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Breathe Like a Champion!


Mindset Made Simple Tip #194 – Watch or listen HERE!


What a weekend it was in NE Ohio.  Cleveland hosted the most watched Women’s Final Four ever and the atmosphere was AMAZING!  We had the good fortune of attending the final game yesterday…with soccer superstar Megan Rapinoe in the suite next to us…and witnessed undefeated South Carolina beat the storied Hawkeyes in front of a sellout crowd!  TOO FUN!


This wasn’t my first national championship; I’ve been lucky to attend a bunch in many different sports.  But this one was special!  As my favorite actor, Jason Sudeikis’s t-shirt read yesterday (you know I LOVE Ted Lasso!), says “Everyone watches women’s sports!” 


Imagine being one of those athletes.  They knew EVERYONE was watching.  A national championship was on the line.  There was so much energy, so much emotion and so many expectations.  Add in an undefeated season and the Caitlin Clark hype and, WOW, that’s a lot!


But these athletes were up to the challenge.  They are looking for things to go their way.  Both sides know how to battle their opponents AND their emotions.


One way CHAMPIONS manage the pressure of EVERYONE WATCHING WOMEN’S SPORTS is through managing their breath.


It sounds so simple…and it is.  But it takes practice, discipline and an understanding of how to manage it effectively!


We all breathe.  Don’t do it for long and you’re in trouble!


The problem is that when we get in front of 18,300 fans…or 10…we tend to change the way we breathe and not for the better!


As our respiratory rate rises, our ability to focus decreases.   Shallow breathing can ignite our fight or flight response or it can be a result of our body moving to our sympathetic nervous system – sometimes our mind affects our body, sometimes our body affects our mind! 


I learned a lot about breathing last month when I wasn’t doing it very well.  My right lung was almost ½ full of pneumonia.  And during that time, I COULD NOT THINK!  I wanted to work but I couldn’t string a sentence together for long.  Interestingly enough, my WHOOP (a monitor that gives you a look at the body’s key performance data like HR, HRV, etc.) readings were RED as if it was screaming at me.  My respiratory rate was sky-high.  My heart rate was extremely elevated.  And although it cannot measure my brain waves, they weren’t working! 😊


This made me think a lot about what we see on the basketball court and at the plate when I am watching my teams or sports in general.


Everyone is breathing…obviously.  But how?  And how is that "how" affecting our performance?


Picture your favorite athlete at the line or at the plate.  What do you see?  Is it a breath…with shoulders coming closer to their ears and their breathing motion going up and down like they are getting a bit taller in the shoulders, then back to neutral? 


Although I don’t think all of this is bad, it looks like the athlete is getting some tension out as they exhale, but according to the Mayo Clinic, “Chest breathing activates accessory respiratory muscles that tighten the neck, chest and vocal cords, and can trigger a fight-or-flight stress reflex” so we may be tightening instead of relaxing.  Thus, it isn’t serving the athlete as well as a DEEP “down low” breath (as one of my athletes called it the other day) would.


The up-and-down breathing is a great starting point.  At least we are taking time to pause and manage our state AND our posture.  But this leads to shallow breaths, and we are shorting ourselves of the full benefit of a DEEP DOWN LOW diaphragmatic breath, or better yet, a philological sigh!


When pressure mounts and our respiratory rate creeps up, some of the air sacs in our lungs (called alveoli…where the CO2 and oxygen exchange takes place) collapse and the exchange is adversely affected.  CO2 levels increase which signals to our brains that something is not quite right making us feel a bit agitated or stressed. 


Not enough evidence to slow your breathing?  Hyperventilation (overbreathing) can also cause the body to lose too much CO2 which can decrease the amount of oxygen that reaches the muscles negatively affecting endurance and increasing fatigue.  The lack of oxygen reaching the muscles AND the imbalance of CO2 in this direction can also lead to feelings of panic and anxiousness along with a decrease in coordination…which is vital to performance, of course!


