Breathing Matters

I’ve been meaning to write about breathing since September last year when I co-delivered a workshop at the World Scientific Congress of Golf with the superbly talented Rachel Vickery from Breathing & Performance.

I’ve always had a strong interest in psychophysiology however since working more closely with Rachel it’s strengthened because I can see the results we can achieve together.

I won’t steal Rachel’s thunder by explaining exactly what she does and how she does it – she’s better placed to do that…What I want to use this opportunity for is to emphasise the importance of breathing for sport performance and the value of multidisciplinary work.

My intrigue in how the brain and body communicate has meant I’ve always encouraged and integrated strategies to highlight this communication as well as tools like heart rate monitors and HeartMath products into my work with athletes to assist with learning how to relax themselves with the help of biofeedback.

It pleases me that there is a heightened awareness in general society about the power of breathing with the variety of techniques and lifestyle approaches on offer such as mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and Eastern philosophy – each highlighting some of the fundamental feedback loops that occur in every human being to make us function.  An understanding of what messages are being sent between the brain and body helps with all levels of performance specifically those who want to perform under pressure, when it counts.

Typically sport psychologists have recommended relaxation strategies to overcome anxiety that may hinder being able to perform under pressure, when it counts.  Relaxation increases parasympathetic tone, lowers the heart rate; decreases muscle tension, allowing increased freedom of movement and less cramping; and drops oxygen consumption, indicating a calmer body state and better emotional control (Cooper et al., 1996; Schutt & Bernstein, 1986 as cited in Bompa, 1999).  Athletes who are more relaxed are better able to maintain optimal biomechanical technique (Bompa, 1999), reduce anxiety and increase their perception of control (Tenenbaum, Lloyd, Pretty, & Hanin, 2002), especially in high-pressure scenarios.

Breathing strategies are commonly used by athletes for relaxation, however they are typically used in contexts such as within a pre-performance routine to focus; during breaks in play to reset; or in a situation that is anxiety provoking.  This approach is limited in its effectiveness if an athlete’s default or automatic breathing pattern is inefficient.  An inefficient breathing pattern increases sympathetic tone resulting in increased muscle tension, elevated heart rate, decreased mental processing and increased neural sensitivity.  Taking one or two “relaxing breaths” to calm oneself down or focus is less likely to be effective if the athlete is breathing inefficiently when they are not conscious of their breathing – leading up to a competitive performance, whilst performing, as well as between performances.  In fact, an inefficient breathing pattern may make an athlete feel more anxious than they actually are and negatively contribute to their mental state and biomechanical performance.  Breathing patterns under pressure are an exaggeration of one’s breathing pattern at rest.  Consequently, the biggest determinant for an athlete’s breathing pattern under pressure or in dynamic situations is their default, automatic breathing pattern.

Despite psychophysiological and neuropsychological advances in understanding the optimal mindset for sport performance information still typically focuses around psychological skills training, with the involvement of breathing as a psychological skill; however breathing for performance will only be effective if breathing under normal circumstances is efficient.  Athletes need to learn to breathe efficiently in normal circumstances, subconsciously and then practice this breathing in various scenarios for it to become habitual.  This efficient, habitual (automatic) breathing will be what athletes can rely on under pressure when emotions such as anxiety influence breathing.

Working together with Rachel means she focuses on the biomechanical aspects of breathing and I focus on the cognitive and emotional aspects of breathing to ensure that the athlete is not only learning how to breathe efficiently but can use their breathing as a skill when they’re under the pump aiming to do something extraordinary in competition with their body.

Breathing matters.  It matters how you breathe so you can use breathing as a skill to perform under pressure, when it counts.

If you’re interested in whether your breathing is helping or hindering your performance get in contact with us so we can work out a plan to make your breathing ready to take on the competitive world!

Andrea Furst PhD | Sport & Exercise Psychologist CPsychol HCPC Registered
Get in contact with Andrea –  Andrea is based in London and provides both face-to-face and virtual sport psychology services to athletes worldwide.