The first time I became aware of the importance of breathing while playing pickleball was after I'd started yoga and realized the impact breathing has on all aspects of our lives. One day, on the court, I employed yoga-ish mindful breathing during moments between points, and I found it made a great difference in my play. Of course, there was more at work there than just breathing: a mini-meditative moment, a letting go of the previous rally, whether it went in my favor or not, a focus on relaxation, and centering myself in the game. Over time, and with practice, I've been able to initiate all of these things more quickly with a single, mindful breath.
But here I want to talk about the physical process of breathing.
As I said above, many players hold their breath when they hit the ball. The next time you play, examine whether you do this, too. When you begin to swing and hold your breath, other portions of your body tense as a direct reaction. Your arm no longer swings smoothly, and your shoulders become more stiff.
Why would you do this? The reasons seem to be:
- You become anxious, which affects breathing. Anxiety occurs at many levels during a game—from feeling like the underdog to thinking you won't be able to handle your opponent's fast ball or questioning your ability to return the shot well (and many more).
- The impact when your paddle smacks the ball jars your body, even though the ball weighs no more than 28 grams. Besides the minimal physical impact is the expectation of that impact, the "weight" of which is much heavier.
- Your desire to return the ball hard and well causes tension that you handle by holding your breath.
Players also hold their breath unconsciously when observing other players' shots. (That's not only when watching their opponents but also their own partner in doubles play.) You don't know what will happen next, which causes anxiety, which leads to tension—you know the rest.
Interestingly, sources say any time you pay attention to something or someone, you often hold your breath. I found myself doing it as I concentrated while typing these words. When you hold your breath, you tense up core muscles in your chest and abdomen. Your body begins to run out of oxygen, which causes a loss of energy and clarity of thought. Check yourself: are you holding your breath now, too?
Most people have less-than-optimal breathing habits. Research shows that poor breathing habits are an underlying cause of many health problems. Learning to breathe properly while playing pickleball may also help you with poor breathing habits during other activities (at the gym, playing other sports, or while concentrating deeply).
If all that isn't enough, emotional involvement causes you to breathe shallowly. When you feel angry, frustrated, or disappointed, in particular, you'll take in less air with each breath, and the rhythm becomes different from your norm.
You may be saying, "Ever since I began playing pickleball, my instructors have said, 'Pay attention to your swing, pay attention to your follow through, pay attention to your opponent's body language, etc., etc., etc.' Now you're saying that attention is wrong?"
No. The attention is right—but you must learn to change the automatic tension that occurs because of it if you want your game to improve dramatically.
"Okay," you say. "How do I do that?"
Before I list specific tips, I'll say that your awareness of this problem is a step in the right direction already. Just taking time to notice your current breathing patterns will help you begin to change them.
1. Exhale as you hit the ball.
Try to hit the ball in the middle of your exhale, with half of it happening before contact and half after. A full, long exhale as you hit the ball will also smooth out your stroke and get rid of jerky movements.
- Breathe in from the nose as the ball is coming.
- Start your exhale (through your mouth) as you begin your forward swing.
- Make your exhale long for strokes that take longer to complete and short for quick ones.
- Continue exhaling after you hit the ball.
Exhalation should be slow, forceful, and deliberate. Use your exhalation as a signal to hit a crisp and accurate shot. (One article I read said you should "destroy the ball with your breath!" I like that.)
Sources say your game will improve more by applying this breathing technique than with the last mechanical instruction you applied to your strokes.
2. Breathe rhythmically between strokes during the rally.
Pickleball can be a fast game. During volleys at the net, shots can be only seconds apart. Your attention to the ball and what's going on around you will make you hold your breath instinctively. Nevertheless, try to develop a rhythm of breathing between strokes when possible.
Practice in easy conditions first: rally with your partner while you establish a nice rhythm of breathing. Then ask your partner to send you around the court, and see if you can maintain the same calm and steady rhythm.
Maintain a continuous breathing pattern, regardless of the situation. Players have a tendency to tighten up and hold their breath under pressure. Resist this urge through practice and regular attention to your