Preparing Mentally To Run Your Fastest Race

Preparing Mentally To Run Your Fastest Race

Most articles and blogs about running your best race give similar advice: Make sure to get there early, don’t go out too fast, carbo-load, drink lots of water, get enough sleep, taper your training, lube up your nipples and thighs, etc. And if your goal is simply to enjoy the race and the atmosphere, then that advice is really all you need. Maybe bring some extra blister pads too (and I might point you to my previous blog containing Mental Conditioning Tips For Runners). BUT, if your goal is to run as fast as you can, you are missing a crucial piece of advice. In fact, you may be setting yourself up for failure by over-preparing in the hopes of making the race a completely smooth and pleasant experience.

The hard truth is that if you want to run your fastest time you are going to need to fight for it! No amount of nutrition, hydration, blister pads, and Vaseline is going to save you from the inevitable struggle that comes with pushing yourself to your limit. The question then becomes, where is your limit, and is there any way to prepare mentally that will help push that limit farther? Many runners call this limit, “the wall.”

Research on the psychobiological model of endurance performance proves that while hard physical limits on human performance do exist, no athlete really reaches them because the psychological limit of perceived effort tolerance is always encountered first. As Matt Fitzgerald, an acclaimed endurance-sports writer and authority, puts it in his book, How Bad Do You Want It, “the seemingly inexorable slowing that occurs at the approach to exhaustion is not mechanistic, like a car running out of gas, but voluntary.” In other words, you run as fast as your mind can tolerate, which is always less than your true physical limit. It is the perception of effort, rather than the effort itself, that determines your limit.

Practically, what this means is that going into a race with the expectation that you are so prepared that you are going to breeze through it, is never going to get you to your fastest time. In fact, it will have the opposite effect by lowering the limit of perceived effort you are expecting to need. While it is clearly helpful to prepare well and pace effectively to race your best, it is at least equally important to show up on race day expecting, and even looking for, that battle between mind and body where you will need to make the choice about when you’ve reached your limit. My point is here is that if you want to race your fastest, you need to prepare to push your limits, not pretend you won’t need to.

According to Fitzgerald, “There are two ways to win a race. You can win by bringing greater physical capacity to the race, or you can win by utilizing a greater portion of a slightly lesser physical capacity within the race. Rarely do champion endurance athletes credit their physical capacity for their success. More often, they insist their advantage lies not in having more to give but rather in being able to give more of what they have. Past generations of exercise scientists have dismissed such talk as magical thinking. But the psychobiological model of endurance performance gives credence to the wisdom of the champions and suggests that the ability to actuate physical capacity is no less important than physical capacity itself.”

I would add that it is not only champion endurance athletes trying to win a race that benefit from this ability. Learning to get more out of what you have to give is valuable in far more than endurance racing. And to me, this is the true value of endurance sports. So, hydrate, carbo-load, and lube-up, but don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s going to be easy to post that new PR. After all, if it was easy, it wouldn’t be any fun!

Ben Oliva

Mental Tips for Young Golfers

Mental Tips for Young Golfers

The takeaway. The backswing. The transition. The downswing. The contact. The follow through.

These are the mechanics of golf that are taught the first day someone picks up a club. Notice anything missing? The list above is comprised of physical components, but the mental piece fails to be mentioned. Recently, I traveled down to Florida to work with a junior professional golfer on exactly this.

The parents reached out to me because their son is committed to play Division I golf at a university the following year. He is a physically talented golfer, but he and his parents knew the one component that was missing. The mental skills. Before we walked the 18 holes on TPC Sawgrass, I asked one question.

“Do you believe that in order to perform at your best, your mind and body have to work together?” He answered, “Yes,” and I knew we were ready to begin.

These are three points that I emphasized:

Process over outcome. You have to be willing to make mistakes while changing your process. You have to be open to the risk that it won’t go the way you want to immediately. Just like a physical technique, it may take some time to feel comfortable, but we did not focus on the outcome, we focused on the process.

