Physiology: the way in which a living organism or bodily part functions. Aka — the way the body works on the inside!
Nervousness — its inevitable. And our bodies are designed to utilize it for good. Like the accelerator on a car, nerves can rev our bodies up to perform at our best. However, uncontrolled acceleration isn’t good for a car, nor for a competitor. We can manipulate our own physiology in order to control the acceleration and the deceleration of our nervous system.
Imagine this: your athlete is at a championship meet, last event, every routine performed flawlessly thus far, and their next up on beam. What is their heart rate at that moment? Just how sweaty are the palms of their hands and feet? Are they shaking just a tad?
That is what your body does to you when you are nervous … and when your body is being controlled by whats called the Sympathetic Nervous System, aka your accelerator. I’ll try to keep the science lessons at a minimum, but the more you know the more you can help maximize their performance.
The body has whats called the autonomic nervous system, and its split into two parts that are quite opposites - the Sympathetic Nervous System & the Autonomic Nervous System. They serve different purposes and control different functions within the body. Here is a quick breakdown:
Sympathetic Nervous System: “Fight or Flight”
Parasympathetic Nervous System: “Rest & Digest”
Now, the body is never ONLY in a sympathetic state, or ONLY in a parasympathetic state. So that means it can be affected by both systems. Question: Which system do you think is dominant when competing, especially right before your athlete mounts the beam in the scenario we imagined earlier?
Absolutely the Sympathetic Nervous System! BUT — they can have an influence on how dominate that state of their physiology has on them!
We certainly want more blood flow to the muscles so that they can contract them and have adequate power output, but perhaps sweaty palms don’t quite give them an advantage in their triple series. OR, we want the benefit from increased focus thanks to the sympathetics, but not necessarily the 200 beats per minute heart rate that the adrenaline is giving them. Well, a very simple drill can help you tap into the parasympathetics just enough so that they can maximize the systems of their body to help them perform at their absolute best!
I talk about it continuously. And I am sure you’ll soon tire of it, but breathing patterns can directly influence the ability to calm your being, slow your heart rate, and decrease the sweat pouring out of the bottoms of your feet.
There are two main breathing patterns — Apical & Diaphragmatic. When you take an apical or a “chest breath” in, your ribs rise upward toward your chin and your stomach draws inward. When you take a diaphragmatic or a “belly breath” in, your thoracic diaphragm (the primary muscle of respiration) contracts and allows the abdomen to expand. I’ll spare you more science, but a lot more goes on during this than what I just simply explained. In hopes to keep this helpful and not overly technical, I’ll too simply say that when you breathe through your “belly” you stimulate a nerve that increases your ability to tap into your parasympathetic nervous system. That nerve is called the vagus nerve and originates directly from the brainstem. It traverses through the thoracic diaphragm and is stimulated with diaphragmatic contraction. This helps what we mentioned before: calms your being, slows your heart rate, and decreases the sweat pouring out of the bottoms of your feet.
So lets go back to that moment before your athletes competes on beam at their championship meet. Their heart is pounding, their hands are trembling ever so slightly, and they can’t put enough chalk on the bottoms of their feet to ease their fear of slipping. Encourage them to take a minute. Perform 60 seconds of light, but intentional “Belly Breathing.” Teach them to tap into their parasympathetics and maximize their physiology!
By allowing 60 seconds of breath work before they salute, they are empowering themselves to stop the trembling, calm their body & attack that beam routine! They work so incredibly hard for the whole year, add 60 more seconds of (breath) work and take control of the accelerator.
VIDEO: Differences between chest & belly breath patterns, and how to practice before you compete beam
Dr. Sloan Beard from Gymnast Fix
By training Dr. Sloan Beard is a CCSP, Certified Chiropractic Sports Physician, but by life she is a retired gymnast. Dr. Sloan was born and raised in Tallahassee, FL. She participated in JO gymnastics, followed by attending Ball State University where she was a member of the gymnastics team. There she graduated with a biology degree prior to attending Logan University. Dr. Sloan’s eighteen years of gymnastics ensured many injuries thus many doctors’ appointments of all kinds. It was more common than not for a doctor to tell her to find a less demanding sport, which to her was not an option. She began seeing a chiropractor, who encouraged her to compete rather than quit. Chiropractic and manual therapy kept her in the physical condition needed to compete for many more years. Because of her experience, Dr. Sloan went on to obtain her doctorate from Logan University and her masters of Sports Science and Rehabilitation. She has worked in the family practice setting as well as the elite athletic realm including the athletic teams of; University of Alabama, University of Missouri, and Florida State University.
She is also the founder of The Gymnast Fix, the result of combining her excitement for gymnastics with her clinical skills to help those trying to stay safe, execute and compete in the sport of gymnastics.
“The Gymnast Fix is my way of intersecting my passions and creating a platform in which I can work with many more gymnasts outside of the four walls of my practice. My mission is to help cultivate and foster the movement development of youth gymnastics today in order for them to achieve their own dreams.” - Dr. Sloan Beard, DC, MS
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