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Most people engaged in competitive sports such as golf and tennis have experienced soundly beating an opponent with apparent ease, only to be crushed by the same foe on a later date. They are left wondering: what did I do differently?
According to Alan Watkins, a British medical doctor who also has degrees in psychology and immunology, it is all about the signals your heart is sending to your brain. Dr Watkins has developed a speciality in teaching athletes and business leaders about the science of heart rate coherence to help them achieve more consistent performance.
What is coherence? I’ve written before about heart rate variability, which reflects the fact that your heart beats at different rates over time. The interval between heartbeats is your HRV and measuring this can help you determine when your body is fully rested.
When the HRV falls within a relatively tight pattern, it is said to be more coherent. There is a growing body of research that says this coherence can have a profound impact on your mental and physical state.
Dr Watkins likens the body to an orchestra, with different organs representing the sections. If the string section is the heart, HRV is the lead violin, with the ability to influence the tempo of the entire orchestra. The key takeaway, says Dr Watkins, is that it is possible to train the HRV to be more coherent using slow, rhythmic breaths. It is then easier to achieve what psychologists call “flow,” a mental state often described as runner’s high.
We have all had the experience of drawing a mental blank in high-stress situations such as a job interview or a big sporting event. According to the HRV theory, anxiety causes the heart to beat erratically, which sends powerful electrical signals to the brain that effectively shut down the normal reasoning portions.
His company, Complete Coherence, has developed smartphone apps and computer software to help control the heart’s chaotic signals. While measuring coherence in the past cost hundreds of dollars, it is now possible with a £5 app and a heart rate strap.
The system uses a pattern of deep, rhythmic breaths slowed to about 10 seconds each. This breathing pattern eventually entrains the heartbeat and helps athletes and executives alike achieve greater control. Dr Watkins says practising the breathing three times a day for five-minute sessions can achieve coherence in a relatively short time. He does this in a Ted Talk with a volunteer in just minutes.
Golfers who use the system perform smoother strokes on difficult shots, he says. He coaches Olympic rowers and says they overcome race anxiety using his technique.
Often athletes try to psych themselves up before an event by using mantras or other self-hypnosis techniques. Dr Watkins says these have mixed success because they remain on the conscious level of cognition and do not address underlying emotions.
“Coherence makes performance less hit and miss,” he says. “We get below cognition to the three levels of feelings, emotions and biology to help you get your A-game every single time you step out on the pitch or court.”