External focus. Focus on an external factor, such as a ball dimple or the club head, because this will improve your performance during competition (Partridge, Porter, & Wu, 2017). Practice is the time for internal focus, such as your technique, but competition is time for “flow” to occur, flow cannot occur if we are wrapped up in an internal focus. During tournament play you have done everything you can to be prepared for that swing. Focus on an external point and let your instincts take control.

Add a deep breath before you swing. In order to perform at your best, your mind and your body have to work together. Since our body is always in the present moment, we need to get our mind there too. Doing correct diaphragmatic breathing, also known as “belly breathing”, forces an athletes to be in the present moment not just physically, but mentally. When you are focused on the breathing, you are automatically putting yourself in the present moment, not dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.

Capture

Remember: To perform at your optimal level, your body and mind have to work together.

Hannah Thurley

Making Good Decisions in Poker

Making Good Decisions in Poker

In sport psychology, emotions can be understood as different forms of energy. Learning to regulate and channel that energy effectively is one of the five core mental skills of high performance. Mental performance is optimized within an ideal energy zone, unique to each person. Too little energy, and performance will suffer due to boredom and carelessness. Too much energy, and performance will suffer due to anxiety and frustration. Either way, the inability to balance your energy and emotion results in a decrease in performance.

Energy Regulation Curve

I had the opportunity to speak with Jared Tendler, author of The Mental Game of Poker 1 and 2 and one of our expert consultants at SportStrata, about how mental performance coaching is applied to poker. He emphasized that remaining within the ideal energy zone is especially important in poker. In fact, poker players have a special term for a player who is no longer in that zone; they call it “tilt.” A player experiencing tilt is no longer able to make smart decisions because excess emotion causes him/her to fall off the backside of the curve. The emotional part of the brain reacts faster than the rational part so once the emotional brain takes over, it is near impossible to regain your rational thinking without stepping away from the table. So, how do you avoid “tilting?” (Read about Tendler’s 7 Types of “Tilt”)

The key in energy regulation is maintaining awareness of your current energy level. Tendler says that if you can maintain awareness you can begin to recognize patterns of behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. The patterns are associated with events that happen while you’re playing. This is true in any performance space, including the poker table. Events that lead to strong emotions are called triggers, and if you become aware of your triggers, you can then create a plan to change patterns that results in “tilting.” The more you can pay attention to your patterns and triggers, the easier it will become to recognize when you are starting to “tilt.” Once you recognize it, you can use mental skills like diaphragmatic breathing and self-talk to regain focus and composure.

Ben Oliva

How Meditation Can Improve High Pressure Performance

How Meditation Can Improve High Pressure Performance

Meditation improves self-awareness, concentration, and self-control. Building these skills will help with performance consistency, particularly in extremely high pressure situations like the ones faced by first responders. When the pressure is on, or when you experience a threatening situation, you instinctively experience a stress response that prompts automatic reactions which tend to decrease your level of performance execution. In order to respond optimally in high pressure situations, you must train yourself not to act on your fight or flight impulses, and instead focus your attention on things that will help you accomplish your performance goals. Meditation can train you to do exactly that. But how?

At its core, all meditation involves the deliberate monitoring of thoughts and impulses. Mindfulness skills grow out of 3 realizations:

  1. You can choose not to act on your impulses
  2. You can choose not to believe your own thoughts
  3. You can choose where you focus your attention

These are three of the most important lessons from meditation because they increase your ability to stay focused and in control when the pressure is on.

You can choose the type of meditation you practice in accordance with the mental skill you are looking to train:

Mindfulness meditation trains the skill of self-control by emphasizing non-judgmental self-awareness. Sitting with non-judgmental awareness of one’s thoughts and impulses builds the realization that you do not need to act on your impulses or believe your thoughts. Try labeling the thoughts and sensations you experience and watching them with curiosity. Notice how they change and dissolve even without action.

Concentration meditation trains the skill of focus by emphasizing sustained attention and awareness of becoming distracted. You can think of your ability to concentrate as a muscle that will grow and improve with practice. Try counting your breaths, and notice how many you can count until you become distracted. The most difficult task is noticing you have become distracted and using your concentration muscle to refocus on counting breaths.

