Using Breath to Improve My Tennis Performance
I am a decent recreational tennis player, somewhere between a 4.0 and 4.5 in the USTA ranking system. Over the past 3 years I have been concentrating a bit more on improving my game, but continually have the same problems with a lack of consistency, especially in my serve and backhand. Recently, I have started using a breathing technique based on the structure of the 6Dimensions RitualLog to control my game. Here's how it works:
Using my breath effectively
During a service game when I first take the ball in my left hand, I exhale for as long as I can, forgetting the point that just transpired, saying to myself "It's over, one point, win it." Breathing in, I step to the service line and go through two full cycles of breath while bouncing the ball, concentrating on my serve. On the second out breath I say to myself, "relax, rock, toss high" - because everytime I try to overhit the ball I tighten up, don't roll back far enough on my heels, and don't get my toss high enough.
When I forget to do this, I invariably miss my first serve. In a tight situation, I start thinking about double faulting, even as I'm breathing trying to concentrate. In this situation, I bounce the ball and breathe long enough until I am no longer thinking about double faulting, but visualizing the entry of the serve. When I'm really uncoordinated and tight, which happens all too often, I double fault - it's always because I didn't relax, rock and toss high.
Another breathing technique
The other technique I've been trying to employ is having a forceful exhale when my opponent hits the ball. This exhale does several things: it prepares me for what's coming, forcing me to move my feet, makes me inhale as I'm preparing to hit, which gets me ready to exhale as I stroke through the ball. I haven't yet figured out something to say to myself to help me stroke and not swing, but I'm working on it.
Review and Learn
After every match or practice, I make detailed notes about what I did well and poorly. Before every match or practice, I review these notes while going through a short visualization exercise (found in the RituaLog). I am starting to discover some predictable patterns and my game is much more consistent now than it was just three months ago. It certainly helps to be playing on the beautiful red clay of Fluminese football Club here in Rio de Janeiro.
(A 6D note: Follow Chris while in Rio -at www.geostadia.blogspot.com)
"Oh, yeah. That's right. Take a deep breath, relax. That's what I'm supposed to do when stressed and hitting balls every which way. Why didn't I think of that?"
Just relax ...mental game words of wisdom from Brian, who has been playing golf for fun and competitively for 50 years, to me the mental game coach, sports consultant and self-acclaimed guru of using your mind for peak performance. Brian's words were also a reminder that when stressed what you know to do can disappear as quickly as the morning dew on a hot sunny summer day.
I didn't realize it when I started but I was not in the game mentally as I stepped up to the first tee, and the second tee and....well, you get the picture. My body was there to play but my playing mind was on the bench or beach somewhere between my home in Barrington and the Acushnet River Valley course. I was with people I had not played golf with before, on a course new to me, and I didn't get to the practice range prior to starting. These are circumstances that create havoc with my confidence and execution of my pre-shot routines. My first drives and fairway shots were jumpy and erratic and the ball seemed to have a mind of its own. The words "just relax" were my cue to do what I know to do. How did Brian know?
Just relax - sometimes easier said than done. But... I know relaxation - mind and body - like I know my name and once I relaxed by using my breath I refocused and started to use my mind effectively. I set up better, my confidence returned, the drives were longer and straighter and my putts were much more satisfactory.
Although there are several ways to relax and refocus, my favorite and most effective is to use my breathing. I've practiced and taught breathing and relaxation for years so I've become adept at intentional breathing and body awareness. I've learned that mind/body relaxation is a skill that can be learned just as driving consistently is a skill that is learned. With breathing practice our bodies and minds learn to respond with relaxation more reliably and more quickly.
Most people I've talked to about breathing for relaxation are aware of how important it is and have used breathing at one time or another to "get back in the moment." Not only can breathing get you back in the moment but breathing can relax you mentally and physically. I've also found that most people I've coached for breathing have learned to breathe in first which in my opinion is not the most effective method.
When I breathe to get back in the moment or to relax I breathe out, then breathe in and then breathe out again. It's on the first out-breath that I feel my muscles begin to soften and my shoulders drop. The in-breath is energizing and the next out-breath gets me more centered physically and allows my thinking mind to engage.
Breathing to relax is as easy as 1, 2, 3. Try it now - just as you're sitting in your chair reading.
- Breathe out through your mouth and feel your breath move across your lips. Keep breathing out as your abdomen seems to get smaller.
- Put your lips together and breathe in through your nose. Once you've breathed in as much as is comfortable, hold your breath for just a moment.
- Now purse your lips and breathe out through your mouth once again, feeling your breath over your lips, emptying your lungs and making your abdomen small.
Your shoulders will drop and your muscles will soften. Not only will you be able to think more clearly, the power in your body now has a clearer path to travel through your arms to the head of your club.
Will being able to relax make you a better golfer? Not necessasrily but it will give you the opportunity to maximize your potential and be your personal best at your present skill level. Being able to relax when you need to, an important element of a strong mental game, will give you a competitive edge. I'm far from an exceptional player but I'm adequate on the course and when playing I want to be able to execute as well as I can. I like optimizing my performance. I like being my personal best even when I'm playing a casual game.
Brian has an easy game, a straight long drive, an affable manner and even though is still in recovery from major surgery, hit the ball long and straight from the tees and long, short and in-between on the fairways and greens. His easy manner translated into effective instruction for his 10 year old grandson Luke who was playing with us and a "just relax" comment to me that I heard because of his warmth and sincerity as he spoke.
Thank you Brian - I wish you a continued recovery and enjoyment of the game you love.
Until next time...