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“Just take a deep breath.”

We often say this to someone who we see who is noticeably stressed. There’s a reason for this, but many people don’t know the physiological reason for this common piece of advice.

To be an elite performer, controlling your emotions is essential. It helps you to be a good leader as well as to have individual success. There are several pathways to emotional control, but nearly all of them have some sort of breathing technique associated with the approach.

In general, breathing in increases heart rate and exhaling lowers heart rate. This is a universal truth that is used to the advantage of many elite athletes. Competitors in the shooting sports know this approach well; stabilizing heart rate through breath control allows for greater accuracy.

 I was recently seated next to a world-class archer who was heading to South America to qualify with the U.S. team for the Pan-Am games. After learning more about the tournament format, I asked her how much mental warfare takes place on the shooting platforms. She laughed and simply said that, while sometimes male competitors try, it is generally ineffective at her level because the athletes are so dialed-in to the target. She went on to say that the best way to put pressure on your opponent is to simply shoot well.

 I always enjoy speaking to elite athletes from sports to which I am not frequently exposed. There are so many similarities when it comes to high performance in all sports that it begs the question: How different can we really be?

As a consultant to high performers, I appreciate the fact that the stress of achieving mastery and staying there can be powerful. I also appreciate that in this setting, as a coach and mentor, I too need control over my emotions and my actions. This is even a mantra I hammer into my young son. I remind him that he is responsible for his emotions and his actions. If he hauls off and smacks his older sister, he is responsible for both how she made him feel and his response to those emotions. 

I am not saying to him that he is immune from getting annoyed, but I am emphasizing that he is responsible for how he chooses to act on those emotions. It has been a slow build, but he is getting it. And what do you think I tell him when he gets a little too fired up? “Just take a few deep breaths.”

There it is, that simple phrase: “Take a deep breath.” Okay, then. How about some practical applications?

 Nasal breathing has become more and more popular and for good reason. Taking breath in through the nose is a more efficient delivery of air to the lungs, but it is difficult to take in a large volume of air due to the restriction of airway size. This inherently slows down the breath cycle. Slowing the breathing slows the heart rate and can be used to focus the mind. In particular, the length of the exhale is important. The longer we can extend the exhale the better.

 In most cases the accepted “perfect breath” is 5.5 seconds in and 5.5 seconds out. Yoga and prayer mantras have been used for years to create this scenario. In a 2001 study, the proposed magic of these mantras is to sync up the inhale/exhale ratio. About six breaths per minute seemed to be the sweet spot from a pace perspective. As we get excited we breathe more.

In coaching there are two key applications here. The first is learning to recognize the excited state that comes with high stress situations. Stress itself is not the enemy; your response to stress will dictate its usefulness. Sensing that your heart rate is increasing, you likely find that your breath rate is getting shorter and faster and that maybe a little sweat is starting to build in the palms of your hands. Your body is recognizing and reacting to stress. 

To control this reaction and maximize the positive effects of this stress, we need to first control the breathing rate. Intentionally slow your breathing by inhaling from the nose and create a long slow exhale through the mouth. The 5.5 second in/out strategy works, but a 4 seconds in/ 4 seconds hold/ 4 seconds exhale/ 4 seconds hold is another powerful “block breathing” tool that can change the rate of breathing. And,once the breathing rate is controlled, the heart rate will follow. Once the heart rate slows, mental clarity will return. 

When might this be impactful?

  • Before addressing the team or coaching staff.
  • After a difficult conversation, when you need to move on to another issue and leave the emotions of that conversation in the rear view.
  • When trying to shut the mind off at night before bed. (I suggest adding journaling to this practice at night.)

Here’s how to practice:

  • Nasal breathing
  1. Simply keep your mouth shut. Go for a casual walk/ride and keep your mouth closed, forcing yourself to breathe in and out of the nose. Keep your movement pace low enough that you are able to continue this approach for 15-20 minutes.
  2. Use nasal breathing to recover from intense bouts of exercise. Between sets of weightlifting, try to focus on nasal-only breathing.
  • Block breathing
  1. The “perfect breath” is 5.5 seconds in and 5.5 seconds out. This is the timing that was researched and cited in the study above. Schedule this practice into your day. Bookending your day with breathing practice is a good habit to get into 
  2. Try the 4×4: Take 4 seconds to inhale, hold that breath for 4 seconds, take 4 seconds to exhale and hold that for 4 seconds. Repeat. This can be used in the same way as the “perfect breath” with intentional practice.


You can even mix and match. Personally, I combine the two practices. I use nasal-only inhale, mouth exhale, and apply the 4×4 block approach. It works well for me to both calm myself down, as well as help move me into a sleep state when my mind is too active at night. Nasal breathing between sets in the gym is very effective as a recovery tool and as an active breathing practice. 

See what works best for you, but don’t wait until you are at the end of your rope to try to control your stress. These techniques are a lot like fire drills; we need to work on them ahead of the “emergency” to combat the negative effects of stress. Practice stress management actively and combine it with other methods. Last month we talked about cold water immersion (CWI) and controlling breathing in cold water is a great way to harness the power of respiration under stress. 

As coaches, we can drive the emotion in the room. Chaos on the inside can still look like (and truly become) confidence on the outside, but this is a skill that needs cultivation.

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