As with all skills, the more practice and repetition you do, the less mental effort the skills take to use. With enough practice, these mindfulness skills can become automatic habits no matter the situation.

Ben Oliva

What Entrepreneurs Need to Know About Performance Coaching

What Entrepreneurs Need to Know About Performance Coaching

Recently, the SportStrata Performance Coaching team had the opportunity to sit down with the Entrepreneurs Organization Brooklyn chapter, which is a group of entrepreneurs that have been involved in founding and/or owning a company grossing over one million dollars annually.

One of the first things that jumped out at me was that this group was intensely interested in the work our team has done with professional athletes. As a former Division 1 athlete, I am accustomed to being around elite level athletes and have seen personally what it takes to play at the next level. What I have not been exposed to as much is entrepreneurship, so I was curious to see how receptive these entrepreneurs would be to performance coaching. Turns out, this group of performers was not only receptive, but highly engaged in the ideas presented by our team. It is both interesting and important to point out that all performers have a specialized set of skills, whether that is athletic ability, managing a company, performing a Broadway show, or putting out a fire in downtown Manhattan. What is less obvious is how much each group of professionals appreciate what the other professionals are able to do. For example, an Entrepreneur may be making millions and millions of dollars, but be awestruck by the way an NBA star can dominate a basketball game, or that first-responders are willing to risk their life to put a fire out. Meanwhile, that same firefighter or professional athlete is equally impressed by the entrepreneur’s ability to manage an entire business from start to finish. As a performance coach who hears these different high performers speak about each other in this way, it is clear to me that we should take a moment to acknowledge and appreciate the different strengths each one of us has. It is also very valuable to notice the ways that these high performers in different arenas use the same mental skills to do what they do, whether that’s sinking the game winning shot in front of 100,000 screaming fans, scaling the side of a building to rescue a child, or nailing a business presentation.

 

THREE STRATEGIES ENTREPRENEURS CAN LEARN FROM A PERFORMANCE COACH

Fixed vs. Growth Mindset 

Fixed mindset is the belief that your abilities are innate, static, and unchanging, where a growth mindset is the belief that abilities can be shaped and improved. When it comes to owning your own business, most people aren’t born as an owner or founder of a business that generates $1 million in sales annually. So how did they get there? They get there by realizing there is never an opportunity to stop growing. During the workshop, you should have seen how attentive and involved these entrepreneurs were. Some may think, “Well they have made it! They make over a million dollars a year, what else do they have to learn.” But to quite the contrary these individual’s mindsets were the opposite. They could not get enough of what we had to say. If they didn’t understand something, they would ask for it to be repeated, or ask us to elaborate on a specific example, or even asking questions about how Major League Baseball players handle these types of situations. This speaks volumes, as they are always trying to learn and grow no matter what success or failure they have seen in the past, and is undoubtedly a major reason they are so successful.

Process vs. Outcome

The second strategy is being process-focused instead of outcome-focused. In the workshop, we had the entrepreneurs partner up and tell the person sitting across from them what their goal was for the next year. “What did they want out of their business?” Once they had completed that, we asked them to turn to their partner again and this time be more specific, “How are you planning on getting to that goal?” Dr. Fader asked someone to shout out their goal as an example, one woman immediately yelled, “7 MILLION!” Meaning she wanted to make $7 million in revenue this year. Then he asked her, “How do you plan on doing that?” It is important for entrepreneurs to have that one outcome goal, but it is even more important that they know how they are going to reach that goal. If we just sit around hoping and wishing for a black shiny briefcase full of millions of dollars to end up on our front porch we are going to waiting a long time. We must figure out what we can control in order to put ourselves in a situation that a black shiny briefcase full of millions of dollars is more likely to show up at our door step. A more appropriate question to ask yourself is, “What can I do today to get closer to the $7 million-dollar goal?”  You can determine this by figuring out what is in your control and what is not.  The sooner you can learn to differentiate between what is and what is not in your control, the sooner you can take action. Do you fire that employee you’ve been avoiding? Do you make those phone calls you’ve be dreading? By identifying what it is you need to DO today to get one step closer, you are able to guide yourself one step closer to the outcome you wish to achieve, but inevitably have no control over. A great example of controlling the controllable is Nolan Ryan, a former pitcher in the MLB and a first-ballot hall of famer who still holds the record for most career strikeouts. Everyone wanted to know what his secret was, how was he able to strike out so many batters? The short answer, he knew how to control the controllables. He is known for saying that he never struck anybody out. He picked the pitch he wanted to throw, and then threw it as well as he could. It was the batter’s job to strike himself out. Ryan was focusing on his process and what he could do, versus focusing on striking out the batters, which he ultimately had no control over.

