Updates and Gratitude Practices

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Last week things were going pretty damn good.

Cage Sports 31 Griffith 7.19.14

Going toe to toe with Hadley Griffith.

It started out when I beat “Relentless” Hadley Griffith at CageSport 31 last Saturday. Coach called while I was on vacation in early and talked me into fighting a 5’11” seasoned pro on July 19th– meaning I would jump straight into the hardest part of our fight camp as soon as I got back to Portland.

The time flew by, and before I knew it Coach was wrapping my hands, then I was walking down the ramp at the Emerald Queen Casino in Tacoma, WA to climb into the cage again. That went by quickly too when I secured a win via rear naked choke at 1:52 minutes into the first round.

And my streak continued on Monday when I passed my road test and finally got licensed to drive in the state of Oregon. (More about my experience of learning to drive again is here.) Then I came in to Gracie Barra Portland for jiu jitsu practice the next day and was very surprised when Professor Fabiano Scherner promoted me to purple belt at the end of class. Almost eight years of training brought me to that point on a random Tuesday night.

Cars know to share the road when I'm on my way to practice.

Cars know to share the road now when I’m on my way to practice.

Then the Willamette Week came out with it’s Best of Portland list on Wednesday and I was featured in the “Best Moves” category for Best Beatdown. (You can read it the full text of that here.) On Thursday, I took my first steps towards becoming a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist by joining the NSCA and purchasing study materials for the CSCS certification exam. I’d hemmed and hawed about getting certified for a long time and I’m thrilled to finally be able to the plunge.

So, on the one hand, it feels like everything has been coming up roses lately. I’m excited to see how long I can make that last.

On the other hand, last week was not particularly different from many others in my life over the last few years. Actually, I’ve been feeling like I’m on a roll for quite some time since I found my bliss.

One of my day-of-competition rituals is to spend some time writing about and meditating on the things in my life that I’m thankful for. I don’t only do this before fights, but it does have particular value for me at that time. It always renews my passion for what I’m doing, puts me in a positive mindset, and makes me feel confident and supported from within. On fight night, it helps me tap into the circumstances of previous successes in such a way that future success feels imminent.

Whenever I need a little boost– and often, too, when I’m already feeling upbeat about how things are going– I put some of my gratitude for down in writing. This can take narrative form like a journal entry, or it could be a list or even a diagram if that’s how I want to organize my thoughts on that day. It can be specific or general, narrow or encyclopedic.

You don’t necessarily even need to write your thankfulness down, though studies show this is actually more effective. I find it nice to be able to refer back to later on, too.

Sometimes I write about everything that is going right in just one part of my life, such as my training:

  • how much my lifting is improving
  • how good it feels to be strong
  • how awesome my coaches are
  • how tip-top I feel about the last sparring session or fight
  • how a new technique is finally clicking
  • how helpful my teammates are
  • how easy my cardio plyos feel
  • how glad I am not to be injured

On other days I try surveying all of the areas where I am seeing success and/ or improvement using broad categories like:

  • friendships
  • health
  • physical fitness
  • finances
  • learning
  • “work”
  • opportunities for leisure
  • relationships
  • competition
  • personal development
  • creative projects

Another way to access the bliss of gratitude is to send a thank you note explaining to someone who has been positive in your life what they’ve done for you and how it makes you feel. If snail mail isn’t your jam, saying thank you in person, on the phone, or publicly via social media can have similar cognitive benefits– with the added perk that it can help strengthen your preexisting network of friends.

Thanks, gno thanks

I suppose gnomes write thank you “gnotes”…

However you choose to do it, honing in on the great things you might otherwise take for granted will help you draw on confidence and strength during moments of stress. Moreover, many people find that taking time for this process on a regular basis boosts their overall mood and brings more positivity into their lives even when they’re not consciously focusing on being thankful.

When I reviewed my own gratitude list from last weekend it was immediately obvious to me that I was already on a roll before that awesome week even started.

Take a moment today to write down some of the things you are thankful for. Then let me know: is it possible that you have also been on a roll without noticing it?

photo credit: Ernie Sapiro

photo credit: elycefeliz via photopin cc

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Breathe

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Paying attention to your breath: it works in yoga and when you're getting hit in the face!

Paying attention to your breath: it works in yoga and when you’re getting hit in the face!

In combat sports we re-learn how to breathe.

Boxing coaches will teach you to breathe out with each punch. Jiu jitsu instructors will remind you to breathe steadily through the entire match. Short breaths are good for explosive movements like strikes, while deep, relaxed breathing facilitates the sustained movements of grappling.

While advice like “breathe while moving” might seem obvious or redundant, it isn’t. This is because many new combat sports practitioners simply find themselves unconsciously holding their breath. And since new athletes often don’t yet possess good cardiovascular conditioning, their level of perceived exertion skyrockets because they accidentally forget to breathe while under stress.

Usually, respiration is an automatic process regulated by that little knot of grey matter located towards the back of your skull which connects your spine to the rest of your brain. This is called the brainstem. You can think of it as your lizard brain: it controls the extremely basic, unconscious functions (such as your hear rate, breathing, sleep cycle, and ability to maintain consciousness) that all animals have and which will hopefully run on autopilot all of your life.

But respiration also has a voluntary override. This post will address the technique and benefits of learning to toggle this override.

If you’ve ever taken a yoga class you know that yoga is so much more than just stretching. A good yoga instructor will cue you to bring your awareness to your breath and draw it into your chest, abdomen, and nostrils. This is because learning to control your breathing, especially in difficult or strenuous circumstances, helps still the mind and re-focus your efforts.

Breeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaaaathhhhhe

In between rounds my coach and corner, Nick Gilardi, helps me regain my composure, raising his hands and saying “Breeeeeaaaathe.”

Even in less intense circumstances, bringing awareness to your breathing will teach you to notice the mind’s tendency to leap around from one thing to the next. By beginning to observe this habit in yourself you can learn to shut it off and thereby become more fully present in the moment.

While yogis and practitioners of formal meditation call this “mindfulness” or “Being,” many athletes refer to it as being in “the zone” or in a “flow state.” Though combat might seem to be about as far away as you can get from peaceful meditation, the two are not so different because being in the zone is just a form of moving meditation. With complete presence comes the ability to respond calmly and without hesitation as events occur.

As you learn to control your breath and incorporate this into your training you can begin to let go of the conscious override and let it shift back to being a mostly automatic process. (Which happens to be how many such functions work: they are conscious while you learn them, then they switch over to being unconscious once the skill is acquired.)

An added bonus to this approach is that steady breathing increases oxygen intake, which in turn improves athletic performance. This also helps regulate heart rate, improve recovery time, and bring oxygen into the blood to help muscles function. On the psychological side of things, it’s benefits include decreasing anxiety and shifting attention away from pain. This allows for more efficient allocation of mental resources, especially when learned well enough to be automatic.

It's a nice sentiment, but a strange place to put the reminder....

It’s a nice sentiment, but a strange place to put the reminder….

Practicing MMA will teach you to keep breathing when you feel the adrenaline flooding into your body, to keep breathing when you’re taking hard shots the face, to keep breathing when you’re three rounds into a fight and still not sure how you are going to seal the deal before time runs out.

Of course, learning to keep breathing under duress comes in handy in a variety of less dangerous (but no less intense) situations, such as job interviews, presentations, performances, and networking events– to name just a few. Set aside a few minutes to practice each day and you’ll likely find numerous ways to use this skill in your daily life.

photo credit: Nicholas_T via photopin cc

photo credit: Deanna Wardin @ Tattoo Boogaloo via photopin cc