Importance of breathing

How many of us, coaches, are spending time at our practices teaching our athletes how to breath and the importance of correct breathing in sports?
We are trying to find so many ways to correct the stroke technique, power and accuracy of the strokes, timing of the contact point, lower down the anxiety levels and build up the concentration levels and delay the onset of fatigue. Well, implementing breathing in the practice (and it’s pretty easy), can upgrade the game of our players, no matter of the level.

Implementing breathing in the tennis practice routine will enable players to:
1. Rely on the kinetic chain as the source of power and control
2. Have more constant timing of the strokes
3. Relax the muscles during the contact point
4. Perform with effortless and fluent follow through
5. Decrease the levels of anxiety and stress during and after the points
6. Increase the levels of concentration and confidence
7. Stabilize the core 
8. Move efficiently
9. Delay the Feeling of fatigue
10. Reduce the chances of injuries

Physiology of breathing

Oxygen and activity
Our bodies obtain oxygen from the air we breathe in. It enters the blood stream and is carried to the muscles, where some of it is used immediately to break down glucose and create fuel for the muscles called ATP (adenosine triphosphate). The rest of the oxygen is stored by a compound called myoglobin.

Oxygen and fatigue
When muscles work hard during an exercise, the need for oxygen increases. The body increases its breathing and heart rate to pump the oxygen into the working muscles in order to keep up the constant ATP production for the fuels. The heart and the muscles responsible for breathing will take priority of the oxygenated blood over leg and arm muscles. Therefore due to the lack of oxygen in the blood, limb muscles will be the first for an athlete to feel premature fatigue.

Lack of oxygen
If the oxygen can not be delivered on time, the muscles begin converting glucose into lactic acid instead of energy, resulting in performance decrease and fatigue. Oxygen is used in the process of cellular respiration producing ATP for energy and removing the CO2 from the working muscles. Improper breathing influence a performance as CO2 is not properly removed, causing a buildup of waste and altering the pH of the body.

Inhaling and exhaling
Both phases of the breathing have different focus and benefit.

The inhaling should be used to energize and expand the upper body, which is exactly what the tennis player needs when loading and winding the hips and shoulders. Deep inhaling expands the upper body part which contributes to the body posture correction as the chest and shoulders open upwards. Due to expansion, the player feels more energized and powerful while loading and coiling sending positive image and thoughts to the brain resulting in the more efficient and confident stroke.

Exhaling stabilize the body, making it secure and grounded, which is important for the tennis performance. Balance and stability of the lower body are much needed in order for the upper body to uncoil efficiently. Pace of the exhaling should be associated with pace of the follow through motion which results in the fluency and efficiency of the stroke mechanics and properly timed strokes as the muscles of the upper body are relaxed during the contact point and the follow through motion.

Importance of inhaling through nasal pathway
Nose breathers have higher oxygen uptake then mouth breathers.
Breathing through the nose enables an athlete to take deeper breaths, which stimulates the lower lung to distribute greater amounts of oxygen throughout the body. Lower lung is triggering the parasympathetic nerve receptors which are calming the body/mind and reducing hypertension and stress.
Mouth breathing stimulates the activity of the upper lungs associated with the hyperventilation, triggering sympathetic nerve receptors, which results in the fight or flight reaction. Mouth breathing accelerates water loss, leading to early dehydration.

Importance of diaphragm breathing
Practicing how to activate diaphragm as the dominant respiratory muscle (others are intercostal muscles) and creating intra-abdominal pressure will result in increased activation of the deep core stabilizing system and protection of the back from injuries. With controlled breathing, the core stabilization is achieved and this can lead to the more efficient movement patterns, decreased chances of injury, increased power and performance overall.

Psychology of breathing

Inhaling and preparation for the stroke
Inhaling should begin as soon as the player anticipates the cues from the opposite side of the court. These cues are usually the trajectory and pace of the ball or the opponents reactions.
The inhaling should follow the pace of the game. The greater distance between the players and slower pa e of the ball, the inhaling should be deeper and at slower rate as the time of reaction is slower. Shorter distance between the players emerges the faster reaction therefore inhaling should begin at the moment of the opponent’s impact point or even before (as the ball bounces in the opponents field) if player feels urgency of a quick reaction to the opponents stroke.

Exhaling and following through
Focusing on breathing keeps the upper body more relaxed even if the lower body part is under extreme pressure. Lower body part should enable players to keep balance before, at the moment and after the stroke but the upper body muscles should be relaxed until the racquet finishes the follow through motion. Exhaling should follow the unloading of the kinetic chain movement towards the impact zone, making it smooth and relaxed. Depending on the type of the stroke, pace and intensity of the body unloading, exhaling can be long and relaxed or short and aggressive. Exhaling should be smooth and lasting until the player feels that the racquet has completed the perfect follow through trajectory and ball is at the opponent’s side of the court.
Breathing and reducing anxiety
Number one stress, no matter of the level of the player, is the ball. Firstly, when the ball is approaching the player is feeling stressed to position properly. Secondly, as the ball is leaving the racquet after the impact, the feeling of stress comes from player’s doubtful thoughts if the ball is going where is intended to go. Both of these situations, caused by the ball, will effect negatively the performance.

Inhaling, the player is relaxing and sending the message to the brain that there is a lot of time to prepare for the stroke. If inhaling, through practice and repetition, is connected automatically with the positioning and loading phase then the player could always FEEL safe and ready for the execution of the successful stroke.
Through exhaling, the player is relaxing the upper body (forearm muscles, wrist and hand pressure points) which will successfully lead to the efficient contact point as the head of the racquet will always be bellow the ball level (forearm muscles relaxed therefore the wrist and fingers can hold the racquet softly). Exhaling enables an efficient follow through, as with the relaxation of the arm muscles the racquet follows the trajectory of the ball finishing on the opposite side of the body using the joints (elbow and shoulder) rather then muscles.

Breathing during the point
Controlled breathing brings emotional control as it reduces anxiety levels and raises the concentration levels. As mentioned above, breathing reduces the stress caused by the incoming ball and ball placement, lowering the levels of anxiety. Therefore the player can concentrate more deeply to the important game cues in the present rather then having mind wondering in the future, or being stuck in the past. When inhaling, players are focused on the cues such are the opponent’s contact to the ball, the trajectory and pace of the incoming ball, opponent’s body movement and loading phase. When exhaling, players are focused on the technicality of the stroke, pace and timing of the stroke, contact point and completion of the follow through motion, while keeping the body stable and in balance.

Breathing between and after the points
Deep nasal breathing
Deep breaths using the nose pathways trigger the parasympathetic nerve receptors causing the player to calm the body and mind before the next point. As yoga is teaching us, slow and deep inhaling places our mind in the present. Important part of any mental training is to bring back the mind to the present and make the body ready for the next point. Deep nasal breathing enables the player to restrain the negative thoughts, bring the mind back to the present and visualize the actions of the future.
Deep belly breathing
Belly breathing relaxes the nervous system, harmonize the thoughts and emotions and brings back the sense of the inner peace and readiness. Inhaling and opening the belly allows the diaphragm to move deeper down to the abdomen and then moving further up to squeeze the lungs and support the heart while exhaling.


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