Responding to Failure

The third strategy is knowing how to respond to failure. During our meeting one of the Brooklyn Entrepreneurs asked Dr. Fader, “So what do you tell the Major League Baseball pitchers to say to themselves after a batter launches a homerun off of them?” Great question. During a game you can see a pitcher reacting negatively to an unwanted outcome by throwing his hat, slapping his glove on his thigh, kicking the dirt, crouching down and covering their face with his hat, or cursing under his breath, but is that the right response to have? How someone responds to a perceived failure has an enormous impact of what is to follow.

Being an entrepreneur, there are many times in which failure will occur, be it large or small, but all will be opportunities to learn and grow. It’s how you react to this failure that is going to make or break you. While the founder of Harley Davidson was testing out engines for a motorcycle he realized the motor was making too loud of noises, so they changed the engine to a quieter version, and no one bought it anymore! They went and put what was called the “defect” back into the motorcycle to make it sound louder and began selling their motorcycles again.

How will you react? I don’t want you to read this article and think that I am setting you up for failure by making a plan for what to do when it happens; quite the opposite. Life is full of setbacks, or “microfailures”, and how you are able to bounce back from those and respond effectively will eventually define who you become.  Have a plan. If you are late to meeting, how will you respond? If you don’t get the call you want, how will you respond? If your new idea gets rejected, how will you respond? By having these plans in place and practicing them you will be able to feel more prepared, more confident, and have ways to carry on despite any minor or major setback.

Hannah Thurley

What is Performance Anxiety?

What is Performance Anxiety?

“I’ve never been afraid of big moments. I get butterflies.. I get nervous and anxious, but I think those are all good signs that I’m ready for the moment.” –Stephen Curry

Most people think of anxiety as something that happens automatically in response to a stressful event or in anticipation of something bad happening – what’s called “future-oriented worry.” That might be true, but what feels like anxiety to you is simply a response to the actual physical manifestations of biological arousal or activation (flight or fight). When your body senses a potential threat (a performance) it goes into what is called physiological arousal. How you respond physically and mentally to that condition of physiological arousal determines how “anxious” or stressed you ultimately feel. At SportStrata we don’t believe in “anxious performers” just performers experience stress…. And that is most performers, no matter how experienced.

In order to have an adaptive response, to control our overall level of anxiety, we prepare before the situation even arises. We tend to ignore our mental responses to physiological arousal because we associate them with fear. The more you train to react with an adaptive mental response to performance challenges, the more your talent can show itself. With elegant performance psychology techniques of breathing training, self-talk, centering and imagery you can get past any performance stress and perform at your best.

Hannah Thurley

Examples of Mental Performance in Actors

Examples of Mental Performance in Actors

Here are three examples of actors who have made it to the top because of their work on their mindset.

Entourage star, Adrian Grenier.

“Before I go to an event or a meeting, I’ll prepare for that experience as if it were a show,” says Adrian. “What kind of performance do I want to give here? Who do I want to be? What is the outcome? And then I go through the mental process of creating that outcome in my mind. A lot of times people want the outcome without participating in the necessary steps to get there. It’s as if the actor goes up on the stage to perform–without a script, without a costume, without having done the work to embody the character. They just stand there silent, inept. Unless you practice the traits of the character and become them, you won’t be that person, at least not when the curtain opens and it’s showtime.”

