They Always Forget to BREEEATHE: the Key to Free-Flowing, Accurate Performance

For years, I trained and competed. I was young, faced the best athletes, and did well. But even after ten-plus years, I was still learning about my body, how to breathe…relax…and use awareness… Use mental skills to consistently win. I didn’t know breathing could help.

Then, my freshman year in college, I was struck. Beata Jencks was an older, grey-haired, German woman with a really thick accent; she was intellectual, warm, and one of my brilliant professors.  I took her 2-day workshop on psychophysiology along with many student-athletes. I was mesmerized, post knee surgery, to learn the interconnection of the mind and body for healing and maximal body function. Then she used me as an example: “Lisa, Lisa, come up here,” she prodded. I gimped through the desk-aisle on my crutches. Beata proceeded to teach me and the class how to breathe and assist our bodies to take action. She referred to my knee injury, the exact spot where the meniscus was repaired. Then carefully, and mindfully, she explained how to breathe deeply and be in tune with each body part; she described being aware of my body’s status (tense, injured, or ill), and to visualize the lively inner workings (muscle fibers, tendons, blood cells, bone cells…), that they are in constant action, mending and radiating. As I started to focus on my knee, I imagined the healing inside my body. I could “see” the tissues and cells mending as I breathed new air and sent vital energy to my knee. It was amazing. I felt different. I was uplifted. Throughout the workshop, Beata taught from her book,Your Body – Biofeedback at its Best. And above all, Beata Jencks demonstrated that the breath was central to creating affirmative action. The breath is central to ALL body movement.

finished easy golf swing  In every sport, for competition and games, athletes and active adults aim to play their best. They want to win! But the most common problem is trying — trying so hard they clench muscles, get tight, and often forget to breathe deeply. Of course, we all breathe involuntarily. Of course. But to keep oxygenating the muscles, and produce smooth, fast, powerful, expanded movement, maximum voluntary breathing is necessary. Athletes don’t realize that breathing is an integral tool to heighten physical play—free your movement to a natural swing, kick, or shot, run faster, swim faster… So, allow me to share…

I currently teach deep breathing and imagery to my athlete-clients. My clients become more aware of their body, their thoughts, and how to channel their energy toward positive and productive action. Everything derives from the breath. For myself, as a national champion gymnast and former coach at Stanford University, I highly recommend you give the practice of deep breathing a try; incorporate it into your preparation and competition. Here is information and steps to ready your mind and body for top performance!

breathing lying down

KNOW

1. You can train yourself to breathe fully and intentionally; create a respiratory rhythm that enables you to do [and be at] your best.

2. You can accomplish a careful retraining of productive breathing by using your imagination and joint movement. (Yes! Use your imagination!)

3. Understand that shallow tight breathing constricts your air and body movement.

4. Often, held unnecessarily, the short breath tenses muscles throughout the body; you limit actions and “fight” yourself.

5. Progressive relaxation is a valuable exercise. It teaches you to recognize the difference, when your body is tight and when it is loose. You intentionally tense up your muscles, inhaling and holding your breath, then blow out, releasing completely to be relaxed and limp. Like a wet noodle. Experiencing these two states — tense, then relaxed — bestows an acute awareness of your body so you can prepare to perform.

Breathing exercises

DO

1. Inhale completely through your nose, filling your lungs, chest and diaphragm with air. Count slowly to 3 or 4 while inhaling. Feel the expansion of the ribs. Feel your abdomen spread. Be in tune with this In-Breath.

2. Hold the breath for a moment…again, fully aware of this sensation, being expanded, tight, and filled with air.

3. Exhale slowly on the Out-Breath, counting to 6 or 8 (twice as long as the inhale). As you exhale and empty your body, the Out-Breath brings you to be calmer and more Zen-like. In this state, you release tension and can get ‘in the zone.’ A “relaxed readiness.” Clear. Sure. Distractions and doubts leave, and you can focus sharply on your tasks.

4. Do this deep breathing often — in practice, 3 times in a row (to create change) before you start to perform a move or play. Practice breathing at night, before bed. 5 times in a row. Relax all muscles, become heavy, on the out-breath. After a week, or 7 days, of doing this intentionally, you can reduce to 2 times in a row. Do 30 days. Make this a habit.

You CAN create positive change in your body and mind through breathing practice. Dr. Ken Ravizza and Dr. Keith Henschen, both ground-breaking sport psychologists, taught me all the mental tools, including deep slow breathing. Use deep breathing, along with positive talk, and you can ground yourself into a calm, focused state. And you will improve your performance.

Me, talking to college track team about breathing and applying mental skills to performance.

Me, talking to college track team about breathing and applying mental skills to performance.

Breathing rocks! And if interested in group or one-on-one lessons, let me know. I’d be happy to work with you!

reach, sweat, believe,

mitz

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WORST SETBACK EVER – Part III How I lost my skills, re-learned everything, and by a MIRACLE won 2 National Titles

RECAP PART II: Two angels entered my life: Lynn Rogers and Ken Ravizza, coach and sport psychologist at Cal-State Fullerton. They worked with me for 3 mos, I faced my fears, learned mental skills, slowly re-learned gymnastics skills. Almost all. But the fear lingered. Now, it was time to compete. (gasp!)

PART 3

ELITE QUALIFICATION? I got in ‘routine-shape,’ entered the meet in mid-January, hoping to qualify for Elite (my dream). Well, I tried, but I had to ‘water-down’ my routines – I was not really ready. Not confident. The success? I did not run away screaming. I made it through all four events and did not die. I was a gymnast, but I would repeat the Junior Olympic (J.O.) level for a third year. Baah. I felt very “junior.” But…I accepted it. Because that’s where I was at.

