We have all been breathing since the moment we were born. We breathe our first breath upon arrival into the world and we will leave after taking our last breath. All the days in between we breathe 21,000 breaths a day; yet we only utilize a small portion of our lung’s capacity. Learning to unlock the powers of your breath could make a key difference in your performance on the court, as well as your quality of life off the court. This all begins with bringing awareness to your own breathing patterns.
A tennis match is a series of short bursts of high intensity movements followed by shorter and longer rest periods. On a local level, a match lasts between 1-1/2 to 2 hours in length requiring a player to expend around 300 to 500 short bursts of effort during the match. A tennis player must therefore have proficient training in both their anaerobic system, which gives us the ability to sprint across the court, and their aerobic system, which gives us the endurance to last through the long matches. To boost performance potential it is important to first take a look at HOW you breathe. Learning to improve your breathing can combat the physical demands tennis has on the body, along with reducing your levels of performance anxiety.
Improving breathing creates balance in the body between the sympathetic nervous system, which is considered our ‘fight or flight’ response and the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows the heart rate and controls our rest. Consciously controlling breathing can be directly connected to balancing these systems. It is activating the parasympathetic system that induces calmness and clarity on the court.
The primary muscles involved in breathing include the four abdominal muscles and the diaphragm. Seventy-five percent of all respiratory effort is the responsibility of the diaphragm. The secondary muscles that play a role in breathing include the pectoralis minor (muscles of the chest), trapezius sternocleidomastoid and scalenes (both muscles of the neck). These are important to note because, if any of these muscles are tense, the quality of the breath can be affected. Gentle movements such as cat cow, shoulder rolls and side bends will begin to free up these muscles to make way for expansion of the ribcage with each breath.
Discover How You Breathe
Sit in a chair with your feet on the floor. If this is not comfortable you can lie down on the floor. Then sitting tall with your heart lifted and chin parallel to the floor, take your right hand and place it on your chest and your left hand on your lower belly. Close your eyes and inhale and exhale through your nose. If this is uncomfortable for you, you can let the exhale out through your mouth.
Notice which hand feels the movement of your breath. Do you feel your right hand rising and falling or are you able to bring your breath down to your left hand?
Let the exhale last a little longer, working towards slowing it down and feeling your belly rise and descend underneath your left hand.
Sometimes bringing awareness to breath can create anxiety in some people as it can be stimulating as well as calming to the nervous system. Let the exhale release the tension. Consider it the ‘undoing’ breath.
Continue to breathe for a few minutes taking mental notes of your discoveries.
This practice is about awareness, not perfection so be kind to yourself and practice being an observer. Through your awareness, you will be able to refine your breathing patterns each time you practice.
Breathing with a Theraband
This technique assists in increasing the capacity of your lungs by teaching you how to feel the expansion in your ribcage as you breathe. A theraband is a thin elastic band that is used for exercise and therapeutic movements. You can use a theraband or another household items such as a tie or scarf.
Sit in a chair with your feet on the floor. You can also sit on the floor in a cross-legged position against a wall for support. Wrap the band around your upper rib cage just below your sternum. Pull it snug enough so that you feel a slight hugging into your rib cage. Tie a knot twice in the band so that it is secure around your rib cage.
Close your eyes and let your breath flow freely.
Begin to feel the expansion of the ribcage into the band as you inhale the breath. Exhale, let your shoulders release and the ribcage drop.
Continue to feel the expansion of the ribcage with each inhale in all directions - front, back and sides of the body.
This is a practice, so again, with each session work towards refinement of breathing patterns.
Bringing your Breath onto the Court
You can use your breath to help you recover between points by practicing slowing your breath down in between points. Focus on slowing your exhale down, which will slow your heart rate down, allowing you to recover more quickly. By paying attention to the quality of your breath, you will find your mind will stay clear and focused on the next point. In 10-20 seconds in between points, 2-3 slow breaths will suffice.
Breathing is a voluntary activity; but we have the ability to choose HOW we breathe! Most importantly, have fun exploring new techniques and remember to always exhale!