How many times in a conversation about sports have you heard the phrase, “It’s all mental”? Well in one way or another, it’s true. A mind that is not under control is a mind that makes mistakes. Mistakes that could lose a game. Extreme stress causes a wild mind. Stress is a helpful tool when used correctly; when not used correctly, stress can cause you to lose a lot of games.
How many times have we heard things like the quarterback “choked” in the last minute of the game? People under extreme levels of stress do stupid things; it’s not their fault, it’s simply how human beings operate. It’s our nature. Under extreme stress, your heart rate elevates and you began to lose complex motor skills, like throwing a football, or shooting a three-pointer.
Just the right amount of stress puts you in the right mindset, it gets you in the “zone,” as some people would say. A player can choke from a lot of different things, but mainly form not being in the moment. Not being in the moment is a mind that’s set in confusion; when you’re thinking about how your losing or thinking about a past event, you’ll probably choke.
The word “choke” in sports is actually drawing parallels to an intensely visceral response. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word choke means to become unable to breathe because something gets stuck in your throat or because the air is not good for breathing. In this sports example, stress is actually choking you.
Stress inoculation is one of the keys to helping athletes not choke; it is the reason why so much repetition is part of the training. Professional athletes have gone through rigorous advanced training in order to get to where they are capable of doing things at an advanced level unconsciously under stress. A basketball player like LeBron James can perform at an optimal level under extreme stress on a basketball court because he’s been training for it for decades. He’s currently one of the highest scores in the NBA in one of the most stressful areas on the court — near the basket.
Every fundamental basketball training starts with training the free throw shot. Because every coach knows that you can’t miss those points; free throws win games. The same thing with kicking field goals — it’s the reason why kickers get paid millions of dollars in the NFL. Free throws and field goals win games.
A lot of people will argue that players have problems making the transition from college athlete to professional athlete because it’s a totally different animal. It’s a lot harder and more stressful to do things at a professional level; you’re facing the best of the best.
Just enough stress can get you in the right mental mindset, to much of it, and it can wreak havoc on your brain, causing you to lose focus. Some of the greatest research literature on stress and performance comes from studies done on America Military Special Forces Units. America’s Special Forces go through some of the hardest physical and mental training in the world.
Dr. Andy Morgan at Yale Medical School is one of the researchers on the topic of stress in the military. In one of the trainings they put Special Forces trainers under mock interrogations, this is were their heart rate goes up to 170 beats a minute, for over a period of a half hour.
When the heart rate gets over 175 beats per minute, several things start happening to your body. One of them being fine motor skills go out the window, tunnel vision sets in, and you’re vulnerable to loss of bladder control.
These trainees lose an average of 22 pounds in three days from this stressful training. They measure norepinephrine in the body to measure how these soldiers cope with stress. Norepinephrine is a chemical used by the brain, to keep you frontal lobes in check in order to think critically. The best way to build up stress tolerance is by training in high stress environments.
At a very fundamental level, one of the ways to tamper stress and slow the heart rate down is deep breathing. Controlled deep breathing helps to send signals to the sympathetic nervous system to slow down the overactive heart. This is one of the reasons why the military is using meditation.
What’s one of the first things a professional athlete does before a free throw? They take deep breaths. A lot of boxers and mixed martial artist will monitor their heart rate before they go out into the ring or cage. When they walk out, they’re taking deep breaths — to slow their heart rate down.
Why not become a professional at controlling our breathing? What’s the easiest way to do this? Meditation. The Samurai and other warrior cultures have been using meditation for thousands of years to train their focus. These cultures knew one thing specifically, that fear is an emotion that derails their attention, and an unfocused state of mind is not good for survival.
Focusing attention on breathing has been shown to help mind rumination. A mind ruminating is a mind out of control. When you have 30 seconds left in a basketball game, and you’re down by a point, the last thing you want is a mind that is all over the place. You have more important things to worry about — like winning the game.