Anyone who has competed in a high-pressure situation knows that pressure is not just a mental thing but also a physical thing. Part of improving mental toughness for an athlete is helping them control their body physiologically during competition. Whether it's muscle tension, tight hands, weak knees, your heart beating out of your chest, or butterflies in your stomach, the effects of stress and pressure have a physiological impact on us during competition. I have found it incredibly powerful with athletes to teach them that they can control their body's reaction to these big moments. Teaching them how to do diaphragmatic breathing is a skill that will help them for the rest of their life. It is also something that they can practice before a big test, waiting in traffic, before giving a presentation, and obviously in big high-pressure moments.
One method I have found particularly helpful is the use of a portable EKG machine. They are relatively inexpensive and give quick visual feedback to athletes. Seeing changes that you control in your heart rate and heart rhythm validates your feelings and stressful moments. When I showed my wife these results, she told me, "If you would have shown me something like this in the middle of my panic attack during our snowboarding trip, I might have actually believed all that 'stuff' you were talking about works." And that's the goal right? To show our athletes that this "stuff" elite athletes and military personnel use worldwide isn't just made up but is rooted in neuropsychology and basic biology...AND THEN give them a chance to do it!
Here are the EKG results of an athlete I am currently working with:
I have the athlete hold the EKG machine between their hands with the screen facing me, so I can see the clock to start this activity. Then I give the athlete a meaningless task like counting down from 100 by fives and instruct them to keep counting down by five no matter what distractions may occur. At the 10-second mark, I let out a loud "woohoo" and clap my hands. This often startles the athlete and sometimes even causes them enough shock to cloud up their mind and prevent them from counting down.
The top line of image 1.1 (above) is the first 9 seconds of this athlete's EKG reading. You can see that the R wave, the sizeable downward spike, is relatively consistent throughout the initial 9 seconds. Each of those tiny lines represents 0.5 millivolts of heart activity, and all of their heartbeats are within half a millivolt or so of the average.
You can also see in image 1.2 (above) the athlete's reaction when they were startled at the 10-second mark. The amplitude of the R wave decreases significantly, signaling that their heart rate is instantly speeding up. Their fighter flight response is now activated, and they are no longer performing at a high level or thinking clearly. Over the next five seconds, there were only a couple of "normal" heartbeats. Physiologically the athlete is under stress. They stopped counting, and even when I reminded them to keep going, the athlete struggled to think clearly. After about five and a half seconds, you can see their heart rate return to normal, and they were also able to resume counting.
Then we talk about the purpose of the activity. Sometimes during competition, we can face so much pressure that we have a physiological response to the event. Our heart rate goes crazy, and our body leaves its high performing mode and goes into fight or flight mode. I asked the athlete how similar that was to what they felt on the golf course. The athlete said it was incredibly similar in that they struggled to think clearly and even catch their breath for a second. I then instructed them to close their eyes and said,
"As I'm describing this, I want you to use your individual breathing pattern and take back control of your heart rate. I want you to imagine one minute from now. We will do the same activity. It is not a threat, it is not dangerous, and nothing will happen to you. When I scream, there's no need to be alarmed by it because you know that it's coming. It's simply a distraction that you can forget about and move on with the task of counting down by the number that I give you. I want you to continue your breathing and decide right now that you will not let my actions or the situation impact you or your performance."
By the 1-minute mark, their heart rate had gone back down to what it was before we started the test. Then we repeated the same activity. This time I gave them a new number to count down by (I chose 6) to make it a bit more challenging, and they started counting down. At the 10-second mark, I let out a loud "woohoo" and clapped my hands. Unphased, they kept counting and did not seem to be visibly flustered at all. When I asked the athlete how they felt, they said maybe startled because the noise was so loud, but it didn't impact them much. When we looked at the EKG results, it confirmed that they were not affected very much at all.
In image 1.3 (above) you can see the athlete's EKG results after the breathing exercise. Like the first test, their R waves were quite close to the average before they were startled. It is worth noting a couple of them at the beginning that were slightly shallower, perhaps a bit of nervousness of the task that was coming up. What is significant in these results is that the heart rate did not change much when they were startled at the 10-second mark. If you look very closely, you would say that their heart rate after being startled was even a little bit more consistent than it was before.
To summarize what I saw from the results, I told the athlete,
"To me, it looks like you decided that my yelling was not going to be a threat to you in any way. You knew it was coming, and it possibly even startled you a little bit, but it didn't have the same negative physiological effect that it did the last time. In my mind, this is no different than the first tee at a big tournament. You know what's ahead of you. You've been there before. You know all eyes will be on you and that System 1 might even perceive the situation as a little bit of a threat. But you know it's not a threat. You are a fantastic golfer. You've earned the right to be confident in those situations because of your preparation. You can decide ahead of time that this is not a threat or something that you will fear. Instead, this is an opportunity for you to show what you can do. Sure, you might have some butterflies or a little bit of anxiousness, but that extra adrenaline will only help you perform better. It's not something you should fear. It's something you should embrace. What do you see when you look at these results?"
They replied, "This is the proof I needed to know that I'm in control."
That was when I knew we had gone from some buy-in to a solid belief in their ability to control their body physically. Will a breathing exercise like this turn a bad golfer into a fantastic golfer? No. Absolutely not. Will a breathing exercise like this allow a great golfer to simply play their game rather than being hindered by anxiousness and physiological stress at the first tee box? Yes. It absolutely will.
Don't just hope your athletes will be able to perform at their best and big moments. Make a plan for them and show them how to put it to work!