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Breathing: the key to Mental Training

Alan JaegerAlan Jaeger Part pitching instructor with an emphasis on the healthy arm, Alan Jaeger is also a spiritual mentor focused on teaching his students how to find the right focus and stay in the zone. He refers to it as 'finding your process'. Certainly his own 'process' has met with great success. Alan Jaeger has worked privately with many professional players including Barry Zito, Dan Haren and Joel Zumaya, and has consulted with several high school/college programs including Cal State Fullerton, U. San Diego & UCLA. He also has a following among leading instructors and many more pitching coaches in both pro and college ranks. He is certainly one of the people who has greatly influenced many of today's leading pitching instructors, Alan Jaeger has also had a direct impact through his camps and programs on many of today's young pitchers. (Also check out Alan's mental training book 'Getting Focused, Staying Focused', arm strength and conditioning throwing program, 'Thrive on Throwing' (on DVD) and surgical tubing bands (J-bands) available through the WebBall Store.) (Click to close.)

Being 'locked in' is like an accident ...the more you practice mentally the more accident prone you become.
Whether you practice your Mental Training on the field or indoors one of the most important principles is continuity.  Continuity is essential for developing and maintaining skills ...it also breeds familiarity and routine.  Even if you can only put aside 10 minutes a day, keep your practice consistent. Also, try to implement your mental practice as a prerequisite to the rest of your practice plan each day. This will help bring the many potential benefits of the mental practice (clarity, relaxation, focus, good attitude) onto the practice field.

One of the benefits of mental practice is that positive changes tend to happen relatively quickly. Even if the changes are subtle at first if players start performing better in practice because they are more relaxed, focused and consistent, this can really motivate players to embrace their mental practice (especially if they start performing noticeably better in game situations).

Why breathing is important

Through various forms of exercises (Breathing, Imagery, Visualization) and done in the privacy and comforts of the practice field, clubhouse or classroom players can develop and improve upon specific mental skills, including, Relaxation, Concentration, Discipline, Clarity of Mind, Being Present and Confidence that are essential to having a strong mental game (players can ultimately do this work in the comforts of their own home).   
At the center of these exercises is the breath and the role it plays in enhancing physical and mental health.  The breath, like the engine to your car, is the key to keeping the body and mind running smoothly and efficiently. 
Besides the physical benefits that are gained from healthy breathing habits (including relaxed muscles, lower blood pressure, improved circulation, increased energy), there are several mental benefits that can be developed through breath work as well. 

For example, because the breath is often used as a focal point during mental practice the mind can begin to identify with several important mental skills in conjunction with the breath including...
  • Relaxation, because proper breathing patterns can physiologically train and influence the body and mind to be more relaxed
  • Concentration, because attention and focus can be dramatically improved when we commit our attention specifically to the breath
  • Discipline, because it takes a lot of determination and perseverance to stay committed to your breath if distractions (thoughts) try to win over your attention
  • Clarity of Mind, because your breath is "not a thought" it trains the mind how to be in a 'non-thinking' place (and out of your head)
  • Being present, because the breath is always happening now, it serves as a constant reminder (including away from your practice) to come back to this moment, this action (being present is also consistent with teaching the mind how to be processed oriented, which is an essential mental game strategy) 
  • Confidence, because the breath is a very natural and primordial aspect of each of us, focusing on it gives us a sense of unconditional trust and guidance.  Also, as we begin to feel more relaxed, clear minded and focused as a result of practice through breath work, we tend to feel much better about any activity we undertake.  

Finally, once a consistent practice has been established the breath can be used as a powerful resource away from your practice.  Because the body and mind begin to associate several, beneficial feelings as a result of your practice there is a recall effect that is based on conditioning or muscle memory.  It is no different than the recall effect a player has from ingraining any other skill. When a hard ground ball is hit to a 3rd baseman, he reacts to if from the recall of taking thousands of ground balls.
This is what’s called an Unconscious Trigger.
For example, a deep breath away from your practice can serve as an Unconscious Trigger that can link you back to the state of mind formatted during your mental practice.  Whatever skills you are developing and ingraining through your mental practice (e.g. Relaxation, Clarity of Mind, Confidence) your breath serves as a trigger to recall and promote those positive feelings and attributes that have been established in your mental practice.  This is how mental practice can have such a dramatic effect on physical performance.

