Athletic competition can be an exciting, fun, and healthy challenge for young athletes. At times, it can also be stressful and cause anxiety prior to and during an athletic event. During these times it is especially important for an athlete to remain centered and focused. One simple way to keep your cool is to take one deep breath.
While a certain level of stress and adrenaline is necessary to strive to compete at your best level, too much stress can have negative consequences, which include:
• viewing competition as threatening, as opposed to a challenge,
• monopolizing your mental energy, which could otherwise be used to focus on the task at hand,
• and damaging your self-confidence and attention span, contributing to negative thought patterns, and interrupting flow.
There are a variety of reasons why a particular athletic event can cause stress and anxiety for youth. Perhaps this particular event is an opportunity to showcase their athletic skills for a college scout, or maybe the audience is larger than normal. Possibly they've been receiving extra pressure to perform well from their coach or parents. Whatever the reason, the simple act of breathing deeply - and focusing on the breathing - can bring them back to base.
In my book Mental Training for Peak Performance, I go into further detail about the benefits of deep breathing as well as the negative consequences of poor breathing techniques. I also highlight a method advocated by the late Dorothy Harris, Ph.D., who was a professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University. I've listed the method's steps below.
• Step 1 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.
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.
Taking time out to breathe deeply, or even just taking one deep breath, is a good practice that can reward us in life, even outside of sports. I hope you will follow the three steps I've outlined next time you find yourself in a stressful situation, be it an athletic event or something in your everyday life.