What do competing in a triathlon and dealing with a tense situation in a board meeting have in common? The better you breathe, the better you’ll perform.
I am fascinated at how many times the simple act of breathing comes up in my coaching work. In times of stress, people forget to take the breath they know they need. Without this breath, people are prone to react without taking a moment to think before responding. To give their brain a hit of O2, clients and I work together to create physical reminders in their environments and subtle structures in their routines that prompt them to remember.
Then I, soap box queen of meditation practices and mindful breathing, nearly forgot to use my own tool. Three weeks before my first triathlon, I was keeping my friend company in the hospital as she prepared for heart surgery. She asked how the training was going, and I confessed my insecurities. “I’m swimming,” I told her, “but I’m scared and slow. The biking is okay. I have no idea if I’ll have the stamina to run after doing the first two.”
“It’s all about the breathing, you know,” she said. She reminded me that, in addition to singing professionally for several years, she had spent hundreds of hours with serious athletes while they were training. “Your success is directly tied to how well you breathe. Work on your breath, and you’ll be all set.”
She was right, of course. I took care of my breathing, and my body was fine. I swam, I biked, and I ran. I even laughed and joked.
What about in the boardroom? I don’t know about you, but breathing is not the first thing I instinctively think about with budget papers in front of me or when terse remarks begin to fly. Yet, I’m training myself to pay attention to my breath in those circumstances too. Let’s put it this way. How likely is it that you are going to come up with a great insight or witty remark if you are holding your breath and cutting off the oxygen supply to your brain? A deep, mindful breath can do a world of wonders.
I remember overhearing a dad coaching his two young daughters during the first 5K I ever ran. “Take a couple of really deep breaths,” he said to them about half-way through the race. “You want to clear the old air out.” I love that image.
Whether you are exercising, reaching into your big toe for one more ounce of patience during an interminable bedtime, or listening with shock and horror at what your colleague just shared, take a deep breath. Exhale. Clear the old air out. Take another one. Your brain, your body, and your buddies will be glad you did.