The following mental training exercise is designed to keep your mental practice simple and attainable on a daily basis. Although it will only address the role of the breath, breathing is the most essential aspect of mental training.

The breathing practice itself

The following practice is designed to last approximately 10 minutes.  In time, it can be lengthened as your practice evolves through familiarity and repetition.  Again, once a connection has been established with your breath other beneficial tools including guided imagery and visualization can be incorporated.  The initial goal here is to build a foundation with your breath by getting acquainted with it and realizing what a profound, positive effect it can have on the mind and body.

Finding the right space to practice in initially is almost as important as the practice itself.
Choose a place that is absent of avoidable distractions (phones, interruptions, time pressures etc.). Put a "do not disturb" sign on your door if necessary. Try to pick consistent times (again, at the start of practice is ideal). Players should wear comfortable clothes and lay down in a manner in which they are on their backs, arms at their sides and legs flat and parallel to each other (once a player matures with the practice, it may be more beneficial to sit in a reclining position because the more erect the spine is, the more alert the mind tends to be).

Finally, getting into the right "frame of mind" prior to the exercise itself is very important. Remind your players that the next 10 minutes or so is dedicated to being present, committing to the breath and staying engaged with the breath. It’s not about thinking ...it‘s actually about NOT thinking and being out of the head. Remind them that if they have to think about something they can do so after the session is over. A nice visual to get the players out of their head is after they lie down, tell them to imagine that their head (thoughts) represents the top floor of a tall building and their diaphragm or stomach area (non thought) represents the ground floor.  This visual can be very powerful as it transfers the players attention from a place of thinking (top floor) to a place of non-thinking (bottom floor) because the breath is not a thought.  Also, diaphragmatic breathing is the optimal way to breathe and is conveniently located in the center of the body, away from the head ...and that’s exactly where you want the players attention to be.

Step 1 Observational Breathing   (3 Minutes)
Bring your players attention to their diaphragm (stomach region) by having them put either hand on their stomach (they can remove their hand after a few minutes).  Breathing through their nose, the players should initiate the inhalation phase of their breath from their diaphragm (rather than their chest).  Remind them that there isn’t a right or wrong amount of oxygen to inhale.  Just let the breath dictate the quantity.  Also, let it dictate the pace.  Their job is to watch the breath do the work.  Just as “watching the inhalation phase of the breath” creates its own pace have them do the same with the exhalation phase of their breath (also exhaling through their nose).  In both phases, it’s as if their breath is breathing them just as the eyes blink on their own without telling them when to blink.  They are just the witness of the breath.

Their job is to keep their attention committed to this first phase of the practice for three minutes. The idea is to relax, let go and trust the breaths natural rhythm.  Wherever the breath goes, the players job is to just go with it.  Remind them that if any thoughts do come into their mind, just let them drift by like birds flying across the horizon.  The number one priority here is to stay engaged to the breath, rather than their thoughts.
Step 2 Cadence Breathing (4 Minutes)
After three minutes of observational breathing they are ready for step two ...cadence or rhythmic breathing.

Once they have begun to acclimate themselves to their breath through observational breathing the next step is to influence the breath by creating a rhythm or “cadence”.  This cadence helps to reinforce the body’s natural way to breathe, helps the body and mind take in more oxygen and provides a format that can deepen their state of relaxation.

To begin the cadence breathing...
  • Remind the players that when they inhale their next breath, breathing through their nose (and initiating the diaphragm first), increase the amount of oxygen they are taking in so it lasts for two long seconds (a two count). 
  • Next, have them hold or retain this oxygen calmly, without tensing, for three seconds (three count). 
  • Have them release the air on their exhale for six seconds (a six count), as slowly and evenly paced as possible. 
  • Finally, once the exhale has completely dissolved, remind the players to “allow” the inhale to come back instinctively.
  • This next inhalation marks the beginning of the second round of their cadence breathing. 
  • Have them repeat this cadence for about four minutes total, or approximately 16 -- 20 full cycles of breaths.
In time, things will tend to get smooth and rhythmic rather quickly with practice. 
They’ll need to experiment at first. They may find themselves taking in too much air or not enough air on the inhale, holding the breath too tightly on the hold phase and running out of breath after the exhale. The true goal is to get the cadence in sync by having the breath dispersed properly throughout each cycle.

