Thursday, June 6, 2013

Keeping Our Cool (Strategies for Maintaining Focus While Competing)

(Over the next few posts, I will look at how to maintain focus while in competition or in other high-stress situations.)

Today, let's talk about breath.

If I have to make a list on how to maintain focus while in the midst of competition, the first item on that list would be to breathe.

Deep, long, full belly breaths have multiple benefits. First, they oxygenate the blood and get a wee bit more oxygen to the brain, which keeps us more awake and alert, and able to think clearly and purposefully. Second, we have more oomph in our muscles. Third, when we focus in on breath, other issues melt away. See, the thing is that conscious breathing requires uninterrupted focus. When you focus on your breath, you have to cede focus on other aspects of what's going on to concentrate on your body's expansion and contraction on the inhalation/exhalation cycle.

Do you want to do that when you are playing a fast-moving sport like basketball? It's a good question. I would say that perhaps in the moment, an athlete has to let his or her body take over and let the muscle memory, instincts, and intuition do what needs to be done (that's where practice practice practice comes in and we'll be talking about that in a future post). Things are moving too fast to slow down, step back and just breathe. However, at the point when that athlete stands at the free throw line and must focus, concentrate, and throw a perfect basket, that is absolutely the time to stop, step back, breathe, focus, create your intention, see your intention becoming reality and then making it so.

So, when things coalesce into the pinpoint reality of "do it now or don't do it at all," of when circumstances converge to the make it or break it instant, that is the perfect moment to stop and breathe. That moment, that pause, that breath is crucial. It allows us a moment to find clarity and peace. Even one breath, consciously done, will give us a second of respite in the middle of whatever maelstrom we face. In that instant, we move or evolve from a being who needs to react to something that's happened to one who is moving forward with more focused clarity and acting on what needs to be changed.

Acting rather than reacting makes all the difference and the breath is what allows us to do that.

So, here's your mission for today. Wherever you are, whatever you face, take a step back and just breathe. Even if your life feels like it's careening out of control, stop, step back, and breathe. 

Here's how you do it:

If you are sitting, sit up straight. Make sure your feet are flat on the ground and about hip width apart (The way to tell if they are hip width apart is to run an imaginary line from your hip points [the jutting front part of your hip bones] down the center of your knee and through to your second toe. If that line is straight, your feet are hip width apart.)

Let your back have its natural curve but don't slouch or arch your back.

Put one hand on your belly right below your bellybutton. 

Take a deep breath. Note if your shoulders have raised as you inhaled. If they did, exhale and inhale again and try to keep your shoulders relaxed and down.

When you inhale, imagine the air that is entering your lungs is moving all the way down into where your hand is cupping your belly. You might feel the belly and your hand expand as the breath expands your torso. 

Now, exhale and feel your belly come back in and your body contract.

Do this a couple more times to get the hang of it.

When you have that part, put your other hand on your side above and to the side of your bellybutton. Keeping your hands on your body, take another deep breath. 

This time you will feel your belly expand and additionally, once your belly has expanded, keep breathing in until your feel your sides expand as well. When you feel that, exhale and imagine your side is contracting (you might even feel it) and then let your belly contract as you breathe out.

Do that a couple more times to practice it.

You will want to get to the point where you can stop and do this breath technique quickly and easily whenever you need it. 

Once you get to the point where it is simple to breathe like this, try this technique of stopping, going still, getting your feet hip width apart and taking a breath at random intervals during your day.

Eventually, you will get to the point where you are comfortable getting into the technique at a moment's notice.

Then, I encourage you to try it when you face a stressful situation, some sort of competition, or at any time when you need focus and clarity. You will be surprised at how well it works.

Next time, we focus on practice, practice, practice.

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