Adrian Grenier demonstrates that imagery is part of how you transfer a goal from an internal place–your head– to an external place like the stage… or your life. By practicing imagery, or mental practice, you can create as close to an actual performance as possible, and when you do this you are training your brain. The same receptors are going off in your brain when you are mentally practicing imagery as when you are actually physically acting it out, it is hard for your brain to recognize the difference between the two. This is an excellent way to get more repetitions outside of practice or before a big show.

 

Bryan Cranston, star of the hit television show Breaking Bad.

At SportStrata we have a saying that we encourage athletes and high performers we work with to “Stay on the DOT,” where DOT stands for DOING, OUTCOME, THINKING. The D, for Doing, are the acting strategies you can put into practice: imagery, breathing techniques, and routines. In most performance settings we realize that having a plan, practicing it, and putting it into place is the quickest path toward getting the results you want. The O, stands for Outcome. Most of the time we actually have no direct control over the outcome that occurs or results in life, be it happiness, satisfaction, health, wealth, or the crowd enjoying our performance. What we do control is our mental preparation in our actions and our reactions – and that will dictate the quality of and degree to which we reach our desired outcome. Which brings us to T, Thinking, is critical! How we think about or react to both positive and negative results and upcoming challenges can contribute to our ability to perform at our best. These actions help regulate us and help our mind let go of thoughts, fears and worries. By establishing your DOT, you are able to focus on the things you can control and the more we can make that part of your routine, the more you will succeed.

Bryan Cranston really knows how to stay on the DOT. He explained how having a process focus is important in finding success as a performer. “The best advice for fellow actors is this: know what your job is. I was going into auditioning; trying to get a job, and that wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing. An actor is supposed to create a compelling interest in the character that serves the text, presented in the environment where your audition happens, and then you walk away. And that’s it. Everything else is out of your control; so don’t even think of it. Don’t focus on that. You’re not going there to get a job. You’re there to present what you do. You act. And there it is. Walk away. There is power in that. There is confidence in that… then the decision of who might get a job is so out of your control that when you analyze it, it makes no sense to hold onto that. That to me was a breakthrough. And once I adapted that philosophy, I never looked back. And I’ve never been busier in my life than once I grabbed onto that.”

 

Bobby Cannavale, has had his share of critical acclaim, including two Primetime Emmy Awards for his work on Boardwalk Empire and Will and Grace. As well as staring in the HBO series Vinyl.

Bobby says that acting and auditioning are like a sport. “I can only work on the things I control in the process, being enthusiastic and visualizing how I want to perform and what I want to get out of the moment,” he said. “The more enthusiasm I show and the more present I am in the moment, the more people will be attracted to what I am doing as an actor.”

In any performance, whether on stage or in life, it is very easy to focus solely on the outcome. Did I perform well? Did the crowd like it? Was the director or producer happy? It is so easy to get wrapped up in the end result. But the reality of it is we have no direct control over those results! For example, you could have the best performance of your life, some critic who had a bad day might give you bad review. The very next night you may think you had a terrible performance, and the crowd may give you a standing ovation. So it’s time to focus on the things we can control, such as developing a focus on your process. CONTROL THE CONTROLLABLES! Take your mind off of the results and move it toward your actions –having realistic and measurable goals, using positive imagery, and employing positive self-talk. By building a strong mindset you will find the best performance you are capable of.

Hannah Thurley

Jonathan Fader

The Importance of “Resetting Routines” for Healthcare Professionals

The Importance of “Resetting Routines” for Healthcare Professionals

Inarguably, failure is a major part of playing sports. In baseball, failing to get a hit 7 out of every 10 times is all-star caliber. In basketball, even the greatest shooters fail to make 6 out of every 10 three-point shots. For that reason, one of the most important mental techniques to develop as an athlete is an effective routine for responding to failure in order to maintain consistent composure and focus in difficult moments.

At SportStrata, we call these unavoidable moments of failure that occur during a performance micro-failures. A micro-failure is a small incident or situation that occurs during your performance that, though not ideal, will not mean your overall failure in the performance, as long as you are able to move on and regain proper focus. By creating a “resetting routine” athletes can respond more quickly and effectively to these inevitable micro-failures so that one mistake does not become a downward spiral of distraction and underperformance. A “resetting routine” is a series of actions or thoughts that allows you to flush away or metabolize the micro-failure, and refocus on what you can do in the present moment to respond most effectively.

