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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I JUMP ON THE LINE: How Athletes Self-actualize Success

“Come on! Jump on the line! You keep hitting the back of the board!” coaches say.

In gymnastics, there’s a line, a ‘sweet spot’ on the springboard. The line is key to hitting and compressing the board to get ultimate power and flight for the vault. It is hard. Because a gymnast runs full speed, and to jump on the line takes courage and practice. If you jump over the line, you may crash into the vault-table. Painful, could get seriously hurt. So many gymnasts jump behind the line. It’s safer, but less power. Less of a vault. Less of a score.

JUMP ON THE LINE: Speed and hitting the sweet spot--the line--on springboard is key to a Huge Vault!

JUMP ON THE LINE: Speed and hitting the sweet spot–the line–on springboard is key to a Huge Vault!

So it comes down to the question: Are you happy with what you’re doing, whatever you’re doing? Or do you want more? And if so…What do you want?

THINK: Most people think about what they want. It’s easy to think: I want to make the All-Star team, I want to be a fashion designer, I want to make a million dollars. Lots of people think those things. The thought is in your mind: I want…  And there’s no doubt, you have a desire. You may be distracted, “But how?” and there may be low-lying doubts, “I’m not sure I can.” But all-in-all, it’s clear — you are wishing.

SAY: Many people will take it another step further. For instance, in conversation, an athlete will say in a determined voice, “I will make the All-Star team.”

PRACTICE: And the athlete works for it, she practices, she sweats and cramps, and pushes herself hard — awesome! The wish is there and the work is there. Two for two. Game on.

BUT SOMETHING IS MISSING…

KNOW: This is the hardest thing for most athletes, professionals, or anyone who aspires. What is missing is KNOWING. Having 100% complete knowledge that your ‘want’ and ‘will’ is going to manifest into real life. Huhh? Yep, know what you want and manifest that into real life. For the athlete, you see the full vision — you’re on the All-Star team, wearing the team uniform, practicing with teammates, getting cues from the coach, traveling to away games, playing for the team, and, winning. You got it? You are there. You’re good enough. You are on the team, already. Perhaps it’s in your head, but that’s a minor detail. The bottom line is, or the higher mind acts as if, you have it. You already have it. It is real. You see it, believe it, and know it. The best athletes in the world use this type of vision and mindset of ‘knowing.’ It’s what makes them the best.

So, what are the steps to doing that, manifesting and self-actualizing what you want? Here is one powerful exercise that I used with the team I coached when I was at Stanford University… And the team was successful.

Me coaching at Stanford with Linda Chun (gymnast). We worked a lot on programming the mind. And it worked!

Me coaching at Stanford with Linda Chun (gymnast). We worked a lot on programming the mind. And it worked!

TO SELF-ACTUALIZE, PROGRAM THE MIND: I was the women’s gymnastics coach at Stanford University in the 90s. We had a volunteer sport psychologist, a Masters student, working with the team. For a few months, he facilitated discussion and/or mental exercises on a weekly basis. The team’s ultimate goal for the season was to compete at NCAA National Championships. And we needed help with jumping on the line. The ladies struggled. It seemed to be a psychological block. They held back. But they wanted to improve. They were hungry.

THE MENTAL EXERCISE: We gave the gymnasts recorders and they did this…they found a quiet spot near the gym and followed these instructions: Say and record what you need to do, say it multiple times, and listen to it repeatedly (3x), 6 days a week for two weeks (minimum).

DEVICE: Use a mini-recorder/mobile device and tape yourself saying each line (note the emphasis on certain words):

First series – WANT

I want to jump on the line.

I want to jump on the line.

I want to jump on the line.

I want to jump on the line.

I want to jump on the line.

 

Second series – WILL

I will jump on the line.

I will jump on the line.

I will jump on the line.

I will jump on the line.

I will jump on the line.

 

Third series – I DO

I jump on the line.

I jump on the line.

I jump on the line.

I jump on the line.

Know you can HIT THE LINE. Whatever you want, KNOW you can. Program your mind and manifest what you want.

Know you can HIT THE LINE. Whatever you want, KNOW you can do it. Program your mind, SEE it, and manifest what you want.

ATHLETES PROGRAM THEIR BRAINS TO PERFORM ACCURATELY. Through repetitive phrases, you are embedding in your mind what you will do. There is thought, spoken word, and the successful result. LISTEN to your recording, and visualize yourself doing the physical task. Feel it in your muscles. By speaking it, you tap into your personal power. You create the desired experience. It’s real in your mind.

