Five Skills That Will Change Your Life: Relax Under Pressure (Skill #4)

By: Jim Murphy

Five Skills That Will Change Your Life: Relax Under Pressure (Skill #4)


  1. Believe in your dreams.
  2. Compete (and live!) with freedom.
  3. Be fully present.
  4. Relax under pressure (control your physiology).
  5. Be adaptable (have behavioral flexibility).

“Music is the space between the notes.”― Claude Debussy, French composer

There’s a small private university in Langley, British Columbia with a women’s volleyball team that relies on something very unique in collegiate athletics: heart transformation. The belief is that the heart (spirit) is the control center of your life and training it is the most important thing you can do, in performance and in life.

Trinity Western University’s team motto is Live Free, Play Free. After winning the national championship last year, Coach Ryan Hofer instilled three guiding principles into everything they do. The three principles address situations, relationships, and performance, respectively.

Principle #1

Everything is here to teach me and help me, it’s all working for my good.

Principle #2

Everyone does the best they can with what they have in their heart.

Principle #3

Selfless is fearless. Live unoffendable, unembarrassable, and undistractable lives.

The space between the notes

An extraordinary life, with freedom to live free and play free, is a simple life with extraordinary focus. It’s a life with less. Less needs, less attachments, less busyness, less judgment, less worries, less hurry, less anxiety, less thoughts and even less breaths.*

It’s a life with space. Space to dream big dreams, to see possibilities where others see pain; space to see beauty where others see beastly.

What makes beautiful music is the space between the notes.

What makes a beautiful performance (under pressure) is the space between the thoughts of the performer.

The greatest performances in sports and in art are those where the performer gets in the flow of resonance where thoughts are few and trust and belief is high.

Those amazing moments under the bright lights on the big stage are created by heart-based training that leads to a clear mind and unburdened heart.

Win the 15

Coach Hofer has what he calls Win the 15. It’s the 15 seconds between serves. “The down time between plays is how we connect, how we monitor our thoughts, and how we control our physiology (with our breathing),” he says.

Whether it’s golf or tennis, football or baseball, the time between plays is crucial to relax and engage the heart, mind, and body in an empowering way.

Deep Rest

Perhaps you’ve realized by now that all five IX skills are skills of the heart. Belief, Freedom, and Focus, the three pillars of Inner Excellence performance, are closely linked to our pursuit of self-mastery through inner strength and inner peace. We’re looking for the freedom and trust of a clear mind and unburdened heart.

To be extraordinary, especially over the long term, we need good rest. Deep rest. As you know, sleep is a crucial component for recovery. To get the best sleep, we want, among other things, sunlight on our faces for at least 20 minutes before 10am.**

Deep sleep, as well as deep rest (mental, emotional, and spiritual), can be difficult for many people, especially for talented individuals with high expectations.

The Inner Murmur

Twenty years ago Judith Shulevitz wrote an article in the New York Times on the necessity of, but lack of, deep rest in our society. Shulevitz wrote about the stress of Sundays (our day to relax) and how our “machinery of self-censorship,” constantly tries to still the “eternal inner murmur of self-reproach.”

“The Sunday neurotic,” she says, “rather than enjoying his respite, became distraught; he feared that impulses repressed only with great effort might be unleashed. He induced pain or mental anguish to pre-empt the feeling of being out of control.”

In other words, every vocation has two types of work: the tangible work that is measured by the world (and your boss), and the inner work in your mind, where you have to deal with your own insecurities about your performance and your life. This work, resting deeply, putting the work down, for many, is never done, a goal rarely met.

So what can we do?

In order to relax, whether in the batter’s box between pitches or in the dugout between innings, on the court between serves or on the bench between matches, we need to learn how to have a clear mind and unburdened heart. We need to learn how to reduce the thoughts as well as the heart rate, blood pressure and breaths per minute. We need to learn how to relax on the court and off.

What to do

  1. Embrace the IX mindset. The foundational component of mental toughness and poise under pressure is held together by the reason you’re performing and what you’re pursuing. If you just want to win and that’s all that matters, relaxing under pressure and mental clarity becomes very difficult because so much is out of your control. However, if your mindset is…
    1. I compete to raise the level of excellence in my life, to learn and grow, in order to raise it in others…
    2. I love competition itself, even more than the result, because I love to see who I am in that moment, where I can grow, and how fully immersed I can be in the moment…
    3. I don’t know what’s best for me, to win or lose, so I leave that up to God…
    4. I just want to develop into the person I was created to be, my true self, wholehearted and fully engaged, heart, mind, and body, unattached to the circumstances and results in my life.

If that’s your mindset, then anything is possible. Then you can relax under pressure.

2. Practice controlling your physiology whenever you get a chance.

  1. All your breathing should be through your nose, so if you ever find your mouth open and you’re not talking or eating, shut it.
  2. Practice your playoff breathing every day. Work on taking less breaths. Likely your day-to-day breath’s per minute (bpm), are around 12-16 bpm’s. You can measure this with the Whoop or Oura Ring, and you can see how well you’re breathing with the BOLT test.
  3. Practice the Wim Hof Method of hyperventilation and breath hold, and use his free app.
  4. Try Heartmath’s Inner Balance. This $200 sensor is attached to your ear and paired with your phone. The training is a guided way to increase your emotional well-being as well as learning how to relax.
  5. Practice box breathing.
    1. Box breathing is a way to practice lowering your breath rate and improve the ratio of carbon dioxide to oxygen in your blood.
    2. Take a “lasting” breath (L.S.D.N.G – Long, Slow, Deep, Nasal, Gentle). Inhale through the nose for a count of four, hold for four, exhale (through the nose) for four, hold for four.
  6. Use biofeedback. You might try the Muse, with Dr. Debbie Crews software. For golfers, you can wear the headband putting and the music will go silent if your mind is clear and your body is relaxed.

3. Think deeply about this next year and your life purpose. The more stable it is and empowering, the easier it will be for you to relax under pressure.

Let me know how it’s going!

Love Jim


*The ideal breathing rate for most people most of the time is 5.5 breaths per minute. This is what I call Playoff Breathing. When you’re in a playoff in golf, for example, the tendency is for the heart rate, breathing rate and walking pace to increase. The player in the playoff with their breath rate closest to 5.5 bpm’s has the advantage.

** After speaking to a small group at Notre Dame, I asked their Director of Performance, Dr. Duncan French, what he was most excited about. He told me there’s a doctor in San Diego who created a device that lines up the brain waves and has had amazing success in reducing anxiety, depression, ADHD, and concussion-related issues, as well as helping athletes improve their focus.

I flew down to San Diego and met with Dr. Kevin Murphy (who I obviously respected greatly having such a good name). The good doctor generously let me try his brain-training device and it improved my sleep and mental clarity. He explained to me that going forward I’m going to want morning sunshine on my face (not through windows, glasses or contact lenses) in order to sleep well at night. If sunlight is not available, a happy light can work as well (this is the one I use).


I was ready to sign the lease this week for renting a 3-bedroom villa in Tulum (starting March 1) when the landlord said he rented it to someone else for a longer term. Thus I’m not sure my plans. The main reason for going to Mexico is to study Spanish. The secondary reasons are for golf and access to the poor. Although it was a disappointment, the way I live my life is with open hands. No needs, no attachments. That doesn’t make it easy, but it sure makes it less stressful. I trust God, not the landlord.

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