Breathing Your Way To Better Golf

Despite being one of the worst produced television programs I have ever seen, the over-hyped and media driven match between arch enemies Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka, aptly titled, “The Match”, did offer us a few good insights into the minds of professional golfers. Given that both players were mic’d up throughout the match, the audience was able to hear conversations with caddies as well as responses to questions from commentators Phil Mickleson and Charles Barkley. At one point, Mickleson and DeChambeau got into a pretty interesting dialogue about the mental game. Phil went so far as to say that he believed the mental game was going to be the next revolution in golf performance. Their conversation bounced around from optimizing brainwaves to hacking the autonomic nervous system. Regardless of whether or not the viewing audience was able to follow along, as a psychologist, I appreciated the acknowledgement that the mind plays a critical role in performance (maybe the most important role!). Although the jury is still out on the validity and reliability of brainwave optimization, hacking our autonomic nervous systems is as easy as breathing. 

I once had a yoga instructor who was fond of saying, “the mind follows the breath”. If we breathe in a relaxed manner (slowly, smooth, and rhythmic) our minds will think we are relaxed and we will relax. If we breathe in an anxious or stressed manner (rapid, choppy, shallow) our minds will think we are stressed and anxious and respond accordingly. Interestingly, what yogis and Buddhists have known for thousands of years, has now been validated through neuroscience. 

What science has taught us is that our respiratory system plays a critical role in helping to regulate our autonomic nervous system, the part of our nervous system that controls the “fight or flight” response. Amazingly, depending on how we breathe, we can influence how the autonomic nervous system functions. Given that one of the primary functions of the autonomic nervous system is to help restore balance, or homeostasis, to our bodies following a stressful event, we can, in essence, control our bodies physiological and psychological reactions to stress depending on how we breathe.

One of the best breathing techniques to counter the negative effects of stress is called coherent, or resonant breathing. Here’s how to practice it:

 

Step 1: Sit down in a comfortable chair, sit up straight and put your hands on your belly or if it’s more comfortable you can lay down. If you’d like, you can close your eyes, which can help with focus and concentration.

Step 2: Close your mouth and take a slow, deep breath in through your nose. When you breathe in you want your belly to fill with air and get bigger like a balloon. This is called diaphragmatic breathing, which is associated with a calm relaxed state.

Step 3: Blow all of the air out slowly and gently through pursed lips as if you were blowing bubbles.

Step 4: Concentrate on your breathing as you continue to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.

Step 5: When you are ready, try and synchronize your inhales and exhales making them the same length of time. For example, if your inhale takes 5 seconds, try and make your exhale 5 seconds. This can be difficult for some people so be patient with yourself.

Step 6: Repeat for five to ten minutes.

 

The ideal timing for coherent, resonant breathing is 5.5 seconds for the inhale and 5.5 seconds for the exhale. If you are new to this type of breathing, you might want to shorten the time until you are comfortable with the technique. Regardless, if you are able to synchronize your inhale and exhale in a slow, smooth, and rhythmic way, you will undoubtedly bring yourself into a more relaxed state of mind.

The one downside of this breathing technique is that it is difficult to do during more intensive aerobic activity. However, since there are many moments of static activity in golf, it is an ideal way to help regulate your stress levels during a round. I recommend building the technique into your pre-shot routine as it will help settle you before each shot. 

Having worked with golfers at every level, I can tell you with certainty that learning to regulate your stress levels with this breathing technique is the easiest and most effective way to strengthen your mental game. Too much stress on the golf course is not our friend and inevitably leads to poor play. By learning to recognize when stress is interfering with your performance and being able to control the amount of stress you are experiencing, not only will your performance improve, but so will your enjoyment of the game.