When gearing up for a big match, very few athletes actually take the time to sit back and take a breath. The simple acts of inhaling, exhaling and relaxing for just a few moments can have a significant impact on sporting performance. Just take a look at Cristiano Ronaldo the next time he lines up a free-kick – there may be too much posturing and posing going on for some people’s tastes, mine included, but the moment he lines up his strike he inhales deeply before exhaling to allow himself the time to relax and focus on the task at hand. The likes of Jonny Wilkinson and Andy Farrell lining up conversion kicks do likewise and it is all part of their routine as they bid to ‘tune out’ the crowd, as well as any other distracting factors, and focus solely on the act of kicking the ball.
This ability to relax and focus on the skill to be executed is not something that can be implemented instantaneously but rather it is developed over time and with practise. There is a reason that the likes of Ronaldo, Wilkinson and Farrell are at the top of their game and it’s not because they are a PR’s dream, but because they are willing to take time out of their lives to practise.
Practising ‘relaxing’ may sound easy enough but in reality it is something that requires dedication, time and effort. Relaxing on the sofa in front of the television after work is not the same as relaxing effectively through the use of breathing techniques and one of the most popular techniques that anyone can use is Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR). This technique involves tensing and relaxing muscle groups for 20 minutes a day, in a quiet location where you can ‘let go’ and clear your mind of worry. It is a very accessible method and if you Google ‘Progressive Muscle Relaxation’ you can find audio and scripts that will guide you through a 20-minute session of relaxing and controlled breathing.
PMR has been shown to have hugely significant long-term effects in sport, particularly with helping to reduce general anxiety and stress, while also helping to increase concentration. A study by Janet Ortiz showed that PMR led to improved putting performance in female golfers, while many others sports have shown tremendous improvements following the use of PMR and other breathing techniques.
By practising PMR, athletes will have a better understanding of their breathing and they can then implement shorter, concentrated breathing exercises within a match-day context. William & Harris (2001) discovered huge benefits in concentrated breathing in athletes and while it may not be possible to implement a breathing exercise in the middle of a football match for example, there are many scenarios in which the ability to relax through deep breathing can be profound.
Many athletes struggle with ‘over arousal’, where they are overly anxious and stressed or even over-motivated, before matches and this can have a debilitating affect on performance during the game (Hillmann, Apparies, Janelle and Hatfield, 2000). The use of PMR and concentrated breathing techniques can help overcome these negative pre-match effects by decreasing arousal to a level that is more suitable for the match situation, thus ensuring that performance is not adversely affected.
Breathing techniques are arguably most relevant in sports involving a ‘closed skill’, where there are fewer ‘outside distractions’ during a match and there is the time available to take a moment to relax. For example, sports such as darts and snooker would appear to be tailor made for relaxation techniques as a player may find themselves becoming ‘over aroused’ but by breathing deeply and allowing themselves to relax, they can ensure they perform their next shot at the level they expect and require.
Even in team sports, there will be times when deep breathing techniques can give an athlete a vital few seconds to ensure they are in the right state of mind to execute a skill effectively, much like Ronaldo, Wilkinson and Farrell are doing with their kicking at the very highest level. There is no doubt that the time they take to practise their ‘routine’ is key but that ability to take a breath and relax when all around them is chaos in a match situation is what sets them apart when it comes to performing under pressure.