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JUST BREATHE | Mindset Mondays


I’ll never forget the day when one of my daughters had the chance to win or tie a basketball game after the time ran out by making 2 out of 3 free throws when she was in the 4th grade. Instead of stepping up with confidence and knocking them down, she started crying at the line after missing her first two, and before she shot the 3rd one, she looked over at me with tears in her eyes and said, “I’m sorry.”


What was she sorry for? She hadn’t even shot the last, potentially game-tying free throw yet, and make or miss, I would still love her, give her a ride home, and even feed her. But our emotions can completely control us if we aren’t careful or able to manage them, and she had no control over hers at that moment.


We are emotional people - some more than others - so learning how to manage those emotions is an important aspect of being a clutch athlete, effective coach or leader, living our best lives, and creating an environment where we have the best chance to be successful.


Your ability to manage your emotions can be the difference between taking and making big shots and avoiding them altogether.


We can either let our emotions control our minds and bodies, or we can teach our minds and bodies how to control our emotions.


In her book The Art of Bouncing Back, performance coach Darlene Santore, or Coach Dar, writes, “Our brains bounce back best when we train them to remain calm in difficult citation instead of falling into fight-or-flight mode.”


In every brain, there are two almond-shaped clusters of cells called an amygdala. Our amygdala helps our brains define and regulate our emotions. In The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle writes that our amygdala is both our brain's guard dog and its watchdog. When we sense a threat, like missing a game-winning shot, going into a crucial conversation, or having to give a public speech, the amygdala pulls the alarm code in our brains, setting off a fight-flight-or-freeze response that sends chemicals flooding through our body. When these signals go off, the only question we can answer is, ‘Am I safe.’ This is why some people shut down when they get coached too hard or are under pressure, why some fight back harder, and why some people run from pressure (or pass up the game-winning shot or cry at the free-throw line).


Your brain can’t process information when it is in fight-flight-or-freeze mode. Time and safety are the only ways to bring us back down to normal. Fighting fire with fire leads to more fire. Two storms coming together create a bigger storm.


Emotional Neutrality Through Breathing


Coach Dar further writes that when our emotions escalate, we can begin the de-escalation process and regain control by practicing Emotional Neutrality.


Emotional Neutrality is being aware of and acknowledging your emotions, but before you decide what to do with them, you put those emotions in neutral like putting a car in neutral, and then decide what to do next. When a car is going backward in reverse, it can’t automatically go forward, so it has to shift into neutral before stopping. Then you can choose to either go forward by changing your behavior or go backward by continuing to do the same thing you were doing.


Learning how to control and manage your breathing can help you get to Emotional Neutrality and then better and positively manage your emotions.


Learning how to train your body to follow your breath and not your emotions can help you stay in control and move from fight or flight to rest and digest.


Psychologist Adam Saenz says breathing is one of the few things that we have been doing since the day we were born, but we rarely think about it. We often think breathing is something that follows what the mind and body do. When we work, our breathing can get quick and short, when we are watching a scary or intense movie, our breath might turn shallow, and when we are in a deep sleep, our breathing gets slow and deep.


But we can flip this process and use our breathing to control our bodies and mind. Through controlled breathing, you can tell your mind and body what to think, how to feel, and what to do.


Below are 7 breathing techniques that you can use to shift from fight or flight to rest and digest. Practice these routines daily to teach your mind and body how to prepare for and respond to different situations instead of just assuming your mind, body, and emotions are in control.


The more you do these, the more calm, focused, and confident you will feel in even the most stressful or pressurized moments. We can’t remove the stress, adversity, or pressure in your life, but these mindful breathing exercises can help you better manage your mind so you can be in a place mentally to do your best work.


As a leader. I use these techniques before or even in the middle of a big or important meeting or speech, when I feel stressed about data, or whenever I need to focus or calm my mind.


As a coach, I use these before a big game, before a big timeout, or before I talk to an athlete or a parent - especially when I know that conversation might be emotional.


As a parent, I use these techniques before big or emotional moments, like asking my kids to clean their room, addressing grades or behavior, before or during big games, and after big games when I don’t think they played to their potential (or cried at the free-throw line instead of confidently shooting their shot).


As an athlete, these breathing techniques are something I might do walking to the free-throw line, before kicking a field goal, or before throwing a game-winning ouch or hitting a game-winning home run.


Strengthening your mental muscles through breathing techniques is a different type of workout. Like strength training, it could take days, weeks, or even months until you start to see a difference, but if you can find a routine where you are doing some of these regularly, you can see an increase in your performance because of an increase in your mindfulness and mental strength and grit.


