Mental Edges #2: Control Your Breathing

High level Magic is stressful. Not only is it easy to become susceptible to pressure, nervousness, tension, and stress from your expectations, but the tournaments these days are getting larger and larger, meaning that bigger tournaments like Grand Prix and Pro Tours are getting longer, making psychological fatigue and mental burnout a real issue for many players.

With Magic being such a mental game, the ability to be calm, relaxed, and focused so that you can process your thoughts clearly and make good decisions is essential. The more calm, relaxed, focused, and fresh you can keep your brain over the course of a tournament, the greater your edge will be over the players in the field who can’t.

Mental edge—At different times throughout a tournament, do a controlled breathing exercise.

The concept of meditation has been around for centuries, if not thousands of years. In the Indus Valley, archaeologists discovered evidence of meditation in wall art dating from approximately 5,000 to 3,500 BCE. The images depict people sitting in what many of us would recognize as meditation postures. In other words, the figures sat on the ground with crossed legs, hands resting on their knees, and their eyes slightly narrowed but not completely closed. There are also descriptions of meditation techniques found in Indian scriptures dating back to around 3,000 years ago.

In today’s modern times, the benefits of meditation, or conscious breathing, are being well and firmly established from a scientific perspective. In the world of sport, for example, sports psychologists and mental coaches such as myself make conscious breathing a pivotal part of their athlete’s performance routines. Every client I have across every spectrum of sports all practice and utilize conscious breathing as part of both their preparation and in their performances.

Can consciously controlling your breathing bgive you a mental edge in tournaments? Let’s look at the various benefits that conscious breathing exercises can give you and I’ll let you decide for yourself.

#1. Controlling your breathing alleviates fear, stress, and pain.

When you intentionally control your breathing, you release potent neurotransmitters and brain chemicals called endorphins. Endorphins interact with the opiate receptors in the brain to reduce your perception of fear, stress, and pain. Studies have shown that consciously controlling your breathing literally reduces the density of brain tissue associated with anxiety and worrying. As a Magic player, this makes intentional breathing a fantastic exercise when you find yourself in high pressure situations.

#2. Controlling your breathing increases your ability to be calm and relaxed.

Not only does consciously controlling your breathing release endorphins into your body to manage fear, nerves, and stress, it also activates what’s called the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is what’s responsible for regulating your “fight or flight” response that you feel in tense situations and counter-acts that by executing a relaxation response. By consciously controlling your breathing, you create a relaxation response that allows you to remain calm and relaxed in tense games.

#3. Controlling your breathing increases your ability to focus, concentrate, and memorize information.

Consciously controlling your breathing helps to greater activate your limbic system, which is the area of your brain responsible for regulating your focus, concentration, and memory. Controlling your breathing will not only help prevent you from being unnecessarily distracted, but it can also help you to better store and consolidate new information throughout your games.

#4. Controlling your breathing increases your ability to make decisions.

As you know, the ability to make decisions is kind of a big deal in Magic. Consciously controlling your breathing helps to increase and improve the functioning of your brain’s decision-making centers.

#5. Controlling your breathing increases your ability to be creative.

Creativity is also important in Magic, and not just in a deck building sense. Whenever you find yourself in a complex game state during your games, you need creativity in order to see various lines of play and to come up with solutions. Consciously controlling your breathing helps to increase your ability to be creative. Studies have shown that people who practice controlled breathing score higher on tasks where creativity is needed than those who don’t.

As you can see, the benefits of controlled breathing are enormous, so it is something you should incorporate as part of your performance routine in tournaments. The question now is how? What’s the best way, and most ideal scenarios, for utilizing controlled breathing exercises? Let’s take a look.

High-Stakes Games

Top 8 matches, Top 4 matches, win-and-ins, and tournament finals. These are all matches where the stakes are high and “win or bust” kicks in. These kinds of games can easily increase your fight-or-flight response and cause you to feel an enormous amount of pressure. When you sit down at the table and begin shuffling your deck, that’s a great time to utilize a controlled breathing exercise to calm yourself down and relieve those emotions before the game starts.

Tight Game Situations

Like I’m sure most of you did, I watched the World Championships coverage over the weekend (by the way, congrats Huey on winning. ChannelFireball does it again!). Games 3 and 4 of the finals were some of the most tense and balanced games you could play. The slightest miscalculation or misplay would have completely swung the momentum of the game in the other player’s direction, or even outright lost the game. In these situations, that’s another great time to utilize a controlling breathing exercise in order to keep your mind calm, relaxed, focused, and clear so that you can think properly and make the right decisions. For example, you can perform a controlled breathing exercise during your opponent’s turn in order to help get your mind clear for your next turn.

In Between Rounds

Large Magic tournaments are a marathon, not a sprint. Keeping your brain fresh so that you can avoid psychological fatigue and mental burnout is essential, otherwise your brain will be too worn out in critical matches and you’ll find yourself making sloppy mistakes you wouldn’t normally make and hurting yourself at the wrong time. As often as you can, between rounds, find some space to sit down and do some controlled breathing. You can do it in the tournament space, but ideally, get outside the playing the area and find a quiet space away from all the noise to sit down by yourself and detox your mind.

You’ve learned about the importance of controlling your breathing, and you’ve learned about some of the best situations in which to use them. The last thing you need to learn is exactly how to do them. How do you do a controlling breathing exercise so that it can be as effective as possible?

5-5 Breathing

For me, one of the best breathing exercises you can do, if not the best, is an exercise that I like to call 5-5 breathing. 5-5 breathing is very simple: You breathe in slowly for 5 seconds through your nose, and then you breathe out slowly for 5 seconds through your mouth. An important factor in this exercise is making sure you focus and concentrate on your actual breathing. When you breathe in, focus on your breathing as you inhale. When you breathe out, focus on your breathing as you exhale. Another important factor is that you have to feel it. As you’re breathing in, feel your abdomen expand. As you’re breathing out, feel your abdomen shrink. You can do this exercise as many times as you need to in order to get a desired effect. You can do it once, or you can do it multiple times. It just depends on what you need.

Utilizing a controlled breathing exercise is one of the best things you can do to help yourself achieve peak performance. When other players are feeling emotionally stressed during tough games or mentally fatigued in the latter stages of the tournament, your mind will be much more calm, clear, focused, and fresh, giving you a significant edge over those players.

Thanks for reading, and breathe on!

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