03/26/2015 05:04 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Just Breathe


She was the former club champ with formidable groundstrokes, but you wouldn't know it. She'd built a mental block that was crippling her game and melting her self-confidence. Once fluid and powerful, she now staggered anxiously to the baseline, the ball feeling like a grenade in her hand. How'd she get here? Words. Not just words she'd heard but words she'd said repetitively to herself, words like, "I suck," "I've lost it," "I'm done."

Like many athletes, she 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.

Over the last 15 years of my coaching and therapy career, I've listened to countless stories about how judgment is what we fear more than anything. 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."

Was the shirt the solution? I believe that the work we did, from our very first session all the way up to the shirt played a role. In the end, she started winning again. And smiling. More importantly, as on-court success continued, the larger success revealed itself: she discovered a new way to approach her stressful moments, empower her own actions, and simplify the dialogue in her head. Her clothing became a reminder that keyed a mental shift, which triggered a physical response. Her body and mind were in motion together.

Word spread to other students. One shirt led to another, which led to another. Eventually there were dozens of shirts containing self-directed, one-word messages designed to help others take control. Ten years later, I have an apparel line, MbyMindInMotion--clothing that inspires, encourages and moves people toward confidence and possibility. Was this my intent when I made my first shirt? Not even close.

Here's a question I ask people all the time: How would your life change if you could physically look down every day at a single word that prompted an emotional shift? If "seeing is believing," how can your eyes trigger your deepest motivation? Can you silence your own negative chatter, and focus instead on something tangible and powerful that is both in front of and within you?

What if you could turn your apparel into something you wear from the Inside, Out? Imagine the widespread effect this would have on people you interact with daily? Perhaps your sense of style could inspire the words you want to internalize, and then become the feelings you wish to project. Ultimately, you could create a contagious boomerang effect of greatness all around you.

Here's a challenge: name the word and/or action that will get you through your own slump. Write it down (and share it below!). Put it where you'll see it. Look at it again and again. Take it in. Own it. Complete it. Be it. Repeat it. When you do, you'll blow beyond your negative self-perceptions and external projections, fixing your gaze instead on powerful truths inside you.

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