Stop, Focus, Breathe

Most batters take a deep breath before stepping to the plate. But are they breathing properly? How can proper breathing technique enhance their performance?

By Jim Catalano

Jim Catalano is a former Associate Editor at Coaching Management.

Coaching Management, 11.7, October 2003, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1107/focusbreathe.htm

Softball is a game that depends on focus. Whether it’s a batter coming to the plate in a clutch situation or a pitcher trying to work her way out of a jam while protecting a one-run lead, the ability to concentrate on the task at hand is key to a positive outcome. And one important factor in maintaining that focus is breathing properly.

“When you’re breathing deeply, you are focused—it’s a physiological fact,” says Dr. Jeffrey Migdow, holistic medicine practitioner at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, in Lenox, Mass.

Breathing techniques can also help pressured athletes remain focused by enabling them to create a psychological refuge. “Athletes need to be able to go from a pressure-filled situation to a quiet place and breathe,” says Alan Jaeger, founder of Jaeger Sports Academy in Woodland Hills, Calif., and author of Getting Focused, Staying Focused.

“For example, a softball pitcher can benefit from taking a deep breath after each pitch, which cleans the slate, relaxes the body and mind, and puts her into a focused state,” continues Jaeger. “For a hitter, breathing before getting into the box allows her to release the pressure, ignore the distractions around her, and tune into the constant of her breath. It reminds him to focus on hitting the ball hard instead of all these consequences created by distracted thoughts.”

Optimal Oxygenation
You’d think that proper breathing techniques would come naturally to everyone. After all, breathing is something that we do as soon as we are born. Yet, in many cases, even top athletes do not breathe efficiently. And when athletes fail to breathe efficiently, their blood is not fully oxygenated, which means they can’t reach their full energy potential.

“People just take breathing for granted and don’t realize they’re not using all their lung capacity,” says Migdow. “As babies, we breathe naturally and properly from the diaphragm. But as we grow older, our culture induces stress, which causes us to tighten our diaphragms and rib cage muscles. We hold our breath a lot more and breathe shallowly.”

Experts such as Migdow, who co-authored the book Breathe In, Breathe Out, contend that shallow breathing causes about a third of the lungs to go unused. “The result is more carbon dioxide builds up in the system, which can make the blood more acidic and cause stress and muscle tension.”

Ronni Diamond, a kripalu yoga instructor and founder of Whole in One Yoga for Golfers, in Media, Pa., agrees. “Because athletes are not getting fully oxygenated, they have all this stale air at the unused base of the lungs, and they can’t really utilize all the energy that’s available to them,” she says. “So part of the challenge is getting rid of stale air so you can get a nice lungful, and then use that energy and direct it the way you want to.”

Migdow and Diamond are among a growing number of experts who advocate that athletes strive for proper breathing techniques with the same dedication that they work on weight training. They say that the first step toward achieving proper breathing technique in a sport is to understand the problem of shallow breathing.

“Most people are shallow breathers—they breathe through the upper part of the chest,” says Diamond. “They may be doing that because they’re not filling the lungs completely.

“Shallow breathing also occurs when the diaphragm becomes locked if you’re stressed and have any kind of performance anxiety,” she continues. “When people are anxious, they take a breath and hold it. Then everything breaks down because the body is looking for the oxygen.”

Another factor contributing to shallow breathing is posture. “Most sports put athletes in a bent-forward posture with severe flexion,” Migdow says. “What flexion does is restrict the depth and ease of the breath. Posture is indispensable to optimal breathing, so anything that you’re doing to compromise that posture of standing straight up also compromises the ease of the volume of the breath.”

Getting a Lungful
Many of the breathing techniques being adopted by competitive athletes are based on Eastern philosophies such as yoga and tai chi, and they can be easily learned on their own with just a little guidance and consistent practice. “I recommend consistently dedicating 15 to 20 minutes a day to being quiet and just breathing,” says Jaeger. “There are simple exercises you can start with. Here’s one example where you count with each breath: when you inhale the first time, count to ‘one’; when you exhale, count to ‘two’; then count up to 10, twice. That might take two or three minutes to do, but if you can go all the way to 10 without losing concentration, you’ll see the mental connection, and gain discipline and the ability to focus.”

When doing the breathing exercises, Jaeger notes athletes should feel their breath has an evenness and balance to it and that it is coming from the stomach or diaphragm region as opposed to the chest. “It shouldn’t be stressed, tense, short, or choppy,” he says. “Rather, it should be relatively calm and fluid, almost deliberate—unless they’re running. A way to check that would be to stop and be quiet for 30 seconds. If they are breathing correctly, they will notice that their breath has an even flow, and is pretty slow and calm.”

Michael Grant White, a breathing development specialist in Waynesville, N.C., recommends a similar exercise for boosting athletes’ performance and focus. It is the “squeeze and breathe” technique, which is also useful for alleviating panic, excess energy, stress, nervousness, and trauma.

