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Why Breathing is so Important in Tennis
by Milos Dimic, USPTA Elite Professional
#1 Importance of breathing
How many of us coaches are spending time at our practices teaching our athletes how to breath and the importance of correct breathing in sports?

We are trying to find so many ways to correct the stiffness in the stroke technique to create power and accuracy. We are including different kind of mental practices to lower down the anxiety levels and build up the concentration levels. For the players to build a strong core and to delay the feeling of the fatigue, they are working hard to condition their bodies.

So how can the proper breathing technique make things easier? Implementing breathing in the practice can upgrade the game of our players no matter their level.

Implementing breathing in the tennis routine will enable players to:
  1. Rely on the kinetic chain as the source of power and control
  2. Have more constant timing of the strokes
  3. Relax the muscles during the contact point
  4. Perform with effortless and fluent follow through
  5. Decrease the levels of anxiety and stress during and after the points
  6. Increase the levels of concentration and confidence
  7. Stabilize the core
  8. Move more efficiently
  9. Delay the feeling of fatigue
  10. Reduce the chances of injuries
  11. Correct the posture

#2 Physiology of breathing
Oxygen and fuels for the activity
Our bodies obtain oxygen from the air we breathe in. It enters the blood stream and is carried to the muscles, where some of it is used immediately to break down glucose and create fuel for the muscles called ATP (adenosine triphosphate). The rest of the oxygen is stored by a compound called myoglobin.

Oxygen and feeling of fatigue
When muscles work hard during an exercise, the need for oxygen increases. The body increases its breathing and heart rate to pump the oxygen into the working muscles to keep up the constant ATP production for the fuels. The heart and the muscles responsible for breathing will take priority of the oxygenated blood over leg and arm muscles. Therefore due to the lack of oxygen in the blood, limb muscles will be the first for an athlete to feel premature fatigue.

Lack of oxygen
If the oxygen can not be delivered on time, the muscles begin converting glucose into lactic acid instead of energy, resulting in performance decrease and fatigue. Oxygen is used in the process of cellular respiration producing ATP for energy and removing the CO2 from the working muscles, therefore uncontrolled breathing decreases the performance as CO2 is not properly removed, causing a buildup of waste and altering the pH of the body.

Inhaling and exhaling
Both phases of the breathing have different focus and benefit. The inhaling should be used to energize and expand the upper body, which is exactly what the tennis player needs when loading and winding the hips and shoulders. Deep inhaling expands the upper body part which contributes to the body posture stability as the chest and shoulders open upwards. Due to expansion, the player feels more energized and powerful while loading and coiling sending positive image and thoughts to the brain resulting in the more efficient and confident stroke.

Exhaling stabilizes the body, making it secure and grounded, which is important for the tennis performance. Balance and stability of the lower body are much needed in order for the upper body to uncoil efficiently. Pace of the exhaling should be associated with pace of the follow through motion which results in the fluency and efficiency of the stroke mechanics and properly timed strokes as the muscles of the upper body are relaxed during the contact point and the follow through motion.

Importance of inhaling through nasal pathway
Breathing through the nose enables an athlete to take deeper breaths, which stimulates the lower lung to distribute greater amounts of oxygen throughout the body. Lower lung is triggering the parasympathetic nerve receptors which are calming the body/mind and reducing hypertension and stress.
On the other hand, mouth breathing stimulates the activity of the upper lungs (associated with the hyperventilation) triggering sympathetic nerve receptors, which results in the fight or flight reaction. Mouth breathing accelerates water loss, leading to early dehydration.

Importance of diaphragm breathing
Practicing how to activate diaphragm as the dominant respiratory muscle and creating intra-abdominal pressure (IAP), will result in increased activation of the deep core stabilizing system and protection from the back injuries. With conscious and well-adjusted breathing, the core stabilization can be achieved and this can lead to the more efficient energy transfer from the ground up, efficient movement patterns, decreased chances of injury, increased power and performance overall.

#3 Psychology of breathing
Inhaling and preparation for the stroke
Inhaling should begin as soon as the player anticipates the cues from the opposite side of the court. These cues are usually the trajectory and pace of the ball or the opponents reactions.

The inhaling should follow the pace of the game. The greater distance between the players and slower pace of the ball, the inhaling should be deeper and at slower rate as the time of reaction is slower. Shorter distance between the players emerges the faster reaction therefore inhaling should begin at the moment of the opponent’s impact point or even before (as the ball bounces in the opponents field) if player feels urgency of a quick reaction to the opponents stroke.

Exhaling and following through
Focusing on breathing keeps the upper body more relaxed even if the lower body part is under extreme pressure. Lower body and core should enable players to keep balance before, at the moment and after the stroke but the upper body muscles should be relaxed until the arm finishes the follow through motion. Exhaling should begin with the unloading of the kinetic chain movement towards the impact zone (not from the contact point), making it smooth and relaxed. Depending on the type of the stroke and the pace and intensity of the body unloading, exhaling can be long and relaxed or short
and aggressive.

Breathing, emotional control and reducing anxiety
The biggest source of stress, no matter of the level of the player, is the ball. Firstly, when the ball is approaching, the player is feeling stressed to position properly towards the contact zone. Secondly, as the ball is leaving the player’s racquet after the impact, the feeling of stress comes from the player’s doubtful thoughts if the ball is going where intended to go. Both of these situations, caused by the ball, will negatively effect the performance.

Inhaling, the player is relaxing and sending messages to the brain that there is a lot of time to prepare for the stroke. If inhaling (through practice and repetition) is connected automatically with the positioning and loading phase, then the player can always FEEL safe and ready for the execution of the successful stroke.

Through exhaling, the player is relaxing the upper body which will successfully lead to the efficient contact point as the head of the racquet will always be below ball level. Exhaling enables an efficient follow through, as with the relaxation of the arm muscles the racquet follows the trajectory of the ball finishing on the opposite side of the body using the joints (elbow and shoulder) rather then forearm muscles.

About Milos Dimic
Milos Dimicis a USPTA elite professional, USPTA sports science specialist, and RPT and ITPA tennis professional. His tennis-teaching professional experience includes working with the WTA seniors and ETA, ITF ranked junior players. Milos is currently head of junior development at the YCAC Tennis Academy in Yokohama, Japan and a graduating student of the master studies in Training Technology.