Originally posted: 8/17/16 by Mark Stone
Note: Breathing is essential to life! It’s also a trainable skill that will improve your training if you pay attention. Mark is a professor at Furman and a former member of SRCF. – B
Many times we may be doing simple repetitive tasks and realize that our minds are somewhere else. If this is washing the dishes, maybe no harm done. But if it’s cutting vegetables with a sharp knife or doing deadlifts at the gym, our mental inattentiveness may have serious consequences—a cut finger or a strained back. To do something safely, to do something correctly, and especially to do something with a high degree of excellence requires us to be mentally present. This is especially true of sports and any other physical activity that requires practice, training, and skill. One might think here of the humorous Yogi Berra quotation that baseball is 90% mental and the other half physical. Maybe 90% is too high for the mental, but think about the ways in which our state of mind affects performance. Nervousness, weak concentration, inattentiveness: these are all mental states that can cause our performance to suffer whether it is in a high level competition or simply in a daily workout.
However you divide up your activities between the mental and physical, ask yourself this question: what are you doing to train the mental aspect? If you’re like many people, the truthful answer will be: nothing special. This is a reasonable answer because the idea of training the mind is probably a foreign concept. We understand the concept of acquiring more knowledge that will enable us to develop our physical skill sets and become better runners or swimmers or weight lifters. But what can help me relax, improve my concentration, and enable me to be 100% present to what I am doing? Just as there are physical skills that can be created and maintained with practice, these are mental skills that anyone can develop.
One of the basic ways to begin to develop your mental skills is to take time out from doing stuff and sit quietly doing nothing. It is important to find a comfortable, quiet spot for this exercise because otherwise you will be thinking about how hot or cold it is and your mind will be drawn to the noise. You can sit in a chair or cross legged on a cushion. Once you are seated comfortably close your eyes and simply pay attention to your breathing—exhale, inhale, exhale, inhale, … This sounds deceptively easy but you will find that you mind wanders quite a lot, and you will need to return your attention to your breath. As you listen to your breath you will be able to hear whether it is tense or relaxed. As you relax your jaw, your throat, your chest, the small of your back, the sound of each breath will become smoother and your breaths will become longer. Your breathing will transition from high in your chest to lower at your diaphragm. When you begin to feel the sense of calmness that this breathing produces, begin counting your breaths.
It is not unusual that even if you try to spend 10 minutes with this exercise that your mind wanders, that you realize you haven’t been listening to your breath, that you are holding tension in your face, jaw, throat, shoulders, chest, or that you’ve lost count. No problem. Bring your mind back to your breathing, listen to sound of each exhale and each inhale, let your body release tension where you feel it, pick up your count from the last number you remember. This exercise is the type of mental training that can improve your ability to be 100% present to what you are doing, to relax, and to improve your concentration.
As each of these aspects of your mental skillset improves it is important to remember how it feels and to realize that you are the one who created this feeling. Then you can confidently bring your ability to relax, concentrate, and be mentally present to any of your activities.