Competition can be stressful. Pressure from yourself or pressure from outside influences such as the team, the event, other competitors, sponsors, spectators, difficulty with kart set-up, when demands exceed one’s own perceived ability, uncertainty or even having to chase a certain result can cause stress.
When stress builds it can become the primary focus of attention, that is to say that thoughts turn to the negative feelings and to the causes of the stress, these then hamper your ability to get into the ‘zone’ and perform as you should or better. When stress builds it can then trigger off the hardwired instinct for the fight, flight or freeze response, the mind is designed to protect the ego, our self-esteem.
Everyone will at some point or another experience stress within the competition environment, and the ability to take a step back from it and put in place constructive methods that help you to cope with and get rid of stress and refocus are essential. So what I am presenting to you today are a couple of the most effective methods and tools that you can use to control or eliminate physical stress that will help you recapture your mental focus. At first glance they may appear odd because they are tools which may well be unfamiliar, but I can assure you that they work and anything that gives you control has to be worth experimenting with and using.
Method 1 – Simple breathing technique
When stress builds, the breathing becomes more shallow, muscles in the top half of the body build because the shallow breathing means less oxygen gets around the body. Concentration suffers and fatigue can accelerate so you have to find a way to get more oxygen back into the system and relax the muscles. This simple technique can be used anywhere, even on the grid whilst waiting, here is what it involves.
Take a slow breath in through the nose to the count of three. As you do this you need to push the tummy out gently, by employing the tummy to draw breath into the lungs what you are doing is pulling the diaphragm down, this draws air into the bottom part of the lungs so utilising more of the lungs’ capacity.
Hold that breath for the mental count of two, this gives the lungs more chance to absorb oxygen from the breath you have just taken in.
Now breathe out slowly and gently to the count of six through your mouth. When you do this you need to again employ the use of the tummy. Gently pull the tummy in so that it pushes the diaphragm up, what this does is to push the stale air out of the bottom of the lungs and so gets rid of toxins that the body has produced ready to then take in more beneficial air which will have the effect of increasing the amount of oxygen entering the body, in doing so this will help the muscles relax and let go of tension.
Repeat the process again straight after the first breath using the tummy to push out gently and draw air into the lungs to the count of three, hold for a couple of seconds and breathe out by pulling the tummy gently inwards so that it clears yet more toxins. You will only need to do this kind of circular breathing two or three times and you should feel the benefits, make sure that you concentrate on it and do it properly. This is a handy technique to know even for outside of sport and can be very helpful if you suffer from exam nerves, before giving a speech, in fact any situation where nerves, stress, anxiety or any other negative emotion might be felt that could hamper you.
Method 2 – Centering
This is known as centering because it involves focusing your attention on a small area just behind your navel (the tummy button) in the centre of your body. This method can be very effective between heats and before the day begins and is best used where you can take yourself away from all the hustle and bustle of the awning to a place in which you won’t be disturbed for a couple of minutes.
Stand with your feet flat on the ground, shoulder width apart, and let your arms just hang loosely by your side.
Close your eyes and concentrate on your breathing for a minute, making sure that you are breathing evenly and steadily. When you breathe in you will notice a tension in your upper body, that’s fine and normal, notice then that as you breathe out you will feel calmer with your muscles relaxing.
Next, imagine that as you breathe in that you are breathing in calmness, and as you breathe out you are breathing away tension. You could even use method 1 here to make sure that you are getting plenty of oxygen into your system but I would suggest that you keep this as simple as possible with less to think about and just keep the breathing steady.
Now turn your attention to the area just behind the navel, place all of your attention there and continue breathing normally and relaxed, as you do so you will begin to feel very controlled and calm. Next add in some words that you say to yourself in your mind that will help to create positive physical feelings and increase mental focus, you can choose your own but I will give you some examples which can be used like “strong”, “calm”, “fast”, “focused” and so on. Say your chosen words every time you breathe in whilst still focusing on the area behind your navel, this will have the effect of self-programming and gaining control over your thoughts and feelings rather than them controlling you.
The above methods deal only with the physical, there are others, but as I say they are the most effective which are proven to work. Do experiment with them and find the level at which you need to get to perform at your best, the reason for this is that with say method 1 you carried on breathing in the fashion I describe for an extended period of time you could become too relaxed, that would be counterproductive for the levels of alertness and fast reactions required for karting starts. The only other point to be aware of is that often when doing one of the stress-relieving techniques, thoughts can enter the mind. Rather than fight them just let them come in and go out again without paying too much attention to them. If you fight the thoughts they have a strange habit of becoming bigger and hamper the exercise.