Like many athletes, my tennis student linked wins to worth. The ruminations that built in her head about how others viewed and valued her had become her toughest opponent. She was losing to herself, which is often the toughest loss to swallow. By the time I started coaching her, the obsession with external judgment had grown so strong that she was caving under its pressure. Between mind chatter and spiking Cortisol, she was so paralyzed with fear that she could barely swing her racquet.
I experienced this myself as a competitor, and over the last 15 years of my coaching career, I’ve witnessed countless stories that follow the same script. The overwhelming universal evidence is that judgment is what we fear more than anything in the world. We tell ourselves that if we are judged negatively, and therefore lose positive regard and affection, the devastating effects are unbearable. Forget whether this judgment is real or perceived. Once we think we’re being judged—the moment we project self-criticism—the judgment and criticism are real. We can take other people out of the equation—we’re doing it to ourselves.
I’ve also learned in many years as an athlete and coach that one of the worst things to say to a stressed athlete is “just relax.” In the heat of a battle, telling someone to “just relax” is nebulous, trite and ineffective. What an athlete needs to practice most in those high pressure moments—what anyone needs—are simple and controllable actions that they can complete and repeat again and again and again. They need the guarantee of back pocket (or bottom of their uniform) victories. This is what actually helps people reach their undefined outcomes like relaxation and flow.
After a few weeks of watching this student struggle, something clicked in my own thinking. I knew that if she could just breathe, she could start to regain her power. Maybe that sounds simplistic, but it was true. Somatically speaking, she was so flooded with stress that she’d forgotten to breathe.
We approached the topic from a few angles. Breathing helps with focus. Breathing is a way to manage rhythm. Breathing increases oxygen flow, thus improving brain and muscle function. She started to get it and quickly began to move with greater ease, but one bad shot, lost point, or a glance at a spectator watching her would send her into a spiral. She needed a constant reminder. But what? I couldn’t exactly stand on the sidelines yelling “BREATHE!” during her matches.
It was late at night and I was lying in bed when the answer struck me. In order to combat the negative words in her mind, she needed to have this one powerful, actionable word in front of her where she could see it. And not only in front of her, but as close to her as possible, even if it meant wearing it.
I grabbed a black marker and a white T-shirt, sat on the floor and wrote the word “breathe” upside down on the shirt, so the word would appear right-side up to the person wearing it. After all, the word was for her alone. No one else mattered. Every time she looked down during her match, she would see, read, and internalize this constant reminder.
The next day I gave my student the shirt, and reminded her to “walk to the line, look down, and draw the simple solution from within.”
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