The Sphincter Muscle and Peak Performance

There is a basic human instinct that is as old as ‘fight or flight’. When a person feels threatened or under pressure, our body automatically reacts with basic physiological responses. These automatic reactions can hinder athletic performance if we let them. It is vital to understand how our body and our mind respond to playing under pressure so we can control those automatic responses and keep them from hindering performance. Most young basketball players don’t know how to control their body’s reaction, so most remain a victim of the automatic response.

Every competitive basketball player knows the feeling right before a big game. The crowd has the buzz of excitement, the band is playing, the basketball coach is giving last minute reminders, and there is a ball of excitement building inside your chest. Whether you call this nerves, adrenaline, or tightness, it invokes the same physical reaction. First, the sphincter muscle tightens. It is important to note that the sphincter muscle surrounds the stomach and the intestines. We feel the tightness of the sphincter in the pit of our stomach; this is also called “butterflies”. The second thing that happens is the solar plexus (the chest plate) gets rigid and begins to constrict. This is what creates the ‘tightness’ we feel at the beginning of games, and in the moment of truth towards the end.

These natural, automatic reactions to performing under pressure impact a very important aspect of athletic performance. Breathing. When we feel the tightness, we forget to breathe and we don’t get as much oxygen into the lungs; the tightness builds to a point where we can’t perform reflexive athletic movements and find it difficult to get our breath.

NBA legend, Larry Bird, was in many pressure situations throughout his basketball career. He is one of the best clutch basketball players the basketball world has ever seen. Larry Birds’s teammates, coaches, or anyone who sat courtside have said that when they saw and heard Larry play, they were shocked by the volume of his breathing. He was a lanky 6’9 man sprinting up and down the basketball floor and all one would hear was the sound of his breathing – deep, in through the nose, and exhale through the mouth.

The best way to counteract tightness, to loosen the chest plate, solar plexus and sphincter, is to practice deep breathing. This will counteract, the tightness, lack of breath, and nerves in pressure situations. Make it a habit to breathe intentionally.

Pressure also impacts our mind.

Don’t think of a White Horse!

I bet you did. I guarantee you saw a white horse in your mind.

There are two worlds we can choose to live in. As an athlete we can choose to be a part of the world of ‘do’ or ‘do not’. When most basketball players make a mistake, miss a shot, or are under pressure, they focus on what not to do – (don’t miss long, don’t throw the basketball away, and don’t get beat on defense). Words have power, and negative words carry negative power – when what you focus on is do not miss the shot, you will likely miss, when your focus is do not turnover the basketball, you likely will.

Live in the world of do. Do get wide and run the lane hard in transition, do box out your man on defense, and do get your legs loaded and ready to shoot the basketball. These are all positive focus points. This is a world of action, not reaction. When you feel pressure, focus on one thing to do – breathe. Then do it again and again. It is amazing how this will impact your performance.

Coaches, we challenge you to live in the world of do as well. Instead of coaching your basketball players on what not to do, give them the positive alternative. Many times in a game, when a mistake is made, our first reaction is to coach the mistake. Don’t throw the basketball away, don’t run at the ball, don’t foul, and don’t take that bad shot. That is a sure-fire way to reinforce negatives. It takes more imagination to coach them in the alternative. Do show your hands to the referee, do move off of penetration, do be ready to shoot, and do help earlier. It’s a far more powerful method of coaching and it will increase the energy of your players.

Breathe and Do.


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