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The benefits of breathing techniques

Karlene Sugarman explains how to take control of a stressful situation by focusing on your breathing and relaxing your muscles.

"Relax!" "Just relax!"

That is what coaches say to do, right? But how is this possible with the game on the line; or, the game tied in overtime with you going in to play? One way to help during these stressful times is to use breathing techniques.

Optimal performance

Being in a relaxed state is important to achieving optimal performance in any endeavour, not just sports. It is important when you are taking a test, giving a presentation, having a job interview, dealing with your family, etc. You name it; being relaxed will increase your productivity in it. It is a vital stepping stone to peak performance. If you are not relaxed, everything you do will be a struggle. Relaxation provides mind-body integration necessary for peak performance.

You can use relaxation skills at all stages of practice and competition -- beginning, during and end. The beginning is a way to get your mind clear and your body relaxed so you can get the most out of the practice session or game. During you can use breathing skills to regain focus and slow your body down and at the end of practice or game as part of cooling down to help you return to a balanced physical state. Relaxation and breathing skills help improve your circulation (blood flow), which can help reduce the risk of injury and allows your body to get back to its normal state in a quick fashion.

Basic relaxation techniques

I am going to go over two basic relaxation techniques -- circle breathing and a progressive muscle relaxation session. These skills are necessary to perform at an optimal level in athletics, and they are the same sort of skills that are taught in stress management classes for businesses and can be used in any facet of your life. It is important to note that the days of pep talks to psych up your team are over. Rigid, tight-jawed determination is not the key, a sense of relaxation and letting go is. During track events at the Summer Olympics, the commentators made note of how some of the runners looked so tense (their shoulders were being held higher and their facial muscles were tight). And, needless to say, these were not the athletes that went on to win. The athlete/team that is mentally and physically relaxed and has "quiet intensity" is the one that is going to come out on top

Circle breathing

Circle breathing is a great on-the-spot tool for athletes. Right before you throw a pitch, shoot a free throw, swing the bat, field a ball, kick a field goal -- all these tasks require great concentration and focus. The breathing will help you be better prepared and allow you to keep your poise in tough situations. You are better able to read your environment if you are calm and relaxed. Mental poise and emotional control are essential to you performing well and being successful.

The centre of your body is right behind your belly button, and this is where you want to start your breath. Starting from there (the centre of your body), draw air in slowly through your nose, all the way up to your chest for a count of 4, hold it for a count of 2, then slowly exhale through your mouth for a count of 4. Let go of all tension and old energy, and completely clear your mind. Focus only on your breathing. That is one circle breath. 5 to 10 of these in a row will help get you into a more relaxed state. Now, stop here and try to do a few deep breaths before moving on. Go at your body's pace, it will tell you when to take another breath.

Progressive muscle relaxation

In the 1930s, Edmund Jacobson demonstrated that you cannot be on opposite ends of the physiological and emotional spectrum (Tutko & Tosi). That is, an anxious mind cannot exist in a relaxed body; or, a quiet mind cannot exist in a tense body. He introduced Progressive Muscle Relaxation which entails tensing each muscle, holding it and then relaxing each muscle on the exhale. It is a loosening up and letting go mentality. Letting go lets you know what the absence of tension feels like. This type of relaxation skill gives you a heightened awareness of when and how you experience tension, this can then serve as a cue that you should do something to relieve the tension. You need to be able to communicate with your body and understand what it is trying to tell you.

Guidelines for relaxation sessions

  1. It is best to do your relaxation session at the same time every day (i.e. before practice/game and/or before you go to bed). Providing this consistency is very important because regular practice is essential if you want to reap the full benefits.
  2. Find a quiet, comfortable place to relax, make sure you do not have any constricting clothing on and do not do it after you have just eaten a meal.
  3. You can lie down, as long as you do not feel you will fall asleep. If that is the case, then sit up until you have disciplined yourself enough to lie down and remain awake. Sorry, sleeping does not equal practicing relaxation skills!
  4. Completely clear your mind of anything else. Now is the time to focus only on your breathing. At this point, there is nothing more important than this relaxation session.

start with 5 to 10 deep breaths. Then, when you have taken all the proper measures to prepare yourself for a productive session, start with your feet and tense them as tight as possible and hold for a count of 4, then let go and have all the tension leave your feet, imagining all the tension and stress slowly leaving both your feet (this is on the exhale). Then, move on to your calves, again tensing them for a count of 4, then releasing all the tension from them. And, do the same for your thighs, buttocks, stomach, chest, hands, forearms, biceps, shoulders, back, neck, and facial muscles. All the while you should be doing your circle breathing.

Conduct a quick body scan and see if there is any tension left in your body. If you tend to carry your tension in your feet, then there is a chance that you will still be tense there. So, this is the time when you need to go back to that place and tense and relax these muscles again and again until you feel completely relaxed. When you are done, your whole body should feel sort of limp. This process should take about 20 minutes (10 to 15 after you have honed the skill). Take note, many athletes feel that this is not the best technique to do right before practice or a game because it gets them too relaxed. It is usually most beneficial right before you go to sleep at night.

Breathing techniques are so simple that I think they are overlooked. These are such powerful tools, yet many players have yet to buy in and take the time to perfect these skills. The team that is educated about their breathing and its impact on performance and can recognize and control their arousal states is the team that is going to be the most successful. They are the ones that can keep their wits about themselves and reach a state of "relaxed concentration." Using relaxation skills can improve your state of mind, both on and off the playing field if you take the proper time to learn and hone these skills.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • SUGARMAN, K. (2006) The benefits of breathing techniques. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 32 / May), p. 8-9

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • SUGARMAN, K. (2006) The benefits of breathing techniques [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Karlene Sugarman is a Mental Training Consultant in California and works with athletes and teams teaching mental training techniques and team-building strategies. She works with athletes in various sports and has worked with the University of San Diego baseball team since 2000. She is a Professor in the Sport Psychology program at John F. Kennedy University.