It’s January and that means the exam track has started again with the M.S. Master’s theory exam on March 7th, the first Advanced Course later than month, and the first Advanced Exam in April. Needless to say, there’s lots of studying going on in many quarters. Aside from actual study/memory work, I think arguably the most important strategy any student can employ is a “reset” button of sorts; a strategy that not only allows them to clear their mind on the fly, but also serves to help release the nerves and stress experienced in an actual exam. Enter Don Greene.

Don Greene, Ph.D. is one of the country’s preeminent sports psychologists whose client list includes top athletes, musicians, and executives. Last year I read his three books, “Performance Success,” “Audition Success,” and “Fight Your Fear and Win.” I recommend all the books highly as they are filled with excellent strategies for dealing with test and performance anxiety. The one strategy mentioned in all three books is called Centering Down. It’s taken from the martial arts practice of aikido and it’s a great technique for resetting your head using mindful breathing and refocusing your energy. Here’s how it works:

Centering Down

1. Form a Clear Intention

While standing with your arms free at your sides, get a clear idea of what you’d like to do/accomplish once you’ve finished centering. As you’re just beginning to learn how to “Center” your intention could be as simple as to learn how to center.
2. Pick a Focal Point

Choose an object within easy eye sight on which to focus your attention. That focal point could be a piece of paper in front of you or a picture hanging on the wall or whatever. The focal point is where you’ll be projecting all the intense energy that usually accompanies the stress of an audition or an examination.
3. Breathe Mindfully

When we become nervous or stressed out we tend to breathe higher in the chest raising our shoulders creating tension. Mindful breathing helps to interrupt this stressful pattern and help reset our brain and body. To breathe mindfully close your eyes and breathe abdominally; as you inhale feel your belly naturally expand before your rib cage and upper lungs. Pay close attention to your breathing as you inhale through your nose and exhale gently through your mouth. This kind of mindful abdominal breathing may seem unusual to you at first but it comes easily with a bit of practice.
4. Release Tension

Muscle tension is one of the most challenging results of stress. Don Greene writes that it’s unfortunately part of the “bad feedback syndrome” in that the more tense one becomes the more poorly one performs—and the more tense one becomes. As you continue your mindful breathing with eyes closed (inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth), scan your body for points of muscle tension. Pay special attention to the shoulders, neck, jaw, and face, as these are common hot spots for muscle tension. As you continue to breathe mindfully, consciously release tension in these and any other areas.
5. Find Your Center

Anyone who’s ever been involved in dancing, gymnastics, skiing, and other activities requiring balance knows how important it is to find your center of gravity. It’s said to be about two inches below your navel and two inches inward. Take a moment to find it, feel it, and be aware of it. It may even help to put your hand there. The whole point of finding your center is to feel grounded, rooted, and stable.
*Sometimes we speak of left hemisphere brain activity vs. right brain activity. All our internal brain chatter and logical thinking is the domain of the left hemisphere vs. feeling-intuition which is the purview of the right hemisphere. In mindful breathing and finding your center you’re consciously switching brain activity from the left to the right hemispheres and in doing so quieting your mind.
6. Use a Process Cue

Now that you’ve managed to quiet your mind down it’s time to call your right hemisphere into action. We do so by creating and using a trigger called a process cue. Process cues can be words or phrases that call to mind images or movies that represent you performing at your very best. These process cues can be remarkably effective simply because they don’t require left brain activity. The process cue I often use is, “I’ve got this.” Some also find snippets of music to be especially effective as process cues. They’re straightwire image/movie—feeling associations. Regardless, the right process cue can be like flipping a switch in terms of turning off distracting left brain chatter and turning on the body memory of the right brain which can be strategic to success. So with eyes closed, bring up your process cue.
7. Direct Your Energy

Now we’ll use your focus point to best advantage. It’s time to open your eyes and when you do so, hurl all your excess nervous energy at the focus point like throwing a baseball. It’s as if you’re gathering your energy up from your center, bringing it up through your torso, up through your head, and out your eyes like X-Ray vision. As you hurl the energy out, you’re letting it go and in doing so call into play trust in your ability and previous experience.

​Centering may seem like a complicated sequence initially but with practice and repetition it quickly becomes second nature. When you first start to learn centering it may take you anywhere between 12-25 breaths and a few minutes. With practice you’ll probably be able to shorten the sequences to several breaths taken within a few seconds. Keep at it. Practice at least a half-dozen times a day initially and then once you get it remember to use it multiple times throughout the day to release stress, clear your mind, and if anything else to stop time

* Variation: a Step Further…
After working with Centering Down for a bit of time I wondered if there was a way to work some confidence into the sequence using an eye position and anchoring. Here’s what I came up with. It’s a variation on Step 2, “Pick a Focal Point.” Try the following:
1. Bring up an Uber Confident Memory

For step two, instead of choosing a random object or place on which to focus your attention do the following: stop for a moment, go inside, and bring up one of your most confident memories as in a time where you were unstoppable–where you kicked the world’s ass, so to speak. Really get into that memory and see what you saw at the time, hear what you heard, and feel what you felt—even stand and breathe the same way.
2. Find the Exact Eye Position for the Memory

Now for the important bit: as you’re intensely focusing on/enjoying your confident memory notice exactly where you’re eyes are directed. Pinpoint the exact place you’re looking at to bring up the memory. Mark it precisely—this is important—by pointing to it as if you had to show it to someone.
3. Repetition

Practice looking around and then zooming quickly to that location. Do it a dozen times very quickly and don’t be surprised to find the confident feelings coming every time your eyes lock into the location.
4. Insert Eye Position 

Now practice the entire “Centering Down” sequence. This time for step two, Pick a Focal Point, go to the confidence eye position/location. And once you close your eyes, breathe mindfully, center, release tension, and bring up your process cue—open your eyes and zoom in to precise eye position and lock into that confident feeling. The result should be instantaneous–and powerfully effective.