Team USA gymnast Laurie Hernandez is blowing us away in Rio: Her talent is obviously out of this world, but what’s just as impressive is the poise and confidence the 16-year-old first-time Olympian exhibits pretty much every time she’s on camera.
Take her performances so far. At the Olympic trials back in July, Hernandez calmly stood before a huge crowd, closed her eyes, put one hand on her stomach, and breathed deeply. Then she proceeded to kill it on beam. (She took first.)
This week, as she struck her starting pose for the floor exercise, she sent the judges a smile and sneaky wink. Later, before hopping up on the beam, the camera caught her whispering to herself, “I got this.” And she was right.
But these little pre-routine behaviors aren’t just a fun part of her personality, says sports psychology consultant Robert Andrews. They’re actually valuable tools for getting in the right mindset for optimal performance—and they’re easy enough for anyone to learn, elite athlete or not.
Breathing like a champ
Andrews, who has a master’s degree in psychology and a background in fitness, runs the Institute of Sports Performance in Houston. He’s worked with hundreds of professional athletes, including Hernandez and her teammate Simone Biles; in fact, he taught Hernandez that very breathing routine she practices before competition.
“I like to say that oxygen is the cure for stress and anxiety,” says Andrews. “A lot of athletes, when they’re stressed out, start breathing a lot shallower and faster. So learning how to monitor and be aware of breathing patterns under stress is important.”
What Hernandez is doing before she competes, he explains, is called diaphragmatic or “belly” breathing. “She’s moving her diaphragm down so that her lungs can open up,” he says. “Laurie, like a lot of people, tends to hold her stress in her stomach—so she’s connecting her mind to her stomach and her breathing patterns.”
Deep, diaphragmatic breathing can release tension in the body, says Andrews, which can also relax the mind. That changes hormonal function in the brain, and lowers the production of the stress hormone cortisol.
Acting confident goes a long way
Andrews also works with athletes on body language and posture, which he says can have a big psychological influence on performance. “Laurie has a very upright, straight posture when she’s getting ready for a routine,” he points out. Not only does that make an impression on the judges, he says, it can also make an impression on her own brain.
“Strong body language like that can actually increase the production of testosterone and lower the production of stress-related hormones,” he says. “It creates brain chemistry that increases assertiveness and confidence, which you need just the right amount of when you’re on the bars, the beam, the floor, wherever.”
The same goes for Laurie’s now-famous “I-got-this” pep talk. Andrews didn’t teach her those words exactly, but he says he has talked with her about the power of positive thinking.
“Where you point your mind, your body follows—so Laurie has figured out that those words are very empowering for her mind and body, and they’re going to help her bring out that fierceness that she needs,” he says. “I can’t think of a better powerful, affirmative statement of belief in herself.”
You can use belly breathing too—and not just for sports
Anyone can benefit from diaphragmatic breathing before a stressful event, says Andrews—from an age-group runner competing in a race to a teenager taking an exam. The practice can help in the corporate world, too, with everything from job interviews to sales pitches to public speaking.
“I’ve had high school and college students who report back to me that they’re making better grades on tests and giving better presentations in front of the class because they’re using these mindfulness techniques,” says Andrews. “Athletes call it their peak performance zone, but really everyone works better when they’re in a mindful, centered state.”
Ready to give it a try? Here’s what to do next time you’re in a stressful situation and feeling nervous. (If you’re not in one right now, just picture yourself there.)
- Close your eyes and sit or stand up straight.
- Find the spot in your body where your stress is building up. Is it in your throat? Your chest? Your stomach? Focus on that spot.
- Inhale deeply, so that your stomach expands out and not up. It can help to put your hand on your stomach to feel this movement happening.
- Concentrate on slowly breathing in and out, and feel your stress levels come down.
Andrews works with athletes on bringing those emotions down to the appropriate level. If 1 means no stress at all and 10 means all-out freak out, some people might perform best at a 5, others at a 3, he says. The key is to learn what works best for you.
And while Andrews says that the mental aspect of competition is especially important in Olympic sports—where a hundredth of a point or a literal split second can determine the winners—he agrees that it’s also a big part of successful performances of any type, at any level.
So next time you’re feeling unsure of yourself, try giving yourself a little mental boost a la Laurie Hernandez. Close your eyes, focus on your breath, and maybe even give a little wink. Because guess what? You’ve got this.
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