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by Dr. Kirsten Van Heerden
02 November 2017

How many times have you finished a race and thought: ‘Why on earth did I do that?’. Maybe you went out way too fast in the first 10km, or skipped a vital feed. Things you never normally do, but under pressure you find yourself doing. This is panic at work. Panic underpins many bad decisions. Being able to stay relaxed and calm in the midst of performance pressure is a critical skill for all runners to learn. DR. KIRSTEN VAN HEERDEN, one of a handful of people in South Africa to have both represented her country on the sports field and also hold a PhD in the area of sport psychology, shares the secret to doing just that.

I recently read an article called ‘The #1 Secret Astronauts, Samurai, Navy SEALs, and Psychopaths Can Teach You About Good Decision Making’. An interesting title I thought. Making good decisions under pressure is the hallmark of all great performers, be it a Navy SEAL, Olympic runner or Comrades novice. Good decisions come from being able to control emotions. In other words the secret is: don’t panic!

Your brain is like an an elephant and its rider 
The elephant is the emotional, feeling part of your brain (powerful but simple) and the rider the thinking part of your brain (smart but easily overpowered). Mostly our rider is in control and can direct the elephant (our thinking brain directs our emotions). But what happens if the elephant panics? If you have ever seen an elephant charging or panicking, you will know there is little you can do to stop it.

Good decisions start from keeping our elephant (emotions) calm and letting our thinking brain help us decide what is best. When emotions take over we can’t think clearly and often mess up, make bad decisions and poor choices.  
Take note that I didn’t say you must get rid of your emotions. Emotions are necessary for performance, they give us motivation and give us that adrenaline kick needed to focus and push through when we feel we have nothing left to give. You just want to keep emotions in check and make them work for you.

So how do you stay calm?
One of the best ways is to breathe.  Almost more than any other technique, deep diaphragmatic breathing helps you stay calm and relaxed by calming emotions and helping release muscular tension caused by stress or nerves.
We know most people normally take between 10 and 30 breaths a minute, but for relaxing breathing the magic number is 6. I know that seems like very few breaths, but done properly it’s quite easy to do:

1) Pretend you have a balloon in your stomach, as you breathe in you need to blow the balloon up (i.e. your stomach moves out…often when we take a deep breath we do the opposite and our stomach is sucked in and our shoulders hunch up which is not what we want for relaxing breathing). Then as you breathe out imagine all the air in the balloon being blown out. The trick is to keep your shoulders and upper chest as relaxed as possible while you breathe in and out.
2) To breathe at about 6 breaths a minute the rhythm is: 3 seconds in, 5 seconds out (with a slight pause between the in and out breaths).
Deep breathing in this way helps to calm your emotions and prevent panic. Your logical brain can now make better decisions which means you will perform better.

I know you can’t breathe like this while running, but by using it as part of your pre-race routine (or pre-training routine as a way to clear your mind and get into ‘the zone’), you can at least start the race with emotions in check and your thinking brain in charge.

So, don’t panic, just breathe!

The author Dr. Kirsten van Heerden has worked and travelled extensively with high performance athletes and teams for more than 10 years. Many Olympians, World Champions and South African teams have used her services and techniques. Kirsten works with multiple sporting bodies and associations and is currently acting as performance psychology advisor to SASCOC’s high performance commission and is regional and national player development manager for the South African Cricketers Association’s Player Plus programme.

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