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Breathing for Performance

Lessons from a Sport Psychology Icon we lost in 2018

· Sport Psychology,Mental Skills,Breathing,Ken Ravizza,Mindset

The Legacy of Ken Ravizza

With the year coming to a close, I cannot help but think about a sport psychology pioneer that we lost in 2018. Dr. Ken Ravizza, Professor Emeritus at the California State University at Fullerton, passed away in July of 2018 at the age of 70. He left behind a tremendous legacy in the field of sport psychology, having perhaps done more than any other individual in bringing mental skills training to the highest reaches of professional sports in the United States. After first working with members of the men's and women's gymnastics teams at Cal State-Fullerton, he began a relationship with Fullerton baseball coach Augie Garrido that would result in tremendous success as a national power in the sport in the 1970's and 1980's. Ken's warm, down to earth, and highly skilled approach to working with athletes and teams led to more opportunities, and he would go on to work with numerous professional and college teams, including the California/Anaheim/Los Angeles Angels, Tampa Bay Rays, USC and Nebraska Football, and UCLA and Cal State-Long Beach baseball. Most famously, his relationship with current Chicago Cubs' manager Joe Maddon would lead to Ken being one of the architects of the mental skills program that produced the first World Series title in 108 years for the Cubs franchise.

Ken was a role model to those of us in this field not because of his success but due to the how he carried himself as a professional. He was a devoted teacher and excellent presenter, taking time to nurture and develop the skills of students and professionals. He was a lifelong learner, and could be seen at the annual Association for Applied Sport Psychology conference in multiple sessions, notebook and pen in hand, taking in the latest information in a quest for continuous improvement. And finally, he was a compassionate and caring individual who took the time to genuinely connect with everyone that came in contact with him.

In the wake of Ken's death, I found myself diving into his work, seeking out as many opportunities as possible to reengage with the words and teaching of a man who has greatly influenced how I work with athletes and team. I re-read HeadsUp Baseball 2.0, the 2016 update/upgrade to the 1994 classic he wrote with Dr. Tom Hanson. I also listened to numerous podcasts that featured Ken as a guest, including Cindra Kampoff's High Performance Mindset, The ABCA's "Calls from the Clubhouse", and the Positive Coaching Alliance's Development Zone.

One quote in particular has stayed with me. It has to do with breathing as a mental skill. This emphasis on breathing embodies Ken's work in many ways in that this is a skill that is both simple and complex at the same time. Since you were a small child, what did adults around you say when you became upset? They said "take a deep breath!" And what did we do? We would breathe rapidly in and rapidly out while still replaying in our mind the situation that was making us upset. We have been told that we need to breathe, but we aren't told why or how we should breathe. That's where it gets complex, but it is also where breathing becomes what Cal State Fullerton graduate and current Arizona Diamondbacks Mental Skills Coordinator Zach Brandon calls "the MVP of the Mental Game"

The Words of an Icon

I've been doing this for 35 years, worked with all these athletes, and the most powerful tool that I use with an athlete is breathing. Because what does the breath do? The breath, number one: brings oxygen to the brain so you can think clearly. Two: the breath brings you into the present moment. Three: the breath, when you need energy, you focus on the inhalation. When you need to calm down, you focus on the exhalation. Five: the breath is the start of good rhythm. So the breath is a poweful tool.

- Ken Ravizza, Ph.D.

Ken makes so many excellent points in an economy of words. So why does breathing need to be the "MVP" of your mental game? Let's break it down:

Number 1: Breathing brings oxygen to the brain so you can think clearly

During competition, we can have times when we get emotional or overwhelmed. It's actually part of a natural evolutionary process called the Acute Stress Response, also known as "Fight or Flight" and "Fight/Flight/Freeze". This response, originally designed for 30-60 second bursts of energy needed for survival when we are under attack, can work against the focus, energy, and coordination needed to be successful in competition. Our heart rate increases, muscles become tight or tense, and our thoughts race, often to the worst case scenario. The key, then, in these moments is to turn our focus to our body and breathing is a primary tool to do this. By slowing down our breathing (I generally recommend breathing in slowly for 5 seconds and out for 6 seconds), we can slow our breathing down, bring oxygen to our brain, and think clearly about what our next step must be. 

