Breathing During Play/Competition

14th February 2023

Heightening your awareness of your breathing is key! We need to rely way more on nose breathing rather than mouth breathing. 

Your nose is connected with your diaphragm, your mouth is connected with your chest. You’ll never see breathing as listed as a function of the mouth in any medical textbook. The mouth performs absolutely zero functions in terms of breathing. When you breathe through the nose, you’re actively targeting the diaphragm breathing muscle. This is not just the main muscle for respiration it is also linked with your emotions. When you breathe through the mouth, you’re putting yourself into that fight or flight response. Mouth breathing is shallow breathing mainly in the upper chest, whereas nose breathing is slow breathing mainly in the diaphragm. 

The rising and falling of the chest and shoulders when breathing is a sign that you are not getting enough oxygen into your lungs and that you are likely to be mouth breathing. Whereas, if the chest and shoulders are stiller and the stomach is protruding and retracting, this is sign that nose and diaphragm breathing is taking place and more oxygen is being ingested.

When you use nose breathing, straight away the oxygen uptake in your blood increases. Alongside this, oxygen delivery to the cells is also increased. The individual is more likely to be relaxed and have efficient and economical breathing. 

This is linked to the mind; how can you be mindful and present if your body is in a state of fight or flight? Fast and shallow mouth breathing agitates the mind and primes it for an immediate and reactive type response. Your emotions, your sleep, and your breathing are all interlinked. If one is off it affects the other. 

A great and easy place to start is to become aware during the day and in moments of relaxation if you are nose breathing or mouth breathing. Try and make it a habit to check in with yourself often and train yourself to nose breath as often as possible.

An exercise you can do, and one that I often try and remember, is to put one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach. Become relaxed and start to breathe normally. After a few moments pay attention to the hand resting on your stomach. You want to feel this hand moving. On your inhale, through your nose, your stomach should start to protrude and on your exhale your stomach should start to contract and go in. Also, notice your hand placed on your chest. If this hand can keep relatively still this is a good sign. Come back to this practice 

You can also start to try and employ nose breathing when you are doing physical activity. The oxygen debt will be greater at the start, but studies have shown that after a period of 6 to 8 weeks of nose breathing, the individual will be able to regulate the oxygen debt much more efficiently.

Another study that was conducted with amateur athletes involved them getting prescribed nasal breathing over a period of six months. When they were tested at the end of the study, they were able to perform at 100% work intensity with 22% less ventilation required. So, this is the ability to be able to do the same amount of exercise intensity but with a much more efficient engine. Don’t be fooled into thinking that breathing hard during exercise is a good thing and making you fitter. It’s not. 

Many anxiety interventions in sport focus on ways in which we can control our physiology to ensure that athletes keep a cool head. The simplest of all relaxation strategies is slow diaphragmatic breathing, similar to that used in meditation and yoga.

The most obvious benefit is the immediate effect on our physiology. If you feel yourself becoming stressed, you will notice how your heart rate increases and your breathing becomes shallower and more sporadic. Concentrating on your breathing and aiming to slow it down will reduce your heart rate and make you feel calmer and in control.


Sigh Breathing

When you feel you are under pressure you can begin to have a go-to intervention which helps you return to your ideal performance state. It allows you to focus on what is important in the environment and in brings your mind into positive, logical, helpful and controllable thinking.

Studies have shown with a controlled breathing intervention that athletes found this technique helpful both for preparing for and during competition.

  • In between rallies, start to use 2-4 rounds of sigh breathing.
  • Try and close your mouth as soon as you notice you are breathing through it.
  • Take 2 deep, yet sharp inhales through your nose.
  • Hold it for a second at the top.
  • And then sigh out of your mouth, and whilst doing so, relax the neck, shoulders, and muscles around the ribs.

When you can perform ‘sigh breathing’ regularly in a match it has both physical and mental benefits. It slows the heart rate down, puts good, clean, warm air deep into the lungs, and oxygenates the blood quicker. Psychologically it quietens down the amygdala, the fear centre in the brain, and actives the pre-frontal cortex and hippocampus, two key areas of the brain associated with memories and rational thinking.

breathingWe should all look to channel our inner Elliot Kipchoge when it comes to breathing. Elliot was the first human to run the sub-two-hour mark for a marathon and this has been classed as one of the greatest human athletic achievements of all time. If you were to watch the race and look at pictures of Elliott, you will notice that he has a relaxed body language, his muscles in his face are relaxed and his mouth is closed for the majority of the race meaning he is using and relying on nose breathing. And what is remarkable, if you look at him towards the end of the race it looks as if he was only just starting. There was no panting, there was no change in posture, there was no rising and falling of the shoulders, there was just complete relaxation and the execution of his task.

Practical tips

  • Heighten your awareness during restful moments in the day whether you are nose breathing or mouth breathing. Make it your priority of employ nose breathing.
  • Do the little exercise outlined above, with the hands on the chest and the stomach, a few times a day to get in the habit and for your body to default to nose breathing.
  • Start to employ nose breathing when you are doing physical exercise. It will be tough at first, but your body will adapt and become used to it.
  • Bring the idea of ‘sigh breathing’ into your practices and matches. When you have time between points or a little break in what you are doing, become aware, slow down your breathing and feel your diaphragm taking up the workload


Jesse Engelbrecht

Sign up to the SquashSkills newsletter

Get world class coaching tips, straight to your inbox!