Bringing The Mental Game Into Your Awareness - Part 2 of 2
Getting Started: A Daily Mental Training Practice
Whether you practice your Mental Training on the field or indoors one of the most important principles is continuity. Continuity requires that a commitment is made to a daily practice. Even if you can only put aside 10 minutes a day, keep your practice consistent. Also, try to implement your mental practice as a prerequisite to the rest of your practice plan. This will help to maximize the effect of “bringing” the benefits of the mental practice (i.e. clarity, relaxation, focus, good attitude) to the field which in turn can increase the productivity of the practice.
One of the benefits of mental practice is that things begin to change relatively quickly. Even if they are small changes feeling relaxed or clear minded throughout the day is a very reinforcing feeling, which leads to motivation to continue your practice.
The following mental training exercise is designed to keep your mental practice simple and attainable on a daily basis. Although it will only address the role of the breath, breathing is the most essential aspect of mental training. A more comprehensive mental training practice involving mental imagery and visualization is outlined in my book, “Getting Focused, Staying Focused”. This, or any other book on the topic of mental training, would be an essential part of developing, facilitating and maintaining your mental practice.
Breathing: The Foundation Of Mental Training
“As the breath goes, so goes the athlete. If the athlete is to master his sport, he must first attune himself to his breath”
The role of breathing cannot be overemphasized in the mental training process, for breathing is perhaps the most essential and fundamental qualities of all human beings. Like a silent partner, it is with you every step of the way. If this partner is calm and under control, then likewise you will be calm and under control. If it is tense and stressed, then you will be tense and stressed. Your breathing is a constant measure from moment to moment of your state of being -- your state of mind.
Learning to breath correctly (deeply and fluidly through your diaphragm) is the single most important part of your mental practice. Even though diaphragmatic breathing is the natural way to breathe most people in our culture do not breathe this way. Because we live in a fast paced society we do not take the time to let the breath descend into the cavity of our diaphragm. Instead we take short, choppy breaths from the chest. This is known as “chest breathing”. Chest breathing is “stressful” breathing because not enough oxygen can reach the vital organs of the body, thereby causing the body to strain for its ample supply of air. Oxygen plays a vital role in many areas of the body including proper circulation, increased energy, detoxification, and mental clarity.
The Practice Itself
The following practice is designed to last 10 minutes. In time, it can be lengthened as your practice evolves through familiarity and repetition. Again, once a connection has been established with your breath other beneficial tools like guided imagery and visualization can be incorporated. The initial goal here is to build a foundation with your breath by getting acquainted with it.
Finding the right space to practice in is initially as important as the practice itself. Choose a place that is absent of avoidable distractions. For example, unplug phones and put a “do not disturb” sign on your door if necessary. Try to pick consistent times (in the morning, mid afternoon, and before you go to sleep). Wear comfortable clothes and try to sit on an incline (a reclining chair) as opposed to lying down so the mind can stay more alert.
Step 1: Observational Breathing (3 Minutes)
Bring your attention to your diaphragm (stomach region) by putting your hand on your stomach. Breathing through your nose, allow your stomach rather than your chest to initiate the inhalation phase of your breath. There isn’t a right or wrong amount of oxygen to inhale. Just let the breath dictate the quantity. Also, let it dictate the pace. Your job is to watch the breath do the work. Just as you are watching the inhalation phase of the breath create its own pace, breathing through your nose, do the same with the exhalation phase of your breath. In essence, you are allowing the breath to do the work. It’s as if your breath is breathing you just as your eyes blink on their own without telling them when to blink. You are just the witness.
Your job is to keep your attention committed to this part of the practice for three minutes. It’s not so much a hard and tense focus. It’s similar to a hitters’ soft focus prior to the pitch. Just observer your breath this way for three minutes.
Step 2: Cadence Breathing (4 Minutes)
After three minutes of observational breathing you are ready for step two, your cadence or rhythmic breathing.
Once you have begun to acclimate yourself to your breath through observational breathing the next step is to “influence” the breath by creating a rhythm or “cadence” to what is called an exaggerate deep breath. An exaggerated deep breath helps to reinforce the correct way to breathe, helps the body and mind take in more oxygen and provides a format that can deepen your state of relaxation. This method of breathing is physiologically more beneficial and also provides muscle memory which can serve as a trigger (recall) away from your practice.
To begin your cadence breathing when you feel the next inhale come in from your diaphragm increase the amount of oxygen you take in through your nose so it lasts two long seconds (a two count). Next, hold or retain the oxygen calmly, without tensing for four seconds (four count). Finally, release the air as slowly and evenly paced on your exhale for eight seconds (eight count). When the inhale comes back to you instinctively, repeat this process.
You’ll need to experiment at first. You will find yourself taking in too much air or not enough air on the inhale, holding the breath too tightly on the hold phase and running out of breath after the exhale. In time, things will get smooth and rhythmic. That is the true goal because then you know that breath is being dispersed properly.
Step 3: Observational Breathing Revisited (3 Minutes)
Once you have worked the cadence for approximately 4 minutes, allow your breath to return to it’s natural pace. You’ll tend to find that the pace of your breath has significantly slowed down from the first two steps. Good things are already happening.
Your practice is to finish with the same observational breathing as you started with at the beginning of your practice (just watching the breath without influencing it). Again, though the breath may be slower and more rhythmic than in step one the approach of observing is still the same. Allow the inhale and exhale to dictate it’s own pace. Your job is to observe.
Tips For Your Mental Practice
Though it may not seem that difficult to spend 10 minutes concentrating on your breath it is not as easy as it sounds. The first thing you may notice is that your thoughts are very active, or perhaps you are impatient. These are all mental “testers” of your concentration and commitment. Working through these testers becomes the catalyst to your mental growth and development.
Remember, your mental practice is designed to bring out, among other qualities, relaxation, clarity and trust. These qualities are earned through tests. So whether you are observing your breath or working on your cadence if thoughts come into your mind leave them alone. Just like a bird flying across the horizon will eventually fade away, these thoughts will also fade away if left alone. This ability to let things go and stay focused on your breath is a crucial component to your practice. This commitment to your breath is what allows your body and mind to relax as your breath becomes familiar and comforting. A realization occurs that your breath is there to activate those qualities (relaxation, clarity, confidence) that matter most to you in sport and life. And these feelings can be accessed and sustained through your relationship and familiarity with your practice and your breath.
About the Author
Alan Jaeger has worked privately with several professional players and has consulted with several college/high school programs including Cal State Fullerton & UCLA. Long time students include All-Stars Barry Zito & Mike Lieberthal. His mental training book “Getting Focused, Staying Focused”, Arm strength and conditioning throwing program, “Thrive on Throwing” (Video/DVD) and surgical tubing bands (J-bands) are available at http://www.jaegersports.com or 310-665-0746.