Sports Psychology
Breathing Techniques for Athletes

    We have been breathing for so long that we take the entire process for granted, yet like any other autonomic function, it can be studied and improved.  As athletes, we've probably experienced times when we were "out of breath" but the reality was that we simply were not getting enough oxygen into our bloodstream to replace what we had used up through exercise.  Since maintaining our oxygen level determines whether we have the energy to perform at a high level, and since proper breathing has been shown to help us remain calm under pressure, this certainly seems like a "skill" that we need to improve.
    As you may have read earlier, Todd Hamilton, in winning the 2004 British Open Championship, was pointed out by the announcers several times for regulating his breathing as he played the final holes of the tournament.  Despite incredible pressure, one of the reasons Todd was able to maintain his composure and continue to make accurate and sometimes delicate shots, was because he paused regularly, took deep rhythmic breaths, and gained control over his performance.

    Those who practice yoga have long understood the value of various breathing techniques.  It should be obvious to any of us that certain types of breathing would be better suited for use during competition than that we would use while trying to go to sleep.  Yoga enthusiasts have studied the various types of breathing to use for different purposes, and thus many of the terms originate with them.  The key is to remember that each type can be helpful to us as athletes.

    As with any other technique, there are certain basic "rules" that apply to the use of breathing techniques:
    (1) Begin by clearing both nostrils completely - blow your nose if you have to.
    (2) Choose a quiet, comfortable environment to practice these techniques.  (During games you will have no choice, but if you have practiced well, the technique will work almost automatically.)  Your practice area should be as free of distractions as possible, and the air should be fresh (no smokers around).
    (3) Breathe only through your nostrils unless otherwise directed.
    (4) Breathe smoothly in and out - try to keep the rhythm of your breathing regular and natural
    (5) Since some techniques will bring in lots of oxygen, you may get a little light-headed the first few times you practice.  If so, simply stop the technique for awhile, and use your normal breathing pattern.
    (6) Once you have learned the pattern, it is probably beneficial to close your eyes while using any technique, so you an eliminate outside distractions.

    There are 4 basic types of breathing you should be able to use to your advantage.  Work on them in order, since they get harder to do as you move along.  Each technique is useful for different situations, so it is a good idea to practice them all.  Then you will be ready for any situation.  I tried to list them in order of difficulty, so you can try to become familiar and comfortable with one, then move on to the next.

    [1]  Natural Breath is pretty much what it sounds like, and uses the diaphragm effectively.  (Your diaphragm is the muscle under the lungs that pulls air in and then pushes it out.  It's the muscle that cramps up when you're "out of shape", giving you a "stitch" in your side during running.)
       The purpose of this type of breathing is to relax your nervous system and reduce your stress.  It takes very little effort, but is very efficient in bringing in oxygen.  It may also be beneficial for reducing "butterflies" before games or other stressful activities.  It probably also helps "tone" the abdominal muscles, much as easy weightlifting would tone your arms or legs.
    Begin by lying on flat on your back with your arms at your sides and breathe slowly & deeply.  Be aware of the rhythm of your breath, and attend to the way your abdomen rises and falls with each breath.  Breathe only through your nostrils, and try to notice how the oxygen is entering your bloodstream and spreading throughout your body.  Gently place one hand on your belly, and feel the rhythm of your breathing raising and lowering your abdomen.  Breathe this way for about 10 minutes, letting your abdomen relax and your stressors fade away.

    [2]  Complete Breath is a process to expand your lung capacity, and keep your chest and lungs flexible & relaxed.  It is said to increase your energy level and improve your metabolism.  It will even help strengthen your abdominal muscles in the process - a pretty nice side-effect.
    The purpose of this type of breathing is to stretch your lungs a bit, allowing you to take in more oxygen, which will cut down on your panting and gasping in practices.  Ideally, you should begin this process at least two weeks before practices start, so you will be in better internal condition physically, and therefore "suffer" less.  It would be beneficial, once you have a consistent procedure for using this breathing technique, to do 5-10 minutes exercise with this before practices and games, so your lungs will be stretched and ready for the exercise.
    Begin by sitting in a comfortable position, with your back straight upright, and your chest somewhat forward.  Put one hand on your belly, and one on the side of your rib cage.  Do about one minute of Natural Breath to warm up.  In this pattern, we are going to gradually expand our entire breathing process.  As we inhale, we want to imagine the air filling us up from the bottom toward the top - each exhale should be the exact opposite. 
    After warming up the diaphragm with Natural Breath,  increase your breathing into your rib cage, feeling the bones expanding to the sides.  Take as many breaths as necessary until it feels comfortable and smooth.  Keep the breathing steady and equal, and always inhale bottom-to-top and exhale top-to-bottom.  Expand again up into your shoulders, filling your entire torso with clean, fresh air.  Each intake should  fill up your entire inner space, and each exhale should leave you feeling totally "collapsed" inside - literally "flat as a pancake". 
    When you have this rhythm comfortably smooth, add one final step.  As you inhale, and when you reach the point that you have taken in each breath as far as it will go, "sip" in just a little more air through your nose, so that you literally cannot take even a small more.  As you exhale, push every single atom of air out, so that your chest feels completely collapsed, as though your chest bone and spine were touching.
    This technique will be a strain at first, but will be easier to do the more times you repeat it.  Remember ~ if you ever feel light-headed, dizzy, or at a loss for breath, cease the technique immediately, and return to a normal breathing pattern, preferably your Natural Breath.