Number 2: Breathing brings us into the present moment

In order to be at our best in competition, we need to have a "present tense focus". Whether it's playing "pitch to pitch" in baseball, "play to play" in football, or "whistle to whistle" in hockey or lacrosse, sports demand that we are fully focused in the moment in order to be successful. If we are too stuck in the successes or failures of the past or too concerned about future outcomes, we cannot fully give the present moment the focus it deserves and demands. Giving attention and awareness to our breathing and genuinely feeling our breath enter through our mouth or nose and fully filling our lungs can bring us back to the moment. And once we are back in the moment, we can fully tackle the task in front of us.

Number 3: When you need energy, you can focus on the inhale

While generally we may focus on breathing as a way to bring about calm and focus, that is not necessarily it's only purpose or benefit. Sometimes we may be in situations either in training or competition where our energy is low. Maybe it is just before the last event of a gymnastics meet, walking onto the field for warm-ups for an early morning workout, or at the end of a hard-fought contest. Low energy may have us feeling sluggish, unfocused, tired, or discouraged. Changing our breathing can help re-ignite our energy to fight through these challenging moments. By focusing on our inhalation and breathing deeply but then quickly expelling the breath, we get our heart pumping more quickly and get blood flow and energy out to our muscles. This can be accomplished quickly and easily and I generally recommend to athletes in these situations that they get energized by breathing in deeply for 5 seconds and then quickly breathing out in sets of three.

Number 4: When you need to calm down, you can focus on the exhale

There is a natural element of stress inherent in competition. Ken Ravizza would often emphasize the level of courage it takes for athletes to compete in their sport. They have to be willing to stand up in front of friends and loved ones and display their efforts for all to see. Or as Ken would note: "As the ancient Greeks would say, ‘You have to stand naked before the Gods, fully exposed and your actions count.’” As the stress hits, both the mind and emotions can speed up and feel overwhelming. There will be times when, as an athlete, you need to slow things down and refocus. And breathing can be a tool to help with calming down both body and mind by slowing the breath down on both the inhale and exhale. I generally recommend that athletes breath in slowly for 5 seconds and emphasizing slowing down the breath on the exhale by breathing out slowly for 6 seconds.

Number 5: Breathing is the start to good rhythm

In my initial meetings with athletes, we will often discuss the moments they have experienced when they were at their best . . . when every element in their sport performance comes together. They will often report feeling focused and energized and use descriptive terms such as being "locked in" or "in the zone". The scientific term for these experiences is "flow", and it consists of the exact moment when both our skills and the challenge of the moment are perfectly in balance. However, the reality is that these flow states are rare and optimizing our performance is frequently about what Ken would call "compensating and adjusting"---finding ways to get in rhythm to be our best while responding to the challenges and tasks presented to us. Being a good shooter in basketball requires rhythm. Running an offense as a quarterback requires rhythm. Dribbling and passing successfully in soccer requires rhythm. Dialing in to our breathing: being present in the moment, focused on the breath, steadying our pulse, and loosening and relaxing our muscles---can help athletes get into that rhythm.   

One Final "Ravizza-ism"

In both his work and in the book "Heads-up Baseball 2.0" Ken emphasized that developing a mindset for performance was a process, highlighted in the phrase "Learn It, Do it. Own it." First you learn about mental skills, or, in the case of breathing, think about something familiar in a new or different way. Then, you practice the skill, learning when and how it works for you. Finally, you reach a stage where you "own it" and mental skills are a natural and embedded part of your training, preparation, and performance. Any new skill may feel strange or odd to start, but as you practice it actively, you improve. So start today. Start with breathing. And breathe deep.

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