Breathing Easy

Athletes won’t choke under pressure if they learn to use natural breathing techniques to focus on the game and enhance their competitive performance.

By Jim Catalano

Jim Catalano is an Associate Editor at Training & Conditioning.

Training & Conditioning, 12.4, May/June 2002, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1204/breathing.htm

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, and they don’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 Jeffrey Migdow, MD, holistic medicine practitioner at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, in Lenox, Mass. “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.”

Migdow, who co-authored the book Breathe In, Breathe Out, contends 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.”

Migdow is among a growing number of experts who advocate that athletes strive for proper breathing techniques with the same dedication that they train for proper technique in their sport. He says that the first step toward achieving proper breathing technique is to understand what contributes to improper breathing.

“Most people are shallow breathers—they breathe through the upper part of the chest,” says Ronni Diamond, a kripalu yoga instructor and founder of Whole in One Yoga for Golfers in Media, Pa. “Shallow breathing occurs when they’re not filling the lungs completely or when the diaphragm becomes locked if they’re stressed and have any kind of performance anxiety. When people are anxious, they take a breath and hold it. Then everything breaks down because the body is looking for the oxygen.

“Because they’re not getting fully oxygenated,” she continues, “they have all this stale air at the unused base of the lungs, and they can’t really utilize all the energy that’s possible for them. So part of the challenge is getting rid of stale air so you can get a nice full lung, and then use that energy and direct it the way you want to.”

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

ATHLETIC APPLICATIONS
More athletes and coaches are showing interest in studying proper breathing because it not only enhances the utilization of oxygen, but it helps them maintain their focus under the pressure of competition.

“The effect of improper breathing can be seen in the pitcher who starts to throw balls, tenses up, and gets even wilder,” Migdow says, “or a basketball player who misses a foul shot, gets tighter, and misses even more. When you breathe deeply, you are focused. When you don’t, you’re not—it’s a physiological fact.”

Breathing techniques can also help pressured athletes remain focused by enabling them to create a psychological refuge, experts say. “Athletes need to be able to go from a pressure-filled situation to a quiet place and breathe,” explains Alan Jaeger, founder of Jaeger Sports Academy in Woodland Hills, Calif., and author of Getting Focused, Staying Focused. “For example, the baseball pitcher can benefit from taking a deep breath after each pitch, which cleans the slate, relaxes his body and mind, and puts him into a focused state. Ian Jackson, a proponent of a technique that he calls BreathPlay, has taught his ideas to the University of Arkansas basketball team. “Most of them used it for foul shots. It gave them a systematic way of stabilizing their posture,” he says. “It made for a clearer and more accurate shot.”

Golfers, too, need to remain calm under pressure, and Diamond has developed a breathing workshop for their needs. “I found that there were a lot of yoga breathing techniques that were really helpful,” she says. “One would simply help them focus, clear their mind, and get rid of some body tension. Other techniques would be used to energize the body, to get reoxygenated, and to feel that flush of energy in the body, which in yoga we call ‘prana.’ You feel as though you’ve been primed before you begin your activity, whether you’re a runner, skier, or golfer.”

Jaeger also has done a lot of work with golfers. “I try to get them breathing properly throughout the round so they can stay in their flow and not think about past or future shots,” he says. “They’re so tuned into the breath that breathing provides a huge, sustaining effect. I look at breathing like a best friend who’s always there. So if anything goes wrong, like a bad shot, it’s time to go immediately to their breath, which brings them to a familiar place they associate with their mental training—it’s a quiet place where they are focused, calm, relaxed, concentrated, and tuned into themselves.”

FULL LUNG
Many of the breathing techniques that are 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, 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.”

Jaeger also advises that athletes should feel that their breath has an evenness and balance to it, and that it is coming from the stomach or diaphragm as opposed to the chest. “It shouldn’t be stressed, tense, short, or choppy,” he says. “Rather, it should be calm and fluid, almost deliberate. 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 performance and focus. It is the “squeeze and breathe” technique, which is also useful for alleviating panic, 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. If the rib cage can rise, the diaphragm can rise. Then, stick the thumbs into your kidney areas and wrap your hands around toward the belly button. That brings an awareness to the area while you breathe deep. 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, it has to be done 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 not, 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 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 breath in with long, slow inhalation, and then exhale to cleanse.”

Diamond’s breath-volume exercise should be practiced lying down at first. “It’s easier—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. Then, expand your belly, 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.”

Jackson has a slightly different approach to breathing. “A lot of people who talk about breathing and performance strongly recommend letting out the belly to deepen the breath on inhalation,” he says. “I tell people to let the belly fall forward to push the air on exhalation. In other words, the out breath is the active phase of breath cycle, and the in breath is the passive phase.

“So you stop sucking in air and produce a big increase in volume,” he continues. “If you push more air out, you get tremendous core strength, which is the center of all athletic activity.” Jackson recommends breathing in patterns, such as counting to five on the out breath, and two on the in breath.

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, then when you get to 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. So if a situation gets pressure filled, you’re able to recall your breathing to react to what’s happening.

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.”


[Sidebar]
GETTING STARTED

Before teaching your athletes how to improve their breathing techniques, it’s important to have them assess the current state of their breathing. This assessment establishes a baseline for them to compare changes against.

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 as you breathe in and out.

“Stand up, take as big a deep breath as you can, then count out loud quietly, quickly, cleanly, and clearly up to as high a number as you can get to on one exhale,” says White. “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 simple breathing assessment tests at
www.breathing.com/tests.htm. He also has illustrated examples of other breathing techniques at www.breathing.com/tips-sports.htm.