Take a Deep Breath
by Coach Gary Overton

The weekend golfer, occasional tennis player, daily jogger, over-the-hill softball player and masters of the pick-up basketball game all have several issues in common. Their performance could be bettered with more warm-up, better conditioning and more mental preparation. We all approach our sports hobbies in different ways with some individuals being more serious than others but most of us could improve if we only took a little time to prepare more mentally and physically.

The deep breath is one of the most powerful tools for mental toughness.  Roger Clemens, one of the most mentally tough baseball players ever, takes one or more before every pitch. 

Watch a college basketball tournament and you'll see almost every guy take a distinctive breath before each foul shot.  Actually, watch high-level performers in any sport or challenging activity (i.e., surgery, stock trading, public speaking) and you'll see them taking deep breaths just before they perform.

When players get nervous, their bodies get tight, stiff and mechanical.  Their breath gets shallow or even stops. This is where we get the term "choke." The player feels fear and becomes rattled, off balance, and therefore the game seems to speed up. It's called the "Fight or Flight" response. The blood quickly flows out of the smaller muscles and into the big muscles in the body.  Lack of blood flow causes hands to get clammy and one loses "touch" or control.

Most sports aren't about big efforts; instead they're about precision, timing, touch and feel which is greatly affected by nervousness and/or fear. We often perceive events to be life-changing that really aren't. Not sinking a 12-foot putt to post one's best score ever seems like the end of the world, but it's just a contrived situation all will survive.

That's where the deep breath comes in. It counteracts the body's reaction to the perceived threat, relaxes the muscles, and allows blood flow to the smaller muscles that are so important to precision performance.

To breathe, simply draw air in through the mouth or nose as deep into the belly as comfortable, then let go and allow (don't force) the air out through relaxed lips and cheeks.

Practice it during your sport and you'll find it helpful prior to a big play. Be sure you're focused and under control such as before the next point or pitch, during time outs, before your race, your next bowl, and so on.

Now work with it in practice, don't just wait for competition - and those scores or performances will gradually improve.

Coach Gary Overton