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The Inscrutable Mental Game, Or Lessons to Take Your Breath Away – March 2009 – Par Bowling by Tom Kouros

The Inscrutable Mental Game, Or Lessons to Take Your Breath Away

ALL SPORTS HAVE THEIR SHARE OF enigmas, some trivial in nature, others indigenous only to their respective discipline. But one mystery looms formidably in the mind of every competitor, whatever the sport. That “mother of all enigmas” is the mental game, viewed by many as more important than the physical game itself.

Focusing on two of its aspects might help cast off some of the bafflement.
Olympic-class high jumpers will tell you they learn to concentrate harder every time the height of the bar is raised. Moments before the attempted
leap, all their thoughts are excluded, save the sight of the bar and their attempt to focus more strongly on engaging certain muscles at the proper time. They spend as much time training the nervous system as they do lifting weights because they have to bring into play muscles that they don’t ordinarily use in order to excel.

Confidence also plays a role here. In bowling, the many “greats” — Don Carter, Earl Anthony, Mark Roth, Dick Weber, etc. — had personas that radiated conviction. On a personal level, a teammate who bowled against Carter in the All Star Tournament was literally flabbergasted by his cool demeanor. Nevertheless, the real enigma here is concentration, that often elusive factor that slows the rush of time; concentration, that command that ignites our muscles at the right time and place; concentration, that quality that affords us the opportunity to get it all in; concentration, that skill that gets us into the “never-never-land” often referred to as the zone.

On an other note, when competing, there is a growing school of thought that many of us control our diaphragm too strongly, which leads to tension and irritation of that organ’s muscles. Excessive control tends to give these muscles little chance to re-stretch and relax at any point during the entire play.

Most psycho/physiological axioms preach methodology that teaches good breathing habits. For example, moments before the contest begins, many athletes are seen taking deep breaths, thus successfully relaxing and getting
their emotions under some reasonable control. But are they breathing properly?

Proper breath control is very important to an athlete. In September of 1944, I was a 17-year-old University of Illinois freshman who, as a high school senior, had run a 4:38 mile on a cinder track. At the University, our track and field class was conducted by Leo Johnson, one of the great
track coaches of that period. On our third meeting, he asked us to run a mile, after which he put me on a treadmill. As I ran, he measured my carbon dioxide exhalation and, after analyzing the data, proclaimed that I would be
one of the best two-milers the University ever had. Though football was my sport, I trained under Coach Johnson until early spring, at which time I was consistently running under 4:20 for the mile (Bannister had yet to break the 4-minute mark). Coach Johnson taught me several things; most important was how to breathe through my nose as opposed to my mouth.

Two weeks before spring football practice, I stepped on a scale to discover that all those laps in the armory had taken my weight down from 180 to 139 pounds. Football was my first love, so that ended my track career.

Incidentally, a distant cousin of mine, Yiannis Kouros, still holds several world marathon records. Coach Johnson was years ahead of his time. Today, it is increasingly clear that the nose is best equipped for respiration during states of rest or exercise. Mouth breathing can lead to hyperventilation, which is all but impossible when breathing through the nose. Understand that hyperventilation is frequently associated with anxiety and fear. Many scientists have recently postulated that mouth
breathing often “triggers” a fight-or-flight reflex, which can lead to a variable degree of mental disorientation.