Dustin Watten: How “Awareness of Breath” and lessons from Mumford pay dividends

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Dustin Watten 5/3/2020
2020.03.08 Katowice Siatkowka mezczyzn PlusLiga Sezon 2019/2020 GKS Katowice - Jastrzebski Wegiel Dustin Watten and teammate Rafal Szymura playing in Poland earlier this year/Marcin Bulanda, PressFocus photo
USA men’s national team libero Dustin Watten wants to share what he’s learned as an athlete, how he’s inspired and what he’s overcome to get where he is.
Watten has plenty to say about life and volleyball and wants to tell you not only of his successes, but also his failures and setbacks and how he overcame them.
Awareness of Breath
Between stimulus and response there is a space.
In that space is our power to choose our response.
In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
— Viktor E. Frankl

A.O.B., or Awareness of Breath, has made a huge impact in my life on and off the court after discovering the acronym in the book “Mindful Athlete” by George Mumford.

Many NBA fans know Phil Jackson as the “Zen Master” and as the coach who used mindfulness to as a secret weapon to propel the championship teams led by Michael Jordan and then Kobe Bryant. 

What people don’t know is that it was actually a man named George Mumford who made the connection between mindfulness and the “flow state,” peaking the curiosity of both the Lakers and Bulls star players, propelling them to practice mindfulness for performance.

How was a former college basketball athlete turned mindfulness teacher able to relate to athletes such as Kobe Bryant, Shaq and Michael Jordan, who were already at the top of the basketball world? 

The Zone
When Mumford spoke in the Lakers’ and Bulls’ locker rooms, before he brought up meditation or mindfulness, he spoke about being in the zone. It’s the feeling when the ball seems much larger than normal, that feeling when the athlete knows what was going to happen before it happens, when they are a step faster than the rest of the competition. He was able to connect with them because they all knew this feeling but didn’t exactly understand how to put it into words like Mumford did and because of this, they bought into Mumford’s message of mindfulness and the power of the breath.

The Breath. What’s the big deal?
For all humans and our four-legged companions on land, breathing is central to sustaining life. However, for the athlete, being able to learn to work with the breath empowers us to push past the anxiety of the past, while simultaneously letting go of the anxiety ridden future.

For the amateur as well as the professional, these moments of anxiety and insecurity are led by thought and are common roadblocks within training and competition. By returning to the breath, the athlete is able to enhance their focus and confidence by being more centered in the present moment rather than anchored with the past’s insecurities or the anxiety of an unknown and scary future.

With an emphasis on a deep, long breath, we have the ability to create this space between stimulus and response as Victor Frankl eloquently put it. Rather than stimulus and response being mashed together, we are able to step back in a relaxed, alert, receptivity where we can observe things and create space, responding diligently and confidently. 

Mumford said that “in that space, rather than a knee-jerk response with no intention than reactivity, we can choose our response. Given whatever situation we are faced with, we can choose our response and the best way to respond. Even if we don’t get it right, we can learn from it but within that space we are able to pause and ask ourselves if how we will respond is skillful or non-skillful, helpful or non-helpful, taking me where I want to go, or going against my values and my morals.”

Eye of the Hurricane
Mumford talks a lot about the strength of being surrounded by the stresses and fear of life, while able to access this quiet space, inside the eye of the hurricane.

“There’s a lot of power in the eye of the hurricane, this blue sky and the quiet still, amongst this whirlwind, chaos and turmoil inside of us. This is the quiet place that the athlete is able to act out of, rather than being hung up, dealing with stress, anxiety and fear. We become consumed with fear because we identify with what is happening, instead of realizing what is happening to you is not you. Whatever you observe is not you, it’s just what you are observing, but we identify with a sticky mind as the brain doesn’t know the difference between what we are thinking about and what we are experiencing.”

We begin running these old tapes of past failures, shame and disappointment of when we last experienced this same stimulus, we are catastrophizing. Everyone has experienced this on and off the court, it’s the irrational thoughts that something is far worse than it actually is, whether it’s making a catastrophe out of a current situation or imagining a catastrophe out of a future situation.

Here are a few of my past “catastrophe” thoughts. Can you relate?

— “I’m going to get subbed out if I shank another ball.”

— “I can’t pass anything, I’m worthless today.” 

— “They got three points in a row. We are going to lose.”

—  “We always choke under pressure.”

The science behind the breath
Awareness of the breath is the controlling or manipulating the breath to promote a state of relaxation. It’s the physiological mechanism through which relaxation is created is the parasympathetic nervous system. On the other side of the coin is the sympathetic nervous system, known as the “fight or flight,” which releases a flood of hormones into the bloodstream, activated by short and fast breaths.

The parasympathetic nervous system functions with deep breathing, promoting relaxation, and in this relaxed state, the present moment is more available to athletes on and off the court. 

When we are relaxed, especially in between plays, the mind is much calmer, the body isn’t as tense, we are more attuned to our sensory experience and we are able to think and see more clearly, allowing ourselves to access flow states much more easily. In the context of athletic performance, the now-moment is crucial to success. 

In high pressure situations, there isn’t any bandwidth for the mind to wander back to a missed attack, a shanked pass, or the anxious anticipation of the next serve. In volleyball, the play happens so quickly that any lapse in awareness can prove costly. With the awareness on the breath, we are able to begin to train present-moment awareness and open the athlete up to entering and sustaining flow states and most importantly allowing us to focus on the most important ball ‘the next one.’

Navigating the negative thoughts
Mumford offers a couple points of focus: The first is to remain alert to “unwholesome qualities” that may arise. This can come in the form of negative thoughts or laziness. The second is to notice when unwholesome qualities come up, and abandon them rather than get caught in reacting to them.

For example, we can notice when a negative, unhelpful thought arises and aim to acknowledge it as such, and then let it go without giving it anymore power. This takes practice and training, most specifically a mindfulness meditation practice.

The third is to foster new qualities that are wholesome and the fourth is to sustain those qualities that already exist. An example of how to cultivate more wholesome thoughts would be to write down any negative thoughts that may come up concerning your performance, and then do your best to rewrite them as more wholesome positive ones.

I personally love the medium of journaling, as I created and use my own format (which you can find at dustinwatten.com/selz) where I answer two big questions to end each day: “Today’s greatest challenge was?” and “What did I learn from it.?”

By being honest with myself and the adversity that I face each and every day, I take personal responsibility and become a co-creator in how I would best face this challenge the next time I face it, while flipping the challenging moment I experienced today into tomorrow’s intention.

Awareness of Breath
The path to creating positive qualities and habits is to remain committed to the daily practice of mindfulness, which may appear anywhere from meditation, yoga, deep foam rolling or simply a focus on a deep, conscious breath.

As athletes, it’s within our power and our control to be conscious, mindful and recognize that our entire life can be a training ground for presence.

As we continue along our journey, this mindfulness can strengthen our ability to reset and to create a new present, a present where our most determined, confident, focused and highest self operates and resides at.

To connect your club or collegiate athletes and work personally with Dustin Watten email him at dustinwatten@gmail.com
Follow him on Instagram @dustinwatten and get his 7-Day Passing Course at https://dustinwatten.selz.com/

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