May 13, 2003

Playing like a Zen master

I doubt there is an athlete in existence that has not experienced pre-game jitters. Sweaty palms, uncontrollable yawns, a steady stare into oblivion, and the sudden urge to wash the floor with the meatball sandwich you ate for lunch are all typical symptoms. We get nervous because we are afraid of defeat. Just moments before a critical performance, our confidence wavers, and we experience fear. Fortunately, nerves tend to quickly settle once the game begins. Distracted by the emotions associated with the game itself, most individuals forget their fears and simply play. Unfortunately, acquiring this kind of game focus isn't easy for everyone.

Contrary to popular belief, the mental aspect of any given sport is just as responsible for athletic performance as the physical aspect. In fact, an impressive number of professional athletes, including icons such as Shaquille O'Neal, Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods, have personal trainers--for their minds!

Sports therapists, known affectionately by some as jock shrinks, specialize in helping athletes maintain confidence and composure in high-pressure situations. Sports therapists help athletes to focus on positive imagery: watching the ball fall through the net, reliving that feeling of satisfaction after a big victory, and blocking out noisy fans.

This method of dealing with game-time pressure is certainly all well and good, but an overwhelming number of athletes, both professional and amateur, don't have the time or resources for a personal sports shrink. Do not let this discourage you. There are still ways to pump up that mental muscle. This is where the power of mind over matter comes in.

Enjoying renewed popularity in the U.S., mind over matter has essentially become the princpial underlying philosophy of the rapidly growing self-help industry.

In conjunction with fast food, slow service, traffic jams, Little League, and the occasional lunch-break, we now have early morning yoga classes, tai chi, Pilates, and let's not forget Oprah and Dr. Phil. Nourish your soul, feed your body, and rekindle the flame that once joined the two in harmony. Sounds slightly flighty, doesn't it? Yet as "out there" as some of these New Age theories may seem, scientific studies have proven that a mind-body connection does in fact exist, and that people who nurture the spirituality that binds the two together are indeed more healthy individuals overall.

Among the most marvelous, most frightening and certainly most unbelievable possibilities suggested by psychic folklore is that human beings may be able to exert an observable influence upon the physical world--simply through the power of conscious intention. According to self-help gurus, such power can be cultivated through diligent practice and individualized self-discipline. No, this type of discipline does not require extra hours in the gym shooting free throws or running sprints; rather, all it requires is enough patience to sit still and breathe.

Most of us rarely take time in our busy schedules to pause for a few moments to allow our bodies to recharge and reenergize. And yet, stopping for a moment several times a day and simply focusing on breathing is one of the most powerful and natural ways of managing stress, maintaining focus, and preserving optimum health. When we don't allow ourselves to slow down, our breathing becomes shallow, our energy level starts to fall, our ability to handle stress decreases, and our anxiety level increases dramatically. Kind of like pre-game jitters.

Listen to how someone who is upset talks--notice their breathing; the more upset they become the shallower the breathing and the higher the voice. By the time they finish they are almost panting--it's no wonder they feel out of control.

When a basketball player approaches the free throw line, this is the last thing she wants to feel. A clear mind is conducive to smooth and relaxed muscles. Ask someone who makes 95 percent of her free throws what she thinks of right before shooting. I would bet that she might simply repeat the mantra, "it's going in." How does one achieve this type of mental toughness?

Try this exercise: This is called the Oak Tree Meditation. Sit in a comfortable position with your arms resting at your sides. Close your eyes and breathe deeply through your nose for the count of 5, hold for 10, and breath out through your mouth for the count of 15. Repeat this exercise 10 times. Once you have established a comfortable rhythm, begin to visualize your body as a strong oak tree.

Your body is solid like the wide, brown trunk of the tree. Imagine sturdy roots growing from your legs and going down deeply into the earth, anchoring your body. You feel solid and strong, able to handle any stress. When upsetting thoughts or situations occur, visualize your body remaining grounded like the oak tree. Feel the strength and stability in your arms and legs. You feel confident and relaxed. You can handle anything.