Chi-Power Golf Part 9 - How breathing correctly can help you deflate pressure and hold your nerve...
WE KNOW THE GREATEST GOLFERS IN THE WORLD THRIVE ON THE PRESSURE OF COMPETITION – THEY JUST LIVE TO BE IN CONTENTION,TO HAVE TO SINK THE NEXT PUTT FOR BIRDIE TO WIN THE CHAMPIONSHIP. JAYNE STOREY,THE FOUNDER OF CHI-POWER GOLF, EXPLAINS A SIMPLE TECHNIQUE THAT CAN HELP YOU TO DEFLECT PRESSURE AND HOLD YOUR NERVE ON THE COURSE, SO YOU TOO CAN WIN MORE OFTEN.
Maintaining your mental and physical state under pressure is the key to superior performance in all sports. Over the years, I've worked with athletes from many different backgrounds, including a Masters level swimmer, an Iron Man record-holder, an Olympic middle-distance runner and a number of elite tennis-players. Without fail, in the heat of competition, the performance of each of these athletes would be determined by the one key factor I've come back to many times in this column – and that is the control you have over breathing patterns.
“Breathing correctly is the key to better fitness, muscle strength, stamina and athletic endurance” Dr Michael Yessis, President – Sports Training Institute
Another thing I've talked about many times is the Eastern concept that your mind and body are one and the same entity. If you doubt the validity of this statement just think about the phenomena of body language, the fact that we can usually tell just from the way somebody stands, sits or walks whether they are tired, anxious, elated or depressed. It's the same on the golf course. When you're feeling anxious this state usually manifests itself in a poor swing, caused either through rushing or simply not committing to the shot.
UNDER PRESSURE? - What happens when you get nervous and tense up?
Under any sort of pressure (eg. a tough tee shot, a must-make putt) the physiological changes in your body go something like this: you get nervous and immediately (and unconsciously) you start shallow breathing. In just a few short moments your chest gets a little tighter, less oxygen is fed to your brain and your nervous-system becomes flooded with adrenaline. Your heart beats faster and your muscles tighten up. Your whole body gets tense and as a result you are physically unable to make the movements you desire in your golf swing or to control your putting stroke with the necessary feel and touch – the consequences of which only increase your sense of anxiety!
I have yet to meet a golfer who isn't familiar with this scenario! I call it the Circle of Deterioration (as per the illustration below), and recognising the mechanic at work here is the first step in doing something about it.
Clearly, when you accept that the management of your mental state in times of stress is influenced largely by your breathing you can begin to take a positive course of action. Learning to meditate (the act of sitting quietly and staying focused through your attention on the breath) is a technique that has helped many of the world's top golfers manage their state on the golf course and given them the ability to maintain composure under pressure.
And when you experience the positive physiological changes associated with good breathing you also experience positive changes to the function of your brain and nervous-system. In other words, breathing correctly not only improves fitness but the quality of your mental performance.
EMOTIONAL RESCUE – take a few deep breaths, slow down & relax
This is one of the most popular and positive lessons golfers take from my Workshops: understanding the art of meditation, when you find yourself in a pressure situation you: (1) remember to focus on your breathing and (2) stop and take a few deep breaths. Now, instead of allowing your innate Stress Response to take over and rule your brain, body and nervous-system for the duration of the shot, you take conscious control of your physiological state via your breathing. Deep breathing, in turn, will send more oxygen to your brain which will flood your nervous-system with endorphins, lower your heart-rate, relax your muscles, increase your mind/body connection, raise your confidence and create a calm yet focused state from which to set-up and swing. Physiologists call it the Relaxation Response; I call it The Circle of Excellence.
LEARNING TO LOVE PRESSURE
You play golf because you want to play well and – given the chance – to win. Of course, you want to enjoy yourself and know that you're improving and playing to a personal standard that gives you satisfaction…but most of all you want to win games.
Ultimately, your performance is determined by the quality of your thinking and the way you manage your mental and physiological state on the golf course. No matter how long you have played the game, however many lessons you've taken, hours you have spent hitting balls on the range, your success or failure all boils down to way you manage your mind and body in those precious moments leading up to the execution of a shot or a putt. And all of the positives you are looking for can be achieved through the way you control your breathing with a few deep breaths – a technique that can help you to love feeling the heat, to thrive under pressure and engage your competitive spirit.
Try this simple exercise:
- Think of meditation as a “conditioning exercise” to help you use your body's innate Relaxation Response anytime you're under pressure during a game. For the best results practise for 20minutes, 4 days out of 7.
- Sit upright on a hard-backed chair, your feet firmly on the ground, your palms resting on your lap. Tuck your chin under slightly and hold the crown of your head up, as if it were held by a thread. Keep your eyes open and look straight ahead.
-Relax your shoulders and ‘empty' your chest.
- Bring your attention to your breathing, being quietly aware of the sensation, especially when you are breathing out. Do not force your breathing, just relax and breathe naturally.
- As you continue sitting, thoughts will come into your mind and your attention will wander. This may take just a few moments! Gently bring your awareness back to your breathing and try again.
- Continue sitting like this, bringing your thoughts back to your breathing every time you get distracted and/or your mind wanders.
It's a challenging exercise, certainly, but make a commitment to this practise and you will condition yourself to stay relaxed yet focused under pressure and gain a greater sense of freedom in the way you play the game.