“Sit on a chair, and put a pillow in the low back area. That creates a fulcrum allowing the rib cage to rise,” he explains. “If the rib cage can rise, the diaphragm can rise. Then, stick your thumbs into your kidney areas and wrap your hands around toward the belly button. That brings an awareness to the area while you deep breathe. Do this for four or five minutes and you’ll feel more energized.

“The squeeze and breathe is probably the most generic and beneficial exercise across the board, but it has to be done with proper posture,” continues White. “Position yourself correctly on the chair, or if you’re standing, do so with an arch to the back, like a swan dive.”

Learning to access all of the air in the lungs will also, over time, increase the volume of the breath. “A good deal of volume is in your back above the kidneys and below the scapula,” White says. “A simple exercise for developing the back breath is sitting in a chair, widening the legs, and bending forward until you are hanging limp like a rag doll. Then breathe into the low back 20 or 30 times. You should notice a difference when you get up, a fuller feeling with more space. If you don’t, you’re too tight, and you need to stretch more.”

Like White, Diamond has some specific recommendations for increasing breath volume. The first is called the cleansing breath. “Inhale deeply through the nose, and when you exhale, do so with a sigh. The sound that comes out should be like making fog on a mirror—don’t tighten the throat muscles,” she explains. “When you expel through the mouth, you’re expelling a lot more oxygen than you can just through the nose. So you breathe in with long, slow inhalation, and then exhale to cleanse. That also releases tension in the diaphragm. It’s very helpful on a lot of levels, not the least in that when you expel, you’re making room for more fresh oxygen into the body, getting it out of the base of the lungs.”

Another way to practice increasing breath volume is by doing the three-part breath, which should be practiced lying down at first. “It’s easier because it’s the way your belly moves when you’re sleeping,” Diamond says. “Inhale so the belly expands like a balloon; then exhale so the belly contracts toward the spine. You want to squeeze the breath out to increase the length of your exhalation. Start at belly expanding and as you get more relaxed you’ll notice that the breath will rise from the belly into the mid chest, then into the upper chest. Then you’re really filling your lungs from the base to the top.”

Practice Makes Perfect
Once an athlete understands breathing techniques, breathing experts stress the importance of practicing them well before they’re applied in a competitive situation. “You can’t do it once the game is there,” Migdow says. “That’s why it’s called breathing practice. You do it aside from your everyday life, so when you need it, you’ll remember to breathe right automatically. Otherwise, you won’t remember to do it, much less know how to do it, under pressure.”

“If you don’t do any training, and you don’t have the breathing already circuited, grooved, or flowing, when you’re in a pressure situation, you can’t expect to take a deep breath and get to an ideal place,” Jaeger says. “That ideal place has to be created already, and you have to be able to maintain that through the performance—if a situation gets pressure filled, you’re able to recall your breathing to react to what’s happening. But don’t expect your breath to come out of your belly calmly and smoothly if you haven’t done your breathing exercises.”

Being able to draw on the power of the breath can give any athlete an edge over others who aren’t aware of such techniques. “Your breath is so powerful,” Jaeger says. “It gives you something you can apply to almost any situation. It’s like putting money into the bank so you can make a withdrawal later. But you have to invest beforehand and do the work prior to competition.”

A version of this article previously appeared in our sister publications, Coaching Management-Baseball and Training & Conditioning.


Sidebar: Getting Started

Before teaching your athletes how to improve their breathing techniques, it’s important to assess the current state of their breathing. This assessment establishes a baseline, which they’ll be able to use to note improvements from subsequent practice of breathing techniques.

Alan Jaeger, founder of Jaeger Sports Academy in Woodland Hills, Calif., and author of Getting Focused, Staying Focused, suggests that athletes start their assessment by being quiet for a minute while paying attention to their breath. “Sixty seconds would be more of a mental test to see if they can do it,” he says. “Then they should try being quiet for five minutes just to follow their inhaling and exhaling. If you make it a challenge, which athletes like, then what will happen in those five minutes is that they’ll start realizing there’s a wonder to their breath. That’s usually when they need more information or guidance, but that five minutes will turn on a light for them.”

Michael Grant White, a breathing development specialist in Waynesville, N.C., recommends one basic volume assessment that involves a number count: “Stand up, take as big a deep breath as you can, then count aloud quietly, quickly, cleanly, and clearly up to as high a number as you can get to on one exhale. Don’t miss any numbers. Count them fully, don’t slow down, maintain the speed. If you miss any, start over. You’ll find yourself pushing the breath out to where you have absolutely nothing left. If you get to 100, start over. Try to replicate it, so when you do it again, you know you’ve made some progress.”

White has posted some simple breathing assessment tests on his Web site at . He also has illustrated examples of other breathing techniques at .