Athletes make mental mistakes. Hitters swing at bad pitches. Gymnasts over rotate on tumbling passes. Point guards make bad passes. Linemen jump offsides. We might assume athletes aren’t focused but in reality they are too amped up.
Why Do Athletes Get Too Amped Up?
Here are a few reasons your athletes get amped up beyond what is best for their best performance:
- Excess caffeine
- Expectations peceived to exceed ability
- Pressure from self or others
- Negative interpretation of nervous symptoms
- Physical and cognitive stress
- Lack of confidence
An Over-Amped Lineman
An NCAA Division I lineman with whom I worked struggled to regulate his activation (physiological energy) level before games.
Part of the problem was his teammates amping everyone up before tip off like Hall of Fame Linebacker Ray Lewis motivated his teammates in the huddle. When he was too amped up he was more likely to draw penalties or miss blocks at the line of scrimmage.
Some athletes need to be amped up to perform at their best; however others don’t. This young man was the latter, performing at his best when he had a relatively low level of physiological activation.
A technique that would have helped him is called diaphragmatic breathing. It is a technique to dial down the body’s natural fight-or-flight response (sympathetic nervous system) and take control of the body’s physiology by intentionally increasing activity in the parasympathetic nervous system.
Diaphragmatic breathing can help athletes manage their physiological (and cognitive) activation and elevate performance.
Benefits of Diaphragmatic Breathing
Here are numerous proven benefits your athletes can receive from using diaphragmatic breathing (based on McCraty and Childre, 2010):
- Enhanced motor coordination (i.e., hand-eye coordination, speed, timing)
- Improved ability to regulate emotions (i.e., composure)
- Increased focus and concentration (i.e., hearing the snap count)
- Faster information processing (i.e., decision making, problem solving, improvisation, discrimination)
How Diaphragmatic Breathing Works
By practicing this 3 part process athletes can access the powerful benefits of diaphragmatic breathing:
1. Belly Breathing
Diaphragmatic breathing, sometimes called belly breathing, involves intentionally breathing into the belly, not inflating the chest. Inflate the belly as you inhale and tighten the belly as you exhale.
2. Focus on One Thing
Trying to focus on too many things at once increases the fight-or-flight responses. Instead, focus on one thing, such as:
- Counting your breathing rate. Count up as you inhale fully and down as you exhale.
- Focus on the physical sensations of expanding your abdomen as you inhale and feel the tightening in your abdominals as you exhale.
- Notice the continuous flow of air moving through your nose, throat, and lungs as you breathe.
3. Elicit Positive Emotions
Research shows that positive emotions such as gratitude and joy counteract the body’s natural stress response. In fact, positive emotions help activate the body’s rest and digest response. This is the body’s counterbalance to the fight-or-flight response.
To elicit positive emotions athletes can use multiple strategies:
- Think of someone or something you are grateful for.
- Picture a joyful or awe inspiring place or experience.
- Reflect on a past success or achievement, or on how hard he or she worked to get where they are.
By combining this three-part process, athletes can maximize the benefits of diaphragmatic breathing, gain control of their mind and body, and elevate their performances.
To help your athletes learn diaphragmatic breathing and practice it, I created this free downloadable poster.
Dial In Optimal Activation
To be successful in sports, athletes need to learn to manage their emotions and physiology. One aspect of this skill is knowing how to dial down the body’s activation when necessary. Even the smallest changes can make a big difference in an athlete’s performance. Help your athletes get into their optimal activation state by teaching them the technique of diaphragmatic breathing. Like anything else, the more they practice it, the more they can count on it when they need it the most.