Just Breathe; No Really, You Are Forgetting to Breathe: How Training Your Mind Can Help You Perform

Elite athletes are known for their grit, resiliency and grace under pressure. At this year’s Women Leaders Forum, Christie Southern, Principal, Head Coach Mental Performance Consultants, led a workshop entitled, “Developing the Mind of a Corporate Champion.” The workshop provided an overview of the approach and strategies employed by elite professional and Olympic athletes to develop mental toughness.  It also highlighted the cutting-edge neuroscientific studies behind this approach, demonstrating how these techniques can benefit women attorneys in leadership roles to help them hit the field “game ready.”

Christie pointed out that the challenges of being a lawyer are the same as for athletes. Both “jobs” are demanding, they require resiliency, emotional composure, the ability to deal with rejection and failure, are highly competitive and there’s a great deal of pressure.

According to Christie, 90% of an athlete’s or lawyer’s success rests solely on his or her mental ability and capacity. As such, you must train your brain like you train your body (the scientific term is neuroplasticity – the ability to change your brain). When it comes to mental capacity, concentration, managing emotion, managing anxiety and nerves – resilience and attitude are key. While confidence can’t be practiced, when you practice your skills and train your mind, your confidence will build.

Interestingly, Christie said that women are very self-assured and are likely to over-estimate their abilities. Women tend to “play the men’s game,” but what they should be doing is capitalizing on their own strengths – empathy, intuition, compassion and adaptability; she said they have less of an ego and are more collaborative.

Christie gave us the force of the “eight breaths” exercise where you inhale for four seconds, hold it while you count to seven, and then exhale through your mouth for eight seconds.  She said that this is highly-effective in calming the mind and that the actual rhythm of doing this over and over again can reset the nervous system to be calmer and more composed.

This re-centering should make it easier for lawyers to deal with the internal and external distractions they face every day. However, internal distractions are harder to ignore, and women tend to dwell on setbacks. Christie recommends that you stop replaying mistakes, tell yourself to move on and then let it go. A technique used by tennis player Maria Sharapova to monitor her thoughts is: recognize, reframe and reboot. After a bad serve or a mistake on the court, Maria walks away, turns her back to the tennis court, takes three steps, turns around and that’s when she’s rebooted her mind.  She’s reframed her thoughts and tells herself, “That play is over. I’m focusing on the next one.”

Self-talk is particularly important and effective for women. Visualizing, as well as mentally rehearsing what you’re facing and how to overcome it, helps minimize your negative inner voice. Find a ritual for yourself that helps you close the file and move on.

In terms of attitude and resilience, Christie believes we need to learn how to fail, cope with change and focus on the process, not the outcome.  Failure allows us to examine what went wrong and change our mindset to think of failure as a challenge versus a threat. The mind works very differently when it thinks it’s being threatened.

The mind is a complex instrument and if it’s used correctly, it can be a helpful tool, but if used incorrectly, it can be very destructive. As lawyers suffer from anxiety and depression four times more than do those in other professions, using the techniques discussed in Christie’s session can help gain the mental toughness to succeed in leadership roles.

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