Mental Equipment Syndicated Column – Oct 1, 1997 – Dr. John F. Murray – This month the spotlight is on controlling your breath, but don’t become self-conscious or defensive. I’m not giving out free mouthwash or mints, but your doubles partner will thank you anyway as your game improves!
Respiration is essential to life and occurs naturally without effort or insight in a healthy person. It is easy to lose control of this vital function, however, especially during times of heightened arousal in sport.
Some means of dealing with these situations have already been discussed (See July 1997 Article on Stress Relief in Tennis; September 1995 Article on Optimizing Arousal in Tennis). Improper breathing can lead to inappropriate activation and sabotage fine muscular coordination needed in tennis. It can also result in oxygen deficits and/or further increases in emotional distress.
It seems that humans evolved to deal more with imminent threat to life (e.g., running from tigers) than hitting proper volleys under pressure. Dangerous situations increased respiration, activating large muscle groups to escape or battle the beast. The only explanation I can fathom is that there were fewer tennis tournaments in the pre-historic era! On the other hand, would you rather escape from a tiger or place your volley on the line?
O.K., get real John. In any sport it is important to monitor breathing quality. In competitive tennis, breathing patterns often fluctuate wildly from point to point, destroying rhythm and coordination and inducing fatigue. Although lower brain regions control respiration, a few glitches in the system remain when it comes to tennis. Breath control in tennis needs to be learned, practiced and refined.
Here are some specific tips to help control your breathing in tennis:
Synchronize breathing precisely with hitting the ball. Breath in from the nose as the ball is coming, exhale from the mouth upon contact. Practice this regularly and it will become more natural in the match.
Maintain a continuous breathing pattern regardless of the situation. There is often a tendency to tighten up and hold your breath under pressure. Resist this urge through practice and regular attention to your respiration quality.
Inhalations should be slow, smooth, rhythmic and from deep in the lower region of your stomach. This allows greater amounts of oxygen to be taken in and prevents the kind of short, rapid breathing that can occur in panic situations.
Exhalations should be slow, forceful and deliberate. Use exhalations as a signal to hit crisp accurate shots. Destroy the ball with your breath!
Before a difficult match or when nervous, take extra precaution that your breathing is continuous, deliberate, slow and smooth. Focus on your breathing and you will distract yourself from other worries.
Changeovers are a good time to moderate your breathing pattern by taking slow deep breaths (4-6 seconds) followed by even slower exhalations (6-8 seconds).
Prior to serving or receiving is another good time to focus on breathing. The key is to get control of your oxygen intake before the point and maintain control throughout the point.
Now that you’ve learned a few tips to improve your breath control you have the tools to become a calmer and more controlled player. Nervousness is not negative in itself, but uncontrolled respiration is. Keep me informed of your progress.