In the Zone
On the eve of my first international regatta, I am writing this in an effort to soothe my nerves. Once we get off the line, I will not be nervous, but getting to that point will be difficult...
My lame journal entry ends there—so much for eliminating my fears with a Bic pen. In the spring of 1994, I was surprised to find myself among the nation's top rowers at a U.S. rowing team pre-elite training camp. I was even more surprised-and simultaneously frantic-when I was named one of the camp's top four rowers who would represent the United States in the Nation's Cup, the official rowing world championship for ages 23 and under.
And They're Off
The nation's cup announcer asked each of the five boats if we were ready, and then the gun went off. Although my team was first off the line, our lead was slowly eaten up by the Germans, two lanes over. I know because I broke the golden rule of rowing: Don't look out of the boat. As they overtook us, my focus was just as much on the German women as it was on our crew, which was flailing about. We got it together enough to come in second, and fortunately, it wasn't the finals; we were just racing for lane placement in the finals, held the following day.
Given the success, or lack thereof, of my previous diary entry, I skipped any journaling efforts the night before the finals. Two days later, though, with a gold medal in my pocket, I wrote on the plane home: This is what I liked most about our race: the mental attitude we had going in. Bebe [our coach] told us to use the Germans as a tool to produce our best race. They were not a competitor, nor a fear or a threat, but rather a gauge for us to ensure we redefined what pulling hard meant. That helped me center my attention in our boat; if I was fretting about who was moving and when, the rhythm and flow of our race would disappear.
Using Your Head
Call it what you want—feeling the flow, being in the zone, athletic nirvana—but the often elusive feeling of effortlessness is the goal of every athlete, regardless of the sport. "You do your best when you just let the performance flow out of you," says Dr. Alan Goldberg, a sports psychologist, director of Competitive Advantage in Amherst, Massachusetts, and consultant to many University of Connecticut teams.
In this mental state, you don't think or analyze or strategize or ponder; you just trust that you've done everything you needed to do to prepare, and you let your body take over. Yoga can help get you into that optimal mental zone and prepare you for competition.
Thom Birch, a former All-American 10,000-meter runner at the University of Houston, turned professional after graduation. At age 30 and the height of his career, he tore his Achilles tendon so severely his surgeon recommended retirement.
Not yet willing to give up, Birch turned to yoga to keep competing. "It was the glue of my training," he remembers.
Prior to races, Birch would run six or seven miles, followed by an hour of Ashtanga Yoga practice. Then he'd do some wind sprints and finish with meditation, during which he visualized an optimal performance. "Yoga was my biggest mental tool to get me focused and into the zone," he says. "You hear athletes say, 'I just didn't have a good day today.' That's usually because they're distracted, which makes them unable to perform."
Birch's career peaked at age 36, when he won the 1986 National Cross Country Championship. "At the end, there were eight of us in a pack with half a mile to go. I out-kicked people 10 years younger than me," he remembers. "What won the race was my ability to stay focused." Today, Birch is a yoga teacher and co-owner of The Hard & the Soft Astanga Yoga Institute in New York City and East Hampton, New York, and works with young athletes, teaching them Ashtanga Yoga and breathing techniques. "The results are tremendous," he says. "Not only are injuries fewer, but the nervousness and lack of focus before a race are greatly reduced too."
The first step toward improving your mental game is staying focused and avoiding negative self-talk. There's a litany of things you shouldn't focus on while competing, beginning with the uncontrollable, such as the weather, the draw, poor officiating, or bad sportsmanship. You waste time and energy by giving any thought to them. Ditto for thinking twice about your opponent: "Ninety-nine out of 100 people who focus on their opponents self-destruct," says Goldberg. Reliving bad calls or botched passes is also unhelpful, as is thinking about winning in general.
"Focus specifically on what you have to do to win, not just on winning," says Goldberg. Swimmers may need to break down a 400-meter race stroke by stroke; golfers may need to approach 18 holes as a series of swings; lacrosse players may need to think only of zeroing in on clean passes during a game.
Yoga is the perfect preparation for developing this focus; while doing yoga, you may focus on anything from your to-do list to your growling stomach, but until you focus on the breath and the details of the poses, establishing the link between the body and mind, your practice will not improve.
Consciously inhaling and exhaling will not only let you root each asana deeper, but "if you can control the breath, you can control the mind," says Dina Dillon, an instructor at New York City's Jivamukti Yoga Center.
Even if you're able to keep your mind focused, be careful to fill it with positive, self-affirming thoughts. Any definitive statement that contains the words "I" followed by "must," "have to," or "never" should immediately be eliminated. Again, regular yoga practice can encourage self-acceptance and confidence.
Just as you might prepare yourself for your asana practice by focusing on the breath, you can breathe your way into a competition. Other pregame rituals, such as repeating a mantra in your head or doing a three-minute Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog), will help establish your concentration. Dillon recommends yoga to relieve precompetition tension and improve mental focus. "People used to think you had a good head for sports or you didn't, but that's not the case," says Goldberg.
Learning how to concentrate correctly is well worth it, as my glory days journal entry can attest: I could go on forever about the race, but suffice it to say, this is why I row, why I take stroke after stroke after monotonous stroke.
Dimity McDowell is a Brooklyn, New York-based freelance writer.