The effects of shallow or increased respiratory rate can even make us feel as if we have a diminished sense of control, maybe because we are working with two left hands due to decreased coordination???


Learning to breathe…like a champion…is easy.  It takes practice and a commitment to slow things down for a split second.


Dr. Andrew Huberman is a HUGE proponent of the physiological sigh.  This is the practice of breathing in through your nose, pausing, and then taking a second short inhale to “pop open” the thousands of little air sacs in your lungs, restoring the balance of O and CO2 in your system.


Then, and maybe most importantly, breathe out, long and slow, through your mouth.

Important in this is that we are breathing in our belly first.  To practice, lay down, and put one hand on your chest and one on your belly.  The hand on your belly should rise and fall as you breathe.  The one on your chest should remain still.  Obviously, you can't do this exact exercise on the field or court, but like anything else, we practice first!


I explain this “belly breathing” or diaphragmatic breathing like this.  As you breathe in, you get wider around your midsection.  As you exhale, you get smaller again as you tighten your abdominal muscles to force the air out.


What is happening inside is that as you inhale, your diaphragm tightens and moves down, increasing the space in your chest cavity.  Your heart rate increases because your heart has more room and can pump more blood through the space!  As you exhale, your diaphragm relaxes and moves up, shrinking your chest cavity, your heart has less space to work so it shrinks and slows its rate to fit its new area.  This lowers your blood pressure, slows your brain waves and reduces your stress.  This seems a bit counterintuitive, but it’s how we are made…and we need to use it to our advantage!


Not only does slow, deep breathing before our performance or right before a big moment increase blood flow to the muscles we are about to use, help us relax and improve our ability to focus, it enhances our posture!  It is REALLY hard to take a deep breath if you are small and squatty…or looking down in disgust.  Good posture tells a story to our opponents (even if we don’t believe it…stay that way long enough and we will) AND it can help our physical alignment which reduces physical tension!


Add in a slow and deep breathing practice AFTER competition to improve your recovery, too!  Deep breathing helps remove waste from the body…like lactic acid…and improves blood flow to help muscles heal!


Migliaccio, et. al (2023) list the effects of respiratory rate on our performance better than I can, so here is their list.


  • Our breathing rate affects oxygen delivery: the respiratory rate determines the amount of oxygen that is delivered to the muscles during exercise, which is critical for peak athletic performance.

  • Our breathing rate affects carbon dioxide elimination: the respiratory rate also determines the amount of carbon dioxide that is eliminated from the body during exercise, which can help improve athletic performance.

  • Our breathing rate affects heart rate regulation: the respiratory rate can also affect the heart rate, which is important for peak athletic performance and reducing feelings of stress and anxiety during exercise.

  • Our breathing rate affects concentration and focus: the breathing rate can also affect the athlete’s focus and concentration during exercise. Controlled, rhythmic breathing can help improve focus and concentration, allowing for better athletic performance (Migliaccio, et. al. 2023).


The bottom line is that controlling our breathing can help us control our stress.  But, we MUST practice off the battlefield. Our military does not learn new moves in combat.  It drills at home.  We must do the same!


We must PRACTICE without stress first. 


Slow it down.  Feel your belly fill and contract.  Get familiar with the way deep breaths feel when you are relaxed and stress-free.  Then move them to practice.  THEN use them in combat!  We don’t rise to occasions, we fall back on habits.  If we know what do to and how to do it and PRACTICE before we need it, we have a much better chance of gaining the benefits of this amazing tool we carry around 24/7!


Breathe.  Not up and down, but in and out.  And see how it helps you improve!


Manage your breath.  Manage your performance.  Manage the moments!


Julie


P.S. Do you want your team to perform better?  Reach out and get them the tools they need to be their best! Shoot me a text at 234-206-0946 or an email at juliej@ssbperformance.com and get scheduled today!


Julie Jones

Mental Performance Coach

SSB Performance

juliej@ssbperformance.com • 234-206-0946 

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