Breathing, Sports Performance and the Zone
I couldn't help but watch with sadness as Irish golfer Rory McIlroy imploded on the final day of the U.S. Open. He had played confidently, brilliantly in his three earlier rounds and had a commanding lead. On Sunday, he lost his mojo and drove shot after shot out of bounds and himself out of contention. It got me thinking once again about that elusive place psychologists call The Zone, and how the breath can help all of us athletes and performers come closer to finding it.
The young McIlroy, clearly feeling the pressure of the event, likely lost his focus. His inner voice -- the one that distracts us all with useless chatter and thoughts of failure -- had taken over. He couldn't bring himself back to the moment. And that's where we need to be to perform at our highest levels. If we're engaged with the regrets of what we did or didn't do yesterday, or full of anxiety over what need to get done tomorrow, or fall prey to the mind's ability to tell us all the ways we can fail, it's difficult to perform.
In our book, Perfect Breathing, we talk about how the breath, even simple breath awareness, can be used to pull that focus back, to get our butterflies to fly in formation, to empty our minds and focus on the task at hand.
On a deep level, breath awareness plays an active role in helping you find what sport psychologists call The Zone. Everybody has had a brush with it, that rare place or moment of mental perfection, physical clarity and performance, when all your cylinders are firing in perfect harmony, when there’s absolutely no disconnect between your mind, your body and your emotions. It’s when time stops and there is the freedom of complete absorption in the activity at hand. We see examples of it all the time in sports world – the odds-defying last shot, an error-free performance, an impossible comeback.
Finding this rarified zone rarely happens by our sheer force of will. The Zone goes by many names: “peak experience,” “flow state,” or an “altered state” of human consciousness that cannot generally be intentionally created. It also answers to “runner’s high,” “exercise high,” the “groove,” being “unconscious” or “locked in.” Athletes are as confused by it as anyone, and find it difficult to describe when they emerge from it, but usually lay claim to supernatural concentration, religious mysticism, Zen, heightened visualization or biorhythms
The single biggest and most common barrier to finding The Zone, or quashing one while you’re in it, is listening to the inner dialogue, the self-talk, the marvelously distracting little voice or cacophony of voices we all possess in our heads. It may be the biggest distraction to Perfect Breathing we know. Until you learn how to quell that noise, you may find yourself filled with doubt, fueled by that chatter. At worst, it is debilitating and can easily keep us from any kind of success. At best, it’s a distraction that can keep you from ever finding your Zone or quickly drive you from one.
Work toward eliminating the chatter or replacing it with something useful. Most athletes and performers claim that inside The Zone, it’s as if there is no thought, no distraction, no annoying little voices. There’s a decided lack of that inner dialogue. And it’s a point where breathing can dramatically help. Recall the exercises that help bring your conscious thought back to the breath, such as the Six-Second Breath and Performance Breathing. No yesterday, no tomorrow, only now. Practicing those techniques will set you up for using them when the noise grows too great. It’s one more way for you to be in control. Make no mistake, the voices will get loud at times. It’s human and it’s inevitable. But with breath awareness, you’re in control.
Click here to read more about breathing and sports performance, or check out our book.