    [3]  Victorious Breath prepares us for a variety of circumstances, and comes next in the series.  With meditation, you can extend the exhalation (make your breath out last much longer than your breath in), to lower your blood pressure and slow your heart rate.  By equalizing the inhalations and exhalations, but putting force behind the exhalation and making an appropriate sound in the back of your throat, you can increase your body heat, and focus your mind.  These techniques are helpful for insomnia and the reduction of physical pain.
    Begin, as always, seated comfortably, shoulders high, back straight, and nostrils clear.   Take a few long, deep breaths to establish your rhythm.  To begin Victorious Breath, you will need learn to make a sound in the back of your throat.  (This is why little kids call this technique the "Darth Vader" breath.)  For the purpose of learning the sound, you may open your mouth to exhale, and imagine that you are trying to fog a mirror in front of you, making a "Haaaaahhhhhh" sound as you exhale.  Having established the feeling this produces, close your mouth again, and continue making the sound while exhaling through your nose.  You should still be able to feel your throat closing somewhat and "focusing" the breath.
    After taking several breaths in this manner, try making the same sound as you inhale.  This is a little harder, but if you hold your throat the same, you will get the hang of it.  Continue your breathing pattern, long smooth breaths both in and out, making the sound both while exhaling and inhaling, for about 5 minutes.  (Not too much longer, especially at first.) 
    You may notice that this technique is more difficult than the preceding ones.  Because you are closing off part of your breathing channel, you improve the oxygen absorption of your lungs, remove more waste gasses from your lungs, and increase your internal pressure, which will raise your circulation and metabolism.  It may also make you a bit light-headed at first.
    This technique is also good for calming your mind, because you will focus on the breath and not on other concerns.

    [4]  Happy Breath is used for balancing out both sides of the brain, and helps us create a sense of well-being and contentment.  It will help us feel more physically, emotionally, and mentally balanced, and may help us feel more calm and stable.  It also helps us diminish our headaches, anxiety, and even boredom.
    You may have noticed that sometimes you are only breathing through one side of your nose.  Since nerve connections high in the sinus cavity lead into the brain, providing stimulus to only one side for an extended period can affect our thinking patterns.  The left nostril connects to nerves in the right brain (seat of creativity and artistic thinking) and the right nostril stimulates the left brain (where logical processes take place).  If we balance out our breathing, we will take advantage of all our facilities.
    Begin sitting fully upright again, and establish a comfortable breathing rhythm.  Keep this rhythm gentle throughout the entire process.  With your right hand, make a semicircle with your thumb and middle finger.  Place one finger on each side of your nose, but not actually touching your nose.  Following one inhalation, gently close your right nostril with your thumb.  Breathe out through your left nostril and then in again.  After you inhale, move your hand slightly so that your right nostril is open, and your middle finger is now pressing your left nostril closed.  Exhale and inhale again, then switch your finger pressure back to the original position - thumb closing right nostril.  Continue switching after each inhalation for a few minutes, but stop the technique if you begin to feel light-headed (which you probably will the first few times you try it).
    This technique might help you get your "head right" before games or even practices, and might even be beneficial before certain types of tests. 

Remember, even though you might feel slightly silly doing some of these exercises in public, any technique you try will only be effective if you practice it regularly and with a positive attitude.  If any of these breathing exercises are beneficial to you, try to arrange to use them at a time before a game or practice when you are capable of being alone.  This will help you feel less self-conscious about your practice, but don't be afraid to try them during time-outs or period breaks if you can continue to concentrate on what your coach wants you to do.

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