Within a week or so of consistent practice, the players will probably see a noticeable increase in their oxygen intake simply because they are “breathing more efficiently”.  In this case, you can suggest to the players to increase the inhalation phase of the breath from 2 to 3 seconds, add 1 second to the hold (4 seconds) and double the length of the hold (8 seconds) on the exhale.  This format may continue to increase because the breath, like any other organism, will tend to grow if given a chance.
Step 3 Observational Breathing Revisited (3 Minutes)
Once you have worked the cadence for approximately 4 minutes, you are going to have the players return to “observational breathing” (just watching the breath without influencing it from Step 1).  With the first two steps complete, they will probably notice that their breath has significantly slowed down and become more rhythmic -- their minds are clearer and more relaxed.  Just like Step 1, their job is to simply observe the breath without influencing it.

In this last phase of the practice you may find that the players want more than a few minutes of “observational breathing” to complete the practice (good things are already happening!).  Because they have spent time in a place that tends to make them feel good, it is almost a given that they are not going to be in a hurry to come out.  Thus, your job is to give them the extra time and space to lengthen out the session if possible.  A few extra minutes can go a long way toward the players feeling clearer, calmer, confident and more focused that day.

Transitioning out of the Session

When you do feel the time is right to bring the players out of the session, please be sure to make this transition smooth and gradual. The players may be coming out of a very deep place ...a place where they’ve built a strong connection to some valuable feelings. Ideally, you want the players to maintain this connection and carry over these positive feelings into the rest of their day (practice, game situation, the classroom, life).  Making a few simple suggestions to them as you are transitioning them out of their session can go a long way.

For example, I’ll let the players know...
"The session is coming to an end and that we are transitioning ourselves into the rest of the day ... so I’d like you to bring your attention to your breath if you're not already there, and take a deep breath on the next inhale, feeling all of the positive energy you’ve just created, and as you exhale the breath (slowly and smoothly), I want you to remind yourself that you are beginning to feel completely refreshed, clear minded, focused."

"Confident, energized, peaceful, connected."
I will continue to repeat this suggestion for a number of breaths until the players naturally come out of the session at their own pace.  I will also substitute words like "confident, energized, peaceful, connected".  These suggestions can be very powerful and help to not only reinforce those positive feelings that are being felt in their practice, but to serve as a reminder to take these feelings “with them” into the remainder of the day. Keeping this connection going is a  powerful concept because players can begin to relate to the concept that their breath brought them to this place, and the breath can be used away from the practice to reconnect them to this place (Unconscious Trigger).

Tips For Your Mental Practice

Though it may not seem that difficult to spend 10 minutes concentrating on the breath it may not be as easy as it sounds.  The first thing the players may notice is that their thoughts are very active, or perhaps they are impatient.  These are all mental 'testers' of their concentration and commitment.  Working through these testers becomes the catalyst to their mental growth and development.

Remember, mental practice is designed to bring out, among other qualities, relaxation, clarity and trust.  These qualities are earned through tests.  So whether they are observing their breath or working on their cadence remind the players that if thoughts come into their mind to leave them alone.  Just like a bird flying across the horizon will eventually fade away, these thoughts will also tend to fade away if left alone.  This ability to let things go (discipline) and stay focused on their breath (concentration) is a crucial component to their practice.

As the players breath becomes familiar and comforting through practice a realization occurs that their breath is there to activate those qualities that matter most to them in sport and life ...relaxation, clarity and trust.  And this relationship is the key to a player maximizing his or her mental skills in both the practice and performance arena.

Alan Jaeger is the author of Getting Focused, Staying Focused - a book that delves into the topics of Mental Practice and Game/Life Management.  Alan has consulted with over 200 professional baseball players, along with many Universities and High Schools.  For more information regarding his book, or any of our other training programs please feel free to contact Alan through WebBall.
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