As a society, we are much less likely to accept and acknowledge the fact that, just like in sports, failure in healthcare is not only possible, but inevitable. The world-renowned surgeon and public health researcher, Dr. Atul Gawande, has spent years studying why certain hospitals are more successful than others.

I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Gawande speak at the commencement ceremony for my 2012 Williams College graduation. He offered an interesting and surprising conclusion to his research, saying, “I thought that the best places simply did a better job at controlling and minimizing risks—that they did a better job of preventing things from going wrong. But to my surprise, they didn’t. Their complication rates after surgery were almost the same as others. Instead, what they proved to be really great at was rescuing people when they had a complication, preventing failures from becoming a catastrophe. Scientists have given a new name to the deaths that occur in surgery after something goes wrong—whether it is an infection or some bizarre twist of the stomach. They call them a ‘Failure to Rescue.’ More than anything, this is what distinguished the great from the mediocre. They didn’t fail less. They rescued more.”

Just as in athletics, what separates the good from the great in the world of healthcare is the ability to respond effectively to complications or micro-failures! Healthcare professionals with an effective and practiced “resetting routine” are more likely to maintain composure and effectiveness when these complications occur.

Dr. Gawande argues that “this in fact may be the real story of human and societal improvement. Risk is necessary. Things can and will go wrong. But some have better capacity to prepare for the possibility, to limit the damage, and to sometimes even retrieve success from failure. When things go wrong, there seem to be three main pitfalls to avoid, three ways to “Fail to Rescue.” You could choose a wrong plan, an inadequate plan, or no plan at all.”

Dr. Gawande is a leader in moving these ideas beyond theory and towards action. In his article in the New Yorker, My Personal Best, he outlines how he continually looks for ways to improve his performance by using coaching to stay on top of his “game” in medicine. He argues, “Coaching done well may be the most effective intervention designed for human performance.”

Mental performance coaching utilizes evidence-based skills and techniques to increase the capacity to retrieve success from failure by ensuring you are prepared to respond with an effective plan. Nowhere is this more important than in the field of healthcare.

Watch the entire speech here

Ben Oliva

Improving Imagery Skills with the FDNY

Improving Imagery Skills with the FDNY

During a recent mental performance workshop with a group of leaders in the FDNY, a critical discussion surfaced about teaching the mental skill of imagery to firefighters as part of the Leadership Under Fire program that the FDNY is implementing. As the discussion progressed, one of the experienced firefighters in the room stated, “We already do this. This is a part of the training we already have. We are trained to visualize the building, the floor plan, how many people are inside, and any other information we have about the scene when we are on our way and before we arrive. This is nothing new!” The conversation continued with several others in the room echoing this sentiment that visualizing the scene of the fire is something that is already included as part of the existing training program. Jason Brezler, the founder of the Leadership Under Fire program and an expert consultant at SportStrata, then made an extremely important point. He said simply, “Just because we are doing this already, doesn’t mean we can’t do it better.”

With that the conversation shifted to the ways that the current imagery training could be improved. One thing we know about imagery is that it is an effective way to practice when it is not possible to do so physically. Many people refer to this as mental rehearsal, and the idea is to imagine yourself performing the tasks you will be executing in as much sensory detail as possible. Neuroscientific evidence reveals that the brain fires in a nearly identical pattern during the use of vivid imagery and physical practice! The firefighters concluded that instead of only using visualization to picture the scene on their way to a fire, vivid imagery could be utilized to stay sharp on their days off, and to practice for dangerous situations that are rarely encountered in the field. By mentally rehearsing what they would need to do ahead of time in a variety of situations, they can be better prepared for action in an actual emergency.

Here are a couple of important tips to remember when using imagery:

1. Use all your senses if you can. Take the time to imagine the details of what you would see, hear, smell, feel, and taste while performing. The more detail the better!

