Centering

Gaining Control at the Start of a Performance

Centering helps you stay calm and grounded.

© iStockphoto/spooh

It's the worst nightmare for many people: You're about to give a speech before hundreds of people, and the speech could impact your career for years to come.

Performance experts and life coaches have told you, time and time again, that you should walk onstage excited and confident about this opportunity. But inside, you're a mess. You're shaking, sweating, and afraid you won't remember what you're supposed to talk about. As you walk onstage, your inner voice tells you that you're not ready, and you never will be.

Have you ever been in a situation like this? Have you been so stressed and nervous that you don't want to go through with the speech, the interview, or presentation? Have you ever wished you could find a way of managing and overcoming this 'performance stress'?

Well, there is an effective process that can help: It's called centering, and anyone can learn it. The technique basically helps you change stress into concentration, and it can take as long as you want it to – from 10 seconds to 10 minutes or more. In this article, we'll explain what it is, and how to do it.

What is Centering?

Centering is a technique that originated, and is still used, in Aikido – one of the Japanese martial arts. Aikido is nonviolent, and is perhaps the most cerebral of all the self-defense arts. It literally means 'the way of unifying life energy.'

You may wonder how this is connected with stress. At its most basic level, stress is energy. And centering is a process that helps to manage energy.

One of the most fundamental principles of Aikido is learning to relax the mind during the stress caused while in a fight. In Aikido, when fighters approach attacks with confidence and directness instead of fear, they start down the path of mastering themselves.

They accomplish this by learning how to center.

If you stop and think for a moment about how stress affects you, you'll notice that you usually have a strong physical reaction when you're stressed. You may lift your shoulders, take short breaths (which means you use the upper parts of your lungs instead of the lower, deeper parts), your heart rate increases, and you may feel as if you're 'floating.'

Centering, on the other hand, is designed to bring you back down to earth. It helps you focus on the here and now, and doesn't allow outside concerns to intrude on your inner strength and calm. Centering helps you remain stable and grounded – something you would no doubt appreciate when you're about to go onstage to present.

How to Center Yourself

To help you center, you first have to learn how to focus on your breathing. Deep, abdominal breathing is best for relaxing you. If you're not familiar with deep breathing, try this: Sit down, take a deep breath in, and focus on letting the air fill up your stomach (or diaphragm). Don't move your chest – just breathe in, and let the air go down deeply into the center of your body. Exhale slowly and deliberately through your mouth.

Be clear about what you want to achieve, and focus on thinking positively about your outcome. For example, the affirmations you have in your head could be "The job is mine," or "I give great presentations." It could even be one word, such as "success," or "confidence."

There are three basic steps to centering.

  1. Be aware of your breathing.

    Spend a few seconds completely focusing on your breathing. Use the technique described above: Breathe deeply into your abdomen, and exhale slowly. Do this until your entire focus is on your breathing – and nothing else.

  2. Find your center.

    Locate your physical center of gravity. This is usually a little below your waist. Become familiar with where your center is, and remember what it feels like. This part of your body grounds and stabilizes you. When you begin to feel stressed – like you're going to 'float away' – the feeling of your center will remind you that you have balance and control. Once you've found your center, breathe in and out deeply at least five times. Focus on your center. Feel the sensation of being stabilized and on the ground.

  3. Release your negative energy.

    Imagine all the negative energy in your body is collecting in one place. Find imagery   that works for you. This could be a ball of energy that you're going to throw away. Or the negativity could be held in a balloon that's going to carry your negativity far away. Visualize this energy starting from your center, and moving up toward your eyes. As you inhale, say "Let." As you exhale, say "Go." If your energy is a ball, identify a spot across the room, and imagine yourself throwing the ball to hit that spot. If your energy is a balloon, imagine it floating away above your head. Let go of everything that is stressing you. Imagine your center filled with calm.

Using the centering method confidently takes some practice. It's a good idea to start learning how to use it long before you actually have to do something stressful, like giving a speech, or interviewing for a job. Try the technique during situations that are stressful on a smaller scale – perhaps something you experience at work each day.

Once you've mastered the method, you can use it any time you feel stressed and out of control. It will also help you trust your ability to let your instincts take over in whatever you're about to do.

Other Variations on Centering

You can add your own variations to the centering technique. For instance, let's say you have to make a major decision this afternoon. You're stressed about it, and you know that once you sit down with your team to make the decision, your stress level is going to increase dramatically.

You can begin centering early in the day. Do the technique every time you start to feel yourself getting tense. For more on this, read our article on relaxation response  .

To lengthen the process, try this:

  1. Close the door to your office, or sit in a place where it's quiet, and you won't be disturbed.
  2. Choose a word or phrase – such as 'peace' or 'ocean' – that relaxes you, and helps you visualize something that's calming.
  3. Sit in a chair, close your eyes, and begin relaxing your muscles.
  4. Focus on your deep, abdominal breathing. As you breathe, say or think about your word or phrase.
  5. Continue this for 10 minutes or more.

There are several different ways to center, so find the process that works best for you.

Learn more about centering, as practiced by performance coach Don Greene, in our Expert Interview with him here: Performing Under Pressure.

Key Points

The centering technique was developed from Aikido, the Japanese martial art. It's an excellent process for remaining grounded, calm, and relaxed in stressful situations. If you practice centering before you find yourself under stress, the method is likely to work much better for you. The process of centering can take a few seconds or several minutes, depending on your own personal preferences. By centering, you can help to master your stress – rather than letting it master you.

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