Breathing strategies are often used as the basis for several advanced relaxation techniques, including progressive muscular relaxation, meditation, and calming imagery. However, breathing strategies act as an important technique in their own right to help physically and mentally relax the performer. Provided here is a synopsis of breathing exercises, based on the guidelines by Jean M. Williams, that includes diaphragmatic breathing, rhythmical breathing, and sighing when exhaling as strategies commonly advocated by applied sport psychologists to help relax athletes.
Sometimes called complete breathing, diaphragmatic breathing is a physical relaxation strategy oriented around filling the lungs to capacity from bottom to top and emptying the lungs in a slow, controlled, and complete manner. Athletes should use a deep, long, and slow inhalation through the nose to completely fill the lungs. To help athletes achieve this, applied sport psychologists should ask the athlete to view their lungs as a three section cavity. First, the athlete should inhale and simultaneously relax the stomach, pulling their diaphragm muscles down to fill the lower section of their lungs. Second, the rib cage should be lifted, the chest cavity expanded to fill the midsection of the lungs, and then the shoulder blades widened to fill the lungs to the top. A slow, continuous, smooth, and controlled inhalation should be used throughout by the performer. The exhalation phase is just as important to invoking a relaxed state; here, the athlete should reverse the process described above by exhaling the top of the lungs first, then the chest cavity, and finally the lower section. Emphasis should be given to expelling air from the bottom of the lungs to complete a full exhalation, with a reduction in muscular tension and anxieties being associated with the air leaving the lungs. Throughout the exhalation phase, the muscles of the diaphragm and those surrounding the stomach should be used to help push the air from the lungs to facilitate a complete emptying of lung capacity. Athletes should be asked to associate a feeling of calmness and quietness with the final exhalation stage of the breath cycle to help invoke a completely relaxed state.
Rhythmical breathing acts as an extension to diaphragmatic breathing where ratios of holding one’s breath during inhalation and exhalation are suggested to control breath rate and help keep physical tension and mental anxieties under control. To create a symmetrical rhythm within their breathing cycle, athletes should inhale to a specific count of time (e.g., 3 seconds), hold their breath for the same time count, exhale to the same time count, and pause for the same count before repeating the cycle. Once proficient in this symmetrical rhythmical breathing technique, a different ratio of time count between inhalation to exhalation should be explored to help invoke a more relaxed state. For example, using a ratio of 1:2, athletes should take a symmetrical rhythmical first breath (i.e., a 1:1 ratio, inhale for 3 seconds and exhale for 3 seconds); then, on the next inhalation, they should inhale to the same count of 3 seconds and extend
the exhalation phase over a 6-second period (i.e., a 1:2 ratio). To achieve this, the performer should be encouraged to exhale more slowly and with greater control and awareness of this phase of the breath cycle. Alternative ratios should be explored by the performer to help create greater control and awareness of the inhalation–exhalation phases of the breath cycle to help create a powerful sense of control over the rhythm of breathing and thus the relaxed state of the athlete. The benefits of adopting a rhythmical breathing rate include lowered heart rate, better oxygen utilization, and lowered muscular tension and mental anxiety.
Sighing When Exhaling
This breathing strategy is a very simple, quick approach that can be used to help relax athletes. Specifically, if tension is perceived by athletes, they should exhale fully and powerfully through the mouth with an audible sigh, and then inhale slowly and quietly through the nose. The performer should repeat the process using the muscles around the rib cage to fully expel the air in the lungs so that tension within the body is reduced.
The strategies outlined in this entry illustrate how breathing control can help athletes achieve a relaxed state. In general, studies testing intervention effects have noted the positive effects of breathing strategies on enhancing performance. Further, these findings are relatively consistent across different sports and different competitive level athletes, from elite to non-elite. Additionally, studies that have assessed the psychological skill use of athletes have noted that elite performers tend to use relaxation strategies (including breathing exercises) more readily when preparing for performance than their non-elite counterparts. However, research has yet to establish whether one particular breathing strategy or a specific combination of various breathing strategies is more effective than another at helping to relax the athlete. Therefore, the broad recommendations that emerge from the applied research are that applied sport psychologists should teach the performers a range of breathing strategies and allow them to explore which is most useful for them given their needs. Performers should practice these breathing strategies in nonsporting stress-inducing situations (e.g., waiting in line in a shop, dealing with a difficult situation at work) before progressing to test the efficacy of the given strategy in a sporting context. Ideally, the strategies should be practiced in training environments before being utilized in the competitive arena.
- Hanton, S., Thomas, O., & Mellalieu, S. (2009). Management of competitive stress in elite sport. In B. W. Brewer (Ed.), Handbook of sport medicine and science: Sport psychology (pp. 30–42). Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.
- Vealey, R. S. (2007). Mental skills training in sport. In G. Tenenbaum & R. C. Eklund (Eds.), Handbook of sport psychology (pp. 287–309). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
- Williams, J. M. (2010). Relaxation and energizing techniques for regulation of arousal. In J. M. Williams (Ed.), Applied sport psychology: Personal growth to peak performance (6th ed., pp. 247–266). New York: McGraw-Hill.