2. Imagery is most effective when you imagine the situation from your own perspective, but if you are having difficulty doing so, try picturing someone else performing the task well or imagine watching yourself perform the task from an external perspective, like watching yourself perform on TV.

3. Imagery, like all mental skills, requires practice! Just like when you are training the muscles in your body, the first couple reps may feel awkward and difficult, but with time and practice, imagery can become a powerful source of relaxation and confidence.

A critical fact to understand about mental performance coaching is that mental skills develop naturally in experienced performers in all arenas. Everyone sets goals and uses self-talk, and many people use deep breathing and imagery without any formal training in those skills. One of the keys to effective mental performance training is to build upon your existing mental skills and expedite the improvement and effectiveness of their use. Just as physical strength and conditioning coaches refine and tweak the techniques and skills you use in the gym; mental performance coaches can do the same with your mental skills and techniques. Mental performance coaching allows performers to become experts of mental performance far more quickly than experience alone. Performers learn how to maximize the effectiveness of their natural mental skills and combine them into a routine that promotes the highest level of task execution. With practice, that routine becomes automatic so that execution remains consistent, even under the extreme pressure often faced by first responders.

Ben Oliva

How Elite Firefighters Respond to Adversity

How Elite Firefighters Respond to Adversity

Jason Brezler, a FDNY rescue fireman assigned to a special operations company in Brooklyn, New York explains why it is important as a firefighter to have control over his breathing. “When responding to a fire there are only a few minutes from the time of the alarm in the firehouse to the time when the fire trucks arrive at the fire,” Jason said. “I have personally found it beneficial to work through a few breathing cycles while mentally rehearsing likely actions and visualizing the scenario. I think the value in breathing comes in controlling my heart rate. All of the science suggests that the ability to perform tactical tasks, whether they be searching, forcing a door, working off of a ladder, or even accurately communicating important information to others, are all contingent on arousal control and heart rate. The physical and mental demands involved when operating in an uncertain and dangerous environment naturally push a firefighter to a level of arousal that can be counterproductive to their mission. When you enter a smoke-filled home with limited to zero visibility its imperative you enter with a plan. It’s inevitable that your heart rate and respiratory rate are elevated. This is due to both the physical demands and the anxiety of operating in an environment where there is uncertainty.”

By regulating your breathing, you help to slow down biological alarm or sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight), it also aids in the process of managing your stress so you can make calm decisions and react in the best way possible, when there is a lot at stake. Lastly, breath regulation can be a part of a powerful routine to get mind and body in the most adaptive state in order to perform at your best in any situation.

How do I regulate my breathing? Ideally you want to reach a point where you take approximately six full breaths per minute. Although it is nearly impossible to time six breaths perfectly, this goal can be achieved by counting the number of seconds for each inhalation and exhalation. Begin by trying to regulate you breath into 9-10 second cycles: 4 seconds for inhalation and 4 seconds for exhalation followed by a 1-2 second pause. While breathing in, in your mind count, “one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand, four-one-thousand.” On exhalation do the same thing counting, “one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand, four-one-thousand.” Then pause for one or two seconds and start the process all over again. Make sure you are taking “belly breaths” also know as diaphragmatic breathing. Bring breaths in by inflating your diaphragm, the muscle below your rib cage; it will look as if you are filling up a balloon in your stomach. Then push your breath out by deflating the balloon, or sucking in your abdomen. If this is difficult, it is fine to just focus on timing your breaths and leave off the diaphragmatic breathing component.

Jason adds, “Additionally some senses that we humans are heavily reliant on, like vision, are frequently diminished. Without mental skills like managing stress through breathing, it is easy to get overwhelmed. Without a strong mental foundation, your fitness and your tactical and technical acumen or skill set is going to be of much less value. You’re going to have to maintain that state of mental fitness in order to apply your physical skills to prevent a negative outcome.”

Regulating your breathing can help when you are on your way to a rescue mission, breaking down a door, but it can also help you in every aspect of your life, be it a meeting, presentation, a disagreement, or having patience with a young child. The better you are at regulating your mental state and balancing yourself under stress, the more success and enjoyment you will derive from any situation.

Hannah Thurley