The Mental Game with Dr Z: Issue V – Breathing Exercises

Posted on May 25 2016 - 11:31am by DV

Dr Z Bio PicBy Dr. Dan Zimet, Psychologist & Sports Consultant-

Getting a bunch of Psychologists to agree on anything is tantamount to getting a bill through Congress.  Not likely to happen!  That’s what makes Breathing Exercises so unique.  When it comes to decreasing arousal and managing anxiety/stress levels, there is universal agreement that nothing works as quickly or powerfully as controlling your breathing.  Additionally, breathing exercises are excellent for clearing or resetting the mind and as a cue to start a routine.

How can something so simple work so well?  Breathing exercises are the best way to elicit a ‘relaxation response’ and are perhaps the only way to deliberately influence the stress/alert response of your nervous system.  While reducing anxiety helps an athlete in numerous ways, let’s consider an example of how tension effects speed.  Rest your forearm on a table and tense the muscles in your arm.  Using any two fingers, alternate tapping as quickly as you can on the surface of the table while keeping that arm tense.  Take note of your tempo.  Now relax your arm and hand, and again alternate tapping with the same two fingers.  You should notice a marked increase in your tapping rate under the relaxed condition as compared to the tense condition.  There is an additive effect of tension throughout your entire body (not just your arm) when you’re tense while hitting a handball.  What a devastating effect it will have on your power, but also your speed, flexibility, accuracy, and endurance!

In addition to reducing physical tension, breathing exercises…

  • Decrease your metabolism
  • Slow your heart rate
  • Help muscles to relax
  • Reduce the body’s instinct for rapid, shallow breath (hyperventilating)
  • Lower your blood pressure
  • Increase activation in the thinking/planning parts of the brain (your rational brain)
  • Decrease activation in the flight/fight/freeze part of the brain (your danger! brain)
  • Reduce energy expenditure during physical activity
  • Reduce feelings of depression and anxiety
  • Help with insomnia
  • Support weight loss
  • Decrease feelings of irritability/increase patience

So breathing exercises have a lot of benefits, but you might be thinking, “Why do I need to practice something I’ve done my whole life and never had to think about?”  It might come as a surprise to learn that nearly all of us don’t know how to effectively breathe.  Our body fills our lungs with air in two ways: within the rib cage (chest-breathing), and below the ribcage through expansion of the abdomen (deep breathing).  Most of us, most of the time, are chest breathers.  To illustrate the limits of chest breathing, try this exercise:  Raise/shrug your shoulders and notice the difficulty you’ll have in taking a deep breath.  Right now you are mostly breathing through your chest.  Now relax, and place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach/abdomen.  Take deep breaths and try to move the hand on your abdomen in and out while keeping the hand on your chest relatively still.  Expanding the abdomen/diaphragm is the trick to a successful deep breath.  This ‘belly breath’ profoundly increases the amount of air entering the lungs, and as a result increases the amount of oxygen in your blood.

How to Belly Breath (Diaphragmatic breathing) – the basics:

  1. Inhale through the nose to a slow count of 4, expanding your abdomen by feeling as though your belly is inflating like a balloon.  If you place one hand on your stomach and another on your chest, nearly all movement should come from your belly.
  2. Hold for a few moments (the calmer you are, the longer this pause will be).
  3. Gradually exhale through the mouth to a count of 8, feeling like a slowly deflating balloon.  How hard do you exhale?  Imagine blowing through a bubble wand.  You want to blow hard enough to expand the bubble, but soft enough so it doesn’t burst.
  4. Pause and restart.  In general, your inhale is twice as rapid as the exhale.

There are two breathing techniques I recommend; however, every athlete is different and once diaphragmatic/belly breathing is mastered it’s up to you to decide how to use it.

Relax and Breath: meditative breathing:  Try this exercise twice a day for two weeks to help reduce overall feelings of stress.  I find it helpful when trying to fall asleep the night before a match, or in the hours leading up to playing on the day of a tournament.  Try it during your work hours when you’re feeling particularly anxious to see how well it works for you!

  1. Set a timer for 3-minutes.
  2. In a comfortable seat, position yourself in a way that your muscle tone is as relaxed as possible.
  3. Close your eyes and engage in diaphragmatic breathing.
  4. Allow your mind to wonder but not remain fixed on any one thought, like clouds passing overhead or bubbles floating by (good visuals).
  5. If you get ‘fixed’ on a thought, use a key word (e.g., “quiet,” “peace”) or focus on the physical experience of breathing.

Reset and go: the Clearing Breath:  A Clearing Breath helps to reset the mind and let go of the past, and also acts as a great initiator into the routine of a patterned skill (e.g., the start of a service routine).  An example of my service routine is 1) clearing breath, 2) plan and visualize serve, 3) bounce twice, 4) rock and go.  A clearing breath is also useful after a mistake, a long rally, and starting/ending a time-out.

  1. Exhale sharply and empty the lungs
  2. Inhale smoothly to capacity for a count of 4
  3. Exhale as gradually as you can to a count of 8

A ‘triple clear’ is useful when you are breathing heavily from an extended rally.  For three iterations:  Perform the Clearing Breath steps and progressively lengthen step 3 (the exhale cycle) from a count of 4 to 6 to 8.

As you become increasingly comfortable with these exercises, you’ll instinctively incorporate them into your life.  For sports, I have found that breathing exercises are my most commonly prescribed technique for stress management (e.g., pre-tournament jitters), mental clearing (e.g., letting go of mistakes, re-focusing), and within routines (e.g., before starting your service motion).  If you find that nerves are taking a toll on your handball results, I strongly recommend breathing exercises as a first defense!

Dr. Dan Zimet is a Psychologist and Certified Sports Consultant (anticipated 2016). Dr. Zimet has been working as a Psychologist for more than 15 years in private practice, specializing in young adult and adolescent issues, marital counseling and sport psychology.

Drawn to handball because his father, uncle and grandfather played, Dr. Zimet has accrued an astounding 24 combined singles and doubles National Masters Titles in 1-Wall, 3-Wall and 4-Wall, while also serving as the Maryland Handball Commissioner from 2003-2013. He cites victories against Andy Schad in the 2012 3-Wall National Final and winning tournaments with partners Alan Frank, Andy Schad, Eli Zimet (father), and Adam Zimet (brother) as his most fulfilling moments in handball. Dr. Zimet has set his sights on a top four WPH SR48 ranking and winning a USHA National Masters Title in each of the USHA national events.

Dr. Zimet lives in Columbia, MD with his wife Danielle and son Fletcher