Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Sport and Competition

Breathing: The Secret Sauce for Optimal Sports Performance

Learn how effective breathing can improve the execution of athletic skills.

Key points

  • Athletes are frequently told to "take a deep breath" and are often annoyed and dismissive when hearing it.
  • Breathing was a huge focus of ancient civilizations and has recently experienced a resurgence in interest.
  • Effective breathing requires a full belly-breath through the nose and a longer exhale out of the mouth.

“Take a deep breath.”

Frustrated, angry, anxious, or discouraged athletes frequently hear that from coaches, teammates, parents, and others.

Those uninvolved in sports have likely received that advice from parents, teachers, friends, etc. The phrase can trigger irritation and frustration for both athletes and others due to hearing it so often.

Many athletes have become dismissive of “take a deep breath” due to its cliched usage, but if done correctly, breathing can have a positive impact on sports performance and other skill-based endeavors.

Herein is a dive into breathing, how it affects the nervous system, and how it optimizes the ability to effectively execute the skills necessary for success in athletics and elsewhere.

Take a deep breath, and let’s go.

A Brief Historical Perspective

“In transporting the breath, the inhalation must be full. When it is in full, it has big capacity. When it has big capacity, it can be extended. When it is extended, it can penetrate downward. When it penetrates downward it will become calmly settled. When it is calmly settled, it will be strong and firm. When strong and firm, it will germinate. When it germinates, it will grow. When it grows, it will retreat upward. When it retreats upward, it will reach the top of the head.”

The above is from a stone inscription, written around 500 B.C. in China during the Zhou dynasty. It’s wisdom we can all benefit from, including athletes.

According to author James Nestor in his New York Times bestselling book, Breath (2020), “most sources focused on conscious breathing originate from hundreds and sometimes thousands of years ago.”

That information included detailed instructions on how to regulate the breath, slow it, hold it, etc. The ancient Chinese, Hindus, and Buddhists discussed breathing techniques, exhaustively, according to Nestor.

Breathing became a lost art and science but is experiencing a resurgence in both practical use and research scrutiny, much of it inspired by the ancients. Thus, the re-emergence of mindfulness, yoga, and other practices that include conscious breathing in the execution of those disciplines.

Such breathing-related activities are often associated with new age practices and dismissed as quirky and weird.

Not a wise move, according to the military and sports worlds.

Pause, Notice, Choose

Composure and wise decision-making are critical ingredients for successful athletic performance. Failure to incorporate those elements in the military world can result in careless death.

U.S. Army personnel are trained to pause and notice, enabling composure and effective battlefield choices.

A brief pause before acting with a deep breath allows for calm clarity that enables sharp awareness to notice what’s happening within your context, utilizing what acceptance and commitment training (ACT) calls “five-sense awareness.” Eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and tactile information tell the brain what’s happening in your situational surroundings, enabling effective behavioral decisions.

The U.S. Army calls that “deliberate breathing.” If it works in a life-threatening military context, it just might work for athletes and others.

Elite basketball players preparing for a foul shot take a deep breath, slow down, fix their eyes on a small spot, and shoot.

Baseball hitters do the same. Before every pitch, they do a brief routine that includes deep breathing that ensures optimal reps. Deep breathing slows them down, and gets them out of the mind chatter and emotional stuff. They get out of their heads and into the game, allowing their eyes to precisely detect the rotation and location of the ball. That enables effective choice of what to swing at and the execution and the ability to barrel-up the ball

“Every rep counts,” they say in sports, and making a rep count requires effective rhythm (R), execution (E), and precision (P): REP.

“Pause, notice, choose,” And, voila, a REP that counts.

Optimizing the Breath

No, we're not talking mouthwash or breath mints.

Try this experiment if you choose. It only takes a few minutes.

You will count how many breaths taken in a minute. Each breath starts the exact moment the inhale begins and ends when the exhale is completed. Breathe as you normally do, counting to yourself and using a timing device. Before starting, take a guess at how many breaths you’ll take.

On your mark, get set, breathe.


How many breaths did you take?

Now, let’s try that, again. This time you’ll utilize an optimal breathing technique. Begin with a full, diaphragmic (belly) inhale through the nose, filling the lungs as full as they’ll go (a belly breath). You will then exhale, slower than you took it in, by pushing out the air through the mouth.

Try to make each breath as slow as possible to see how much you can reduce the number of breaths.


On your mark, get set, breathe.

Reflect on that slowed, deliberate breathing experience. How many breaths did you reduce it? What did you notice about your inner experience? Were you calm? Composed? What did you notice about your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations?

Would that state of being produced by slowed breathing improve your focus and performance?

Very Brief Introductory Neurophysiology 101

How many breaths per minute is considered optimal? According to research, 5.5, believe it or not. Slowed breathing sends biological messages to ease the body via the vagus nerve that winds through the body, affecting almost every internal biological function, including heart rate.

It’s the exhale that slows down the heart and relaxes bodily tension. To do a deliberate, effective, slow breath, you should be able to feel and hear the inhale and elongated exhale. Observers should be able to hear and see your deep breath.

Average and fine human breathing is between 12 to 18 breaths per minute. What happens when we breathe faster than that with rushed short inhales and exhales? Our heart rate and muscle tension increase, triggering uncontrolled behavior that disturbs optimal sports performance and can create and exacerbate anxiety. For some people, it can trigger panic attacks.

Breathing is one of the few bodily functions that are both automatic and controllable. We can slow it down to enable optimal function. If it were not automatic, we’d be in big trouble when going to sleep.

Slow Is Smooth, Smooth Is Fast

It is a mantra of the United States Navy SEALs with great applicability to sports performance and other endeavors.

Slow, rhythmic breathing stabilizes the body, including heart rate, emotional/mental state, and movement, thus ensuring optimal rhythm, execution, and precision for sports skills. Think golf putting, basketball foul shots, and pitching or hitting a baseball.

What is advised for athletes and other performers to achieve “slow is smooth, smooth is fast"?

Slow, rhythmic, 24/7 breathing, in through the nose, out the mouth. It’s like driving a car within the speed limit. Doing so produces better control of the vehicle (you), allowing for optimal reps.

Take a deep breath when you’ve lost control of you (the vehicle) due to anxiety, rushed movement, bad decisions, mind chatter, etc., have taken over and wrecked performance. That’s when you pause with a deep breath or two, with a full nose inhale, and elongated exhale out the mouth. Remember that it’s the extended exhale that slows the heart, releases body tension, and restores composure.

There you have it.

Now, take a deep breath and go play.

More from David Udelf Psy.D.
More from Psychology Today