1 - Controlled Breathing


Anytime I start to feel nervous or anxious, I start here. All you do is breathe in slow and deep, hold your breath for 3 seconds, and then exhale slowly and deeply. I breathe in my nose and out my mouth. 


  • Relax your neck and shoulder muscles

  • Breath in for 2-4 seconds through your nose

  • Hold your breath for 3 seconds (or however long you feel)

  • Breath out for 2-4 seconds out of your mouth

  • Repeat 3-10 times

  • Think about how calm or confident you feel


2 - Times 2 Breathing


For this technique, you are going to breathe in your nose for 2-5 seconds and out your mouth for twice that amount of time. Counting the seconds helps you get calm and focused.


  • Relax your neck and shoulder muscles

  • Breath in for 2 seconds through your nose

  • Breath out for 4 seconds through pursed lips (like you are whistling)

  • Repeat 3-10 times

  • Think about how calm or confident you feel


3 - Box Breathing


For this technique, you will breathe in, hold your breath, breathe out, and hold your breath again before repeating for the same amount of time.


Again, controlling and counting the time helps you get calm and focused and feel like you are under control.


  • Relax your neck and shoulder muscles

  • Breathe in for 5 seconds

  • Hold your breathe for 5 seconds

  • Breath out through pursed lips for 5 seconds

  • Hold your breath for 5 seconds

  • Repeat 3-10 times

  • Think about how calm or confident you feel


4 - 4-7-8-4 Breathing


This is another technique that utilizes a counting system to bring mindfulness and focus to our breathing patterns.


  • Relax your neck and shoulder muscles

  • Breathe in for 4 seconds

  • Hold your breath for 7 seconds

  • Breath out through pursed lips for 8 seconds

  • Hold your breath for 4 seconds

  • Repeat 3-10 times

  • Think about how calm or confident you feel


5 - Good-Good


You have the ability to control what you are thinking through your breathing. For this technique, when you breathe in and breathe out, you are going to think of something good or positive. Breathe in positivity, and breathe out positivity.


You can choose how long you want to breathe in, how long you breathe out, and how long you choose to hold your breath when you breathe both in and out.


Telling yourself positive affirmations or stories about yourself can give you the confidence boost you need to take the next right step or move on to the next play the right way.


Relax your mind and body and control your breathing and your thoughts.


  • Relax your neck and shoulder muscles

  • Breathe in and think about something good

  • Breath out thinking about something good

  • Breath in and mentally or physically say a positive word or thought

  • Breath out and mentally or physically say a positive word or thought

  • Repeat 3-10 times

  • Think about how calm or confident you feel


6 - Out With the Old, in with the New


Sometimes I want to go through the practice of releasing the bad thoughts and energy out of my body. With this exercise, breathe in something good and breathe out the bad. When you breathe in, think about something positive or something that you want to happen, and breathe out something negative or what you don’t want to think or feel anymore.


Again, the timing doesn’t matter. Relax your mind and body and control your breathing and your thoughts.


  • Relax your neck and shoulder muscles

  • Breathe in and think about something good

  • Breath out thinking about something negative or bad you want to release or don’t want to think or feel

  • Breath in and mentally or physically say a positive word or thought

  • Breath out and mentally or physically say something negative or bad you want to release or don’t want to think or feel

  • Repeat 3-10 times

  • Think about how calm or confident you feel


7 - Positive Hold


With this exercise, after you breathe in, you are going to hold your breath and briefly meditate on something positive, and then breathe out. This is a short, simple practice similar to the Controlled Breathing exercise.


  • Relax your neck and shoulder muscles

  • Breathe in slowly through your nose

  • Hold your breath and think about something positive

  • Slowly breathe out through your mouth

  • Repeat 3-10 times

  • Think about how calm or confident you feel


It doesn’t take long for you to start feeling the effects of some of these breathing techniques and don’t wait until you are in a pressure situation and experiencing fight-flight-or-freeze mode until you start using them. Start today and practice multiple times every day.


In fact, I just took a brief break and did a couple of sets of Controlled Breathing and 4-7-8 Breathing.


We are now about three years removed from the moment my daughter cried at the free-throw line, and in her short career, she has already hit more game-winning shots than most people make in a lifetime. The week I am writing this, she was playing in a middle school game where her team was up by two points when they fouled a shooter with less than one second left on the clock. The person going to the line with the chance of sending the game into overtime started crying; when I saw this, I knew she was going to miss her shots, and she did.


After the game, my daughter said to me, “I knew she was going to miss her free throws because she was crying before she shot them.”


Emotions are a part of the human experience. Hopefully, she will learn how to use breathing techniques to better manage them so she can take and make big shots in the future.

For a PDF of this blog post, click here: Just Breath | Mindset Mondays


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