You jump on the line. It’s what you do.  The Stanford Team did improve – they got MUCH better at hitting the line on the board. And they did go to Nationals – 1990s. Fabulous ladies.

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Now, what is your desire! What do you want to make happen? Program your mind. Write it down. Say it. Listen to it. You can do it!

Reach, sweat, believe,

~Mitz

And a shout out to Utah Gymnastics, my college team – they WON NCAA REGIONALS, TODAY in Arkansas. They are heading to Nationals! Go Utah!  

Utah Gymnastics Team 2014 - Pac 12 Champs. NCAA Regionals Champs. And cross fingers - NCAA National Champs. Ha!

Utah Gymnastics Team 2014 – Pac 12 Champs. NCAA Regionals Champs. And cross fingers – NCAA National Champs. Ha!

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.

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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

Injuries – they suck, so why the hell am I doing this?

It’s truer than true – injuries suck! So why the hell are you playing sports? Or better, why the hell did I?  Multiple sprained ankles, fractured tibiae, dislocated shoulder, concussion, torn lateral meniscus, 3 knee surgeries, and a broken back. I know the pain. Sitting out. Rehab instead of practice. The worst part, some injuries hurt so bad you wish you could jump out of your skin to escape the pain. But after the torment, there is another side, a GOOD side, a pure Champion-in-the-making side. And that the champion I wanted to be — is why I played. 

I enrolled in “Injury 101” when I crashed in gymnastics, age nine. It was the balance beam — 4 inches wide, 4 feet high. My coach said, “Leaps!” So I did: step, step, leap. Not great. “Higher!” she called out. So I tried harder. Leap! And another – Leap! But she yelled, “Higher, Lisa, split more!” Good grief, it wasn’t good enough. I wanted to be the best. So I went STEP-STEP-LEEEAAAAP! flying into the air as high as the sky! But my landing foot missed, my legs stayed split apart, and as I fell, the hard wooden beam whacked me up the middle — killed my girl parts.

I was on the ground, desperate pain, coach yelled, “Ice! Get her some ice!” When the frozen bag arrived, I would not put it on me – not there. People were looking. Slowly, s-l-o-w-l-y I got up. Tears rolled down my cheeks. I winced. Hobbled into the bathroom with ice in hand. When I peeled down my leotard near the toilet, I was afraid to go to the bathroom. Would it hurt? Then, I looked down and saw spots of blood. What! I panicked. Did I start my period? I can’t see. Did I damage myself? Will I ever have a baby!

I shook it off. I convinced myself I would be okay, I would survive. The rest of practice, I sat sort of sideways on a mat. My dad came to pick me up… I walked slowly to the car. “How was practice?” he asked. “Okay…” I lied. I decided he didn’t need to know I hurt my…you know.

INJURY 101

1) Getting hurt is part of sports. To continually improve your performance, you must get out of your comfort zone and push yourself. Don’t be surprised when you fall, crash, get jabbed or hit. Shake it off and chin up. If you never get hurt, you are either protected by the gods, or you could push yourself harder. Many times, one can push harder.

2) It’s humbling to get hurt in front of others (especially in your private area), and especially if you want to be tough. But you are not superhuman. Apparently, I am not either. But humility allows others to help you. Help each other. A close team is a great team.

3) It is very important to be focused on the skill, first. Just before I got hurt, I was not thinking about the skill, I was thinking about being the best and pleasing my coach. I was distracted. Stay focused on the skill.

4) One good thing, I was aggressive. Even though I got hurt, Aggressiveness = Power. It sparks you to improve, it raises the efforts of your teammates, and makes you fight for what you want. Fight, fight, fight!

5) A serious injury makes you slow down. Take time off, see a doctor, do rehab. But the fact is – Off time is an opportunity in disguise. There are other ways to practice and you WILL improve – stretching, conditioning, mental practice, and supporting your teammates. OFF-time can be an Advantage!

6) Healing injuries and substitute workouts require effort. Don’t just sit – be pro-active. Talk to your coach. Eat right. Think positive. Heal yourself, typically with ice. Still workout – just other ways. Hey, if you can’t go through it, GO AROUND IT.

TJ Green Juice7) After recovery, you are forced to re-think. Break down the skill parts and make sure technique is planned. Before attempting a leap at the next practice, I made sure I knew the exact position I wanted my arms, hands, legs, and feet, and how to land safely. Seek ‘accuracy’ and you become a Mindful Athlete now, you have a competitive EDGE.

(from the Mitzel files…age 11, I kept fighting, how about you?)

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Reach, sweat, and believe,

~mitz