Just take a breath. All you need to do is relax. Its time to focus now! You can hear this advice often, in your own mind, from a coach to an athlete in sport, or in any other performance situation. But breathing deep, relaxing, and focusing well on demand is a skill like anything else.
Over the weekend, I watched the World’s speediest long track speed skaters at the World Long Track Sprint Championships in Calgary, and I was marveling at how efficient, relaxed, smooth, and powerful the best performers were. It was the perfect display of what appeared to be “Easy Speed.” In a sport when races can be won or lost by 100ths or even 1000ths of a second, every ounce of physical strength, speed and power, technical efficiency, tactical (pacing), and mental ability to push through the pain counts!
While physical strength, speed, and stamina aren’t built overnight, the mental ability to just breathe, relax, and focus when the stakes are high takes deliberate practice and experience as well. Many of the athletes took a deep breath, and relaxed their shoulders down as they toed the line. While racing it was apparent that the majority of the racers were putting 100% of their mental focus and physical effort into what they were doing. With a large crowd, high expectations, pressure to do your best when it counts the most, pressure to win or even win again, is it easy to just breathe, relax, and focus?
Plenty of research these days shows that the mind can activate the brain’s circuitry in ways that change the brains structural connections. In other words, athletes can build the right neural circuitry to allow racing to evoke their ideal emotions, muscular tension, and mental focus under pressure. Mental activity can get the brain to fire off in specific patterns, and in turn send the right messages to the muscles. For example, its well-known that musicians and athletes who imagine practicing their instruments or sport, not only can maintain or enhance their physical skills, but demonstrate alterations in brain growth! Mental imagery is often practiced in conjunction with breathing, meditation, and muscular relaxation exercises, all which take time to master!
On a parallel note, I approached my first experience giving birth as the ultimate test of my ability to mentally prepare. Although I could physically prepare through keeping my body in shape, I obviously couldn’t physically simulate the effort or intensity involved ahead of time. Since the majority of us associate the word childbirth with pain, I wanted be as ready and as mentally tough as possible to get through it. To prepare I followed a program called Hypnobabies for about 3 months. For 4-5 times a week I followed progressive guided, relaxation meditations. As a bonus each session left me feeling very relaxed and refreshed. In the end, the training certainly didn’t take away the pain, but it allowed me to focus through it, to focus on using only the muscles I needed to, to relax the muscles I didn’t need to be using, and relax and recover much better in between the highest efforts of increasingly intense contractions!
It is fascinating and empowering to realize that our mind, our mental, subjective side of reality, has the powerful ability to change our brain, the objective, physical/neural side of reality!