcast
Co-host of the Fueling the Pursuit Podcast
“The wisest one-word sentence? Breathe.”
– Terri Guillemets
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