In part two of our series on transforming mental fitness, Charlie Unwin explains how to clear your mind and develop a performance-boosting breathing habit
One of the biggest challenges of our generation (of which there seem to be many right now), is trying to process the deluge of information that competes for our attention. It’s thought that, with the aid of technology, our brains are processing the same amount of information in one day that our ancestors would have processed in a lifetime. Just take a moment to digest that!
As a result, we have become used to a constant stream of data running through our head, so much so that we don’t really question it.
In sport, this presents a significant challenge, because we need singularity of focus, which comes from a clear mind, to maintain our attention on executing complex skills consistently, sometimes for long periods of time.
Many riders struggle to visualise a dressage test accurately and intensely from beginning to end without their mind deviating or rushing. If we can’t maintain our attention when doing it inside our heads, what hope do we have when we are doing it for real?
This brings me to the second of my “Five Fundamentals of Mental Fitness” – create the space.
Resonating through the brain
“Sensory overload” disrupts our focus. Every thought we have is associated with an emotion which resonates through the brain. Imagine throwing a pebble into a still pond, where the pebble represents a thought and the ripples are the emotions associated with that thought – called resonance. The larger the pebbles, the larger the ripples (resonance) they create.
Now imagine we don’t just throw one pebble into the pond, but hundreds. Clarity becomes chaos. In response to this sensory overload, the brain initiates a stress response, closing down the prefrontal cortex which ironically is the part of our brain that enables us to think clearly and rationalise the situation.
In its absence we lack focus and become preoccupied with our emotions – not ideal when we are trying to control the moment.
Social media is a major culprit. Just 30 seconds of scrolling can create an unhelpful cocktail of thoughts and emotions. A recent study at Loughborough University found that athletes using social media prior to competing suffered a significant decline in their capacity to focus and regulate their emotions.
This is believed to work by activating an area of the brain responsible for self-editing, which in turn inhibits the “mental freedom” we need to perform. Indeed, many of my equestrian clients reported significant gains in their performance by removing themselves from social media prior to competition.
Put simply, focus requires clarity, and this needs to be trained. If we are always reactive to our thoughts, then we never learn to control them. We can get away with this most of the time in training, but the additional pressure of competition means that thoughts can run wild at the very point at which we need peace of mind and total focus. In the absence of any trained mental strategies this can become an internal fight which serves no one well, not least your horse.
Chaos to coherence
Our starting point for doing this is therefore learning how to quieten our mind – not turn it off. This is a terrifying prospect if “busyness” is your normal, but it’s essential for elevated performance. Notice how when you really want to do something well you probably start by getting rid of any distractions.
As I sit down to write this, I have deliberately divorced myself from anything remotely distracting, including mobile phone, food, animals and my wife. Elite athletes are doing this all the time, they are cultivating quality and in doing so they are constantly pruning the unhelpful distractions that get in the way of quality. But this is about more than just creating space in our physical environment, this is also about creating space in our minds.
Breathing is a vital base skill for riders. It may not sound difficult – we’ve been doing it since the day we were born, right? But the reality is that most of us don’t realise how much breathing affects every aspect of our lives: how we move, how we act, how we think, how we perform, and how we feel.
Breathing is like a tide that raises all other performance boats.
In the Army, breathing was taught to us as a way of gaining control in any situation. We embedded it into training in order to control our heart rate, slow our thoughts, and act effectively when all around us was chaos. This state is called “coherence”. Being coherent is something we take for granted when we don’t need it (typically training), and we need it when we take it for granted (typically competition). Therefore, to be good at it we have to practise it like any other part of our performance.
To highlight how easily our breathing gets disturbed by everyday activities, start to notice the depth and rhythm of your breathing when you are doing activities such as emailing, scrolling through social media or planning a competition day (when you get the chance!). Research shows that in these situations your breathing will become disrupted and you may even stop entirely. In fact, it’s thought that due to incorrect habits brought about through modern lifestyles we are only using a fifth or a sixth of our lung capacity.
The result is a chemical imbalance in the brain which induces the body’s stress response. This creates a chain reaction of events which results in unhelpful emotions and muscular tension, which impedes coordination and accuracy of movement. Who would have thought it from such mundane activities?
We will address how you can train your nervous system to respond more effectively to things that challenge us in the weeks to come. First, it is essential to practise good breathing technique on its own.
Take a deep breath
Here’s a simple exercise for you to practise everyday:
- Sit in a comfortable chair, feet flat on the floor, hands resting on your lap.
- Take slow, deep breaths, letting your abdomen rise and fall with each breath.
- Proper breathing is… through your nose. This helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows the heart rate and starts to clear the mind.
- Diaphragmatic: concentrate on filling your lungs from the bottom where they are largest, allowing your stomach to rise and fall.
- Rhythmical: I like to count in for five and out for five. You can vary the count, but breathe out for equal or longer than you breathe in.
It’s important to make this a habit. Do this exercise for long enough to get into a proper rhythm. As an athlete I would do it for 50 minutes every day (incorporating the additional relaxation). But even 10 minutes will start the training process. If you can, do it at the same time every day – first thing in the morning is often a good time. Make it a regular feature of every training session (for instance, whenever you cross the diagonal), thereby creating a positive habit within your riding. Practise this in response to anything that disrupts your natural breathing.
Enjoy the feeling. It should offer you an oasis of control and calm wherever you are and whatever you are doing. No one can take it away from you, but no one can do it for you either.
Five fundamentals of mental fitness
These are, for your mind, what balance, rhythm and accuracy are for your riding – they never stop being important. They are:
- Fundamental #1 – win the day
- Fundamental #2 – create the space
- Fundamental #3 – relax into it
- Fundamental #4 – train your feel
- Fundamental #5 – train your nerves
Interested to learn more? Book on to Charlie’s online course for riders, “Win the Mind Game”, where Charlie and the Centre10 team will help you to achieve better results through mental training. Click here to register.
The author: Charlie Unwin is a specialist in human performance and psychology. His clients include Olympic champions, England footballers, elite special forces and the Royal Household, as well as a number of our international equestrian teams. A former Army officer and British athlete, Charlie is passionate about applying the science of mental performance to equestrian sport, helping riders maximise their potential through training and competition.
Ref Horse & Hound; 16 April 2020