Breathing Exercises

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.

Diaphragmatic Breathing

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

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.


  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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