Message #4: Plant a seed and nurture it. Watch it grow, and you never know what will happen.  I was home, grabbing a snack in the kitchen. My mom, Lorie Mitzel, was in the kitchen, too. A natural You-can-do-anything person, my mom often encouraged me to reach for goals. She said: “Lisa, since you didn’t make Elite, what’s your goal this season for Junior Olympics?”  Hm, I hadn’t thought, so I joked: “Oh, I guess I’ll just win Nationals…” My mom raised an eyebrow, “Wow, wouldn’t that be something.” We were both surprised–it seemed like a huge dream–National Champion…huh.

Sophomore at Canyon H.S. Me...Mitzel.

Sophomore at Canyon H.S. Me…Mitzel, at 15.

PRACTICE MENTAL SKILLS, RELAX UNDER PRESSURE. Even though I wasn’t seeing Ken and Lynn any longer, I continued to practice all the mental tools. I stood in front of the equipment at the gym, took long deep breaths, talked to myself, “You can do this, Lisa, one move at a time.” I imagined each skill, visualized it, and what it felt like – a series of photos, still shots – because separately, each shot was a position I could “see” and “feel.”  My body moved from one to the next. Gradually, I got better and became more confident. Emotions–even–I didn’t judge good or bad, I was simply present in my mind & body. February and March, competition really improved, I was relaxing under pressure. Message #5: When in doubt, break it down. Break it down more. And keep your mind still and present, no judgment.

Mental Skills pyramid from Ohio Center of Sport Psychology

Mental Skills pyramid from Ohio Center for Sport Psychology. Great way to approach training & performing at your best!

ATTITUDE IS EVERYTHING. For competition, I prepared in every way, then ‘let it go.’ I prayed with my mom and simply believed that something good would happen. We stayed positive. We sent Good Luck to everyone at the meets – opponents, judges, coaches. We said: “Let everyone be their best.” And though I still got nervous, I channeled that energy to perform. And with all of that good stuff goin’ on…I began to win. I exuded calm and joy while competing. I was scoring high and people noticed me. The fearful athlete was fading–a new performer was rising.

APPROACHING 1980 J.O. NATIONALS. At the State and Regional competitions, there was a lot of talent. Lots. But guess what, I ended up winning! Me! And at Sectionals (Western U.S. Championships), I placed second all-around! No kidding! Finally, in May, Nationals were in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Oral Roberts University. AT NATIONALS – there were crazy-talented gymnasts, like Mary Lou Retton (who in 1984 would come to win Olympic Gold at the Los Angeles Games). If I looked around, it was intimidating. So all I could do was focus on me: Breathe, concentrate, talk to myself. There were three days of competition – Compulsories (my strength), Optionals (not my strength), Individual Finals (Optionals). Day 1, I didn’t think about my competitors, I concentrated on being in my zone. I was strong in Compulsories, which I needed to be, and at the end of the day, get this, I was in first place! Again–me! It was nuts.

IMG_2811

From the Mitzel Files…in the middle of back roll to handstand. The photo caption says, “Mitzel uses her head to lead.” They didn’t have a clue how much I was really using it.

J.O. competition has age groups. Juniors - 14 and under. Seniors - 15 and up. I was 15, so in the Sr. age group.

J.O. competition has age groups: Juniors – 14 and under. Seniors – 15 and up. I was 15, so in the Sr. age group.

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT? On Optional day, I wasn’t thinking about results, that was out of my control. I could only control ME. So you know what I did – I went for it! Had fun! No fear! And every event was great! Vault, Bars, Beam, and Floor. I stayed focused and enjoyed the meet. I did my job on each routine. Other coaches patted me on the back, “Nice job, Lisa.” It felt good. Finally, the scores were totaled (Compulsories and Optionals). How did I do in the All-Around? Did I make Top 10? Maybe Top 6? Results were posted on a wall. I walked over, saw a white piece of paper with names and scores. I scanned the list and…there, right there, in the top #1 spot was “Lisa Mitzel.” OMG! OMG! I couldn’t believe it!  I was first? Me? I won? HA! I was a National Champion! My coach, Jim, laughed so hard. I was STUNNED.

Article: Mitzel Nearly Quit, and made a big comeback

Article: Mitzel Nearly Quit, and made a big comeback

FINALS: Next day, I competed in 3 events, Vault, Bars, and Beam. Vault, I placed 5th, Bars, I fell. That left Beam. That night, many girls fell off beam. The arena was packed and all eyes were on one person competing at a time. The pressure was thick. I mounted the beam, I was relaxed and IN my zone, I was hitting, double backhandspring, back tuck, turns, leaps, doing great! Then I realized, I didn’t want to risk my front flip – so I skipped it, dismounted, and nailed it! My coach said, “Uhh, I think you forgot something.” I smiled, because, I just hit my routine in Finals. But I was sure I’d get a deduction, not enough difficulty.  But…the score was good! A 9.6, and that won beam! I was the National Beam Champion, too! I was now a 2-Time National Champion!!!!  IMG_2817

It was a Miracle. I was rock bottom just months prior. I nearly quit. I still struggled inside (tumbling still scared me). But the mental skills and positive attitude conquered all. It was a miracle that I did it – won 2 National titles. And people who helped me: My coaches at Kips, especially Jim Fountaine, pushed me. Ken and Lynn, were so patient. My teammates, my parents – especially my mom – all were my entire life line and support.

I hope this story helps you realize  – You can conquer any obstacle. You can.

Message #6: REACH for a goal, SWEAT and work hard, and BELIEVE in yourself, and you CAN ACHIEVE.

Reach, sweat, and believe,

~mitz