Are you feeling exhausted after a mere 15 or 20 minutes of hitting or practice? Are you trying to convince yourself that it’s the heat or that you’re just out of shape? What if I told you you’re probably not breathing properly while executing your stroke? Yes, that’s right. You’re most likely holding your breath when hitting your forehand and backhands.
Why do you hold your breath?
These are the main situations I have identified when you are holding your breath:
- When you’re about to contact the ball. Holding your breath as you’re swinging towards the ball causes tension in the rest of your body, especially your fingers and hand, causing your racquet to decelerate versus smoothly accelerating during and after contact.
- As the ball moves toward you with speed. Experiencing anxiety as the ball speeds toward you and anxiety causes a breathing interruption as you tense up in anticipation of a “collision” with the ball – even though it weighs just 59 grams. This tension also prevents efficient footwork.
- Trying to knock the cover off it. Wanting to hit the ball so hard that you tense up and hold your breath right at contact with the ball causes a loss of control of the shot.
- Spectating as you’re observing your shot and/or your opponent. A psychologist recently told me, “If I tell you to pay attention to the video below, you’ll unconsciously hold your breath as you’re observing what’s happening.” The same happens on the court as you’re watching your shot and staring at your opponent in anticipation of what will happen next; you’re unconsciously holding your breath.
Therefore, you quickly run out of breath (oxygen), start to lose energy, and most likely go for a risky shot just to end the rally and get a chance to catch your breath.
How you should breathe on court
Exhale as you’re hitting the ball
Start by practicing your exhale as you start your forward swing on your ground strokes. Exhaling just before you contact the ball is a very natural way to breathe, so start your exhale before you contact the ball, make it slow and steady, and continue after the ball has left your racquet strings. Essentially, you will be midway through your swing when you contact the ball.
While you are working on your breathing, you still need to maintain your focus on reading the ball. However, you may have to sideline reacting to the ball for a while and just work on the breathing aspect. After you have spent some time on your breathing technique, you must then see if you can achieve both at the same time. Executing both the correct breathing and reading the ball at the same time, and without conscious thought, is the ultimate focus and leads to playing in the zone.
One of the ways I ensure that I am breathing properly is to make a little sound or say a word (always a relaxed sigh) as I exhale. It is not a grunt, and no one else can hear me, but it is loud enough for me to hear. I have never taught or been an advocate of loud grunting, but if you feel that it will help you breath better as you contact the ball, then give it a try (remaining respectful of your opponent and others around you).
Since the ball is coming back to you quicker and faster, you will need to start your exhale just before the ball hits your opponents racket and allow it to continue through your hit. This means that your breathing rhythm will be a little shorter than when you are in the back court. When your opponent is at the net, it is also a bit problematic because, like when you are at the net, the ball is coming back faster than normal, and you will have to start your exhale before you contact the ball.
Recover after each point with a few deep breaths
Your lungs are screaming for some oxygen, particularly after a long rally. The first thing you need to do to resupply your lungs with air takes a few long, deep breaths as you walk to retrieve the balls for the next point. Do this until you feel that your breathing is almost back to normal, then proceed with your receiving or serving routine. You don’t want to start the next point until your heart rate is close to normal. Deep breathing in between points will also refuel your muscles with more oxygen which translates to more energy for the rest of your game.
Proper breathing as you play tennis is another often overlooked skill that you need to master if you want to take your game to the next level. Being able to exhale smoothly (a full, long exhale) induces relaxation as you contact the ball and can have a miraculous effect on the consistency of your strokes. Proper breathing along with relaxation will also smooth out your strokes, eliminate any hitches that caused problems initially, and helps to make your strokes feel effortless and more natural. All of this will lead to much fewer errors.
Moreover, anger, frustration, disappointment, or irritation are emotions that can have a negative effect on your breathing. Be aware of how you emotionally respond to a let court, your opponent’s shot that skids off the line, or a bad line call because even the smallest change in your mood on the court can create a negative arousal which leads to an increase your blood pressure and breathing rhythm (fight or flight reaction). This is one of the reasons why it takes many players a longer period to recovery (physically and mentally) after a heated disagreement with an opponent (or umpire).
Overall, it’s important point to remember that no matter what shot you are hitting, the exhale should always be very relaxed, like a sigh, and should start before you contact the ball, and continue long after the ball has left your strings.