An Antidote For Competitive Stress

by Steven Ungerleider, PhD

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Checking out your breathing before any athletic event should be as routine as making sure that your shoes are tied. Without full, open breathing, you won't be able to perform up to your potential. Breathing properly is important because it sets the stage for other mental and physical responses that cue your body to prepare for competitive stress. With each inhalation, you should induce a feeling of relaxation; with each exhalation, focus on letting go of any muscular tension in the body.
    Unfortunately, when we are stressed, as we are during a competitive situation, the natural physiological reaction is to breathe rapidly and shallowly. This can cause problems, because it not only restricts motion but also leads to early fatigue.
    Fortunately, athletes and coaches can easily diagnose such a problem and make some dramatic changes. Here's a wonderful exercise used by the late Dorothy Harris, PhD, who was a professor of sport psychology at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, that you can practice in your home or even at the office to improve your breathing technique.

Step I. Imagine that your lungs have three parts: a lower, middle, and upper section. Now close your eyes and imagine that you are just going to fill up the bottom, or lower, third of your lungs as you breathe in. Do this by imagining that you are pushing out your diaphragm, stretching it to its max, and then opening up your abdomen.


Step 2. Next, imagine filling the second third of your lung cavity. Do this by expanding your chest cavity and raising your rib cage and chest to their maximum capacity.


Step 3. Finally, fill the last sector of your lungs by raising your chest and shoulders.

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    Do all three stages over and over again with a soft, smooth motion--don't force it. Each time you exhale, remind yourself to pull in your abdominal wall so that all the air is removed from your lungs. And at the end of the exhalation, don't forget to say good-bye to all muscular tension so you feel totally relaxed.
    After becoming proficient with this simple exercise, you can expand the program from 30 to 40 deep breaths each day. Each time you practice, close your eyes and visualize the flow of air and energy moving in and out of your system. You can set up little environmental cues throughout your routine to remind yourself when and how to breathe. When the phone rings, when you take a break from working at your computer, when you are in line at the cafeteria, or when you are just getting ready for bed, practice this full, relaxed diaphragm breathing. These cues will be good reminders for more stressful times when you will need to call up your new technique.
    You may want to perform breathing exercises while listening to music--something that many athletes do. Often a piece of classical music can set the stage for easy, comfortable, and relaxed breathing. The rhythm of music may allow a person to synchronize his heart with his necessary breathing pace. It is not uncommon to see Jennifer Capriati or Andy Roddick at a tennis match listening to their CD or MP3 players getting the right beat going to tune them up. They are checking in with their breathing and getting their moods in sync with their strategies for the day's competition. Former NBA all-star Patrick Ewing of the New York Knicks has often told sports writers that he doesn't want to be disturbed before a game.
    "One hour before the game, I pick a corner of the locker room, put on my headphones, and go into that sacred space," Ewing told a reporter. "Here, I get ready for the match-up; I check out the whole system with my music, while breathing, and focus for the game."


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