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  • Writer's pictureJoe Puentes, Psy.D.

How to use Breathing to your Competitive Advantage

Updated: Dec 13, 2019

Breathing, it's easily accessible, it's free and it's proven to be effective in getting athletes into their zone for performance. It’s the first of the three core strategies every Sport Psychologist teaches elite athletes. By the end of this article, you will better know why, how and when to breathe to your competitive advantage. Then you let your competitors forget to breathe, get short of breath, fatigue faster, get overly tense and rush their process.

Why: In short, we need a certain amount of arousal (aka how fired up we are) to perform at our best. If we are overly aroused/anxious/fired up (heart rate too fast, breathing too short, muscles too tense) we don’t perform well and can even choke. Breathing, well a certain type of deep breathing, kicks on a part of our nervous system (parasympathetic) which slows our heart rate, relaxes our muscles, allows us to better focus our attention (huge for performance) and increases our oxygen intake (also huge for performance). Recap, why breathe to increase performance? Because it is the most sure-fire way to get you into your optimal zone physically and mentally.

How: Inhale slowly through your nose, filling up your lungs so much that your chest and belly expand (4 count), hold it for a moment (2 count), then long exhale out through your mouth as if blowing out of a straw (6 count). My wife, who is a school psychologist, teaches elementary school kids, “smell the flowers, breathe in through your nose, now blow out the candles, breathe out through your mouth.” I recommend taking 3 deep breaths in a row if you can for optimal impact, although just one breath at the right time can make all the difference.

When: There are a thousand and one ways to utilize this core performance skill, the key is for you to practice it before competition to find out when and how it works best for you. In basketball, players breathe right before their free throw, during a time out before an important play or after a mistake to reset. In baseball, pitchers use it when they get set before a pitch, batters use it right before they step in the batter’s box and fielders use it again after a mistake to let go of the last play and move on. In this last World Cup, one of the greatest players in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo was seen deep breathing before scoring an incredible penalty kick goal. Then in the Olympics, gold medal sprinters, gymnasts (see photo above), archers, swimmers and even boxers were seen utilizing breathing to focus their mind, get their body relaxed and ready and using it to their competitive advantage at the highest level.

Challenge: Use deep breathing at least once each day this week to get yourself into the zone in something outside of your sport. I’ve had student athletes tell me they used it effectively for video games, skateboarding, test-taking and public speaking. Get a feel for when and how to use it. Then identify one or two spots to use it in your sport. Now you have one more competitive advantage against your opponent.

Next step: Want to dive deeper? If you think you or someone you know would benefit from one on one Sport Psychology services, contact us to set up a free consultation at (707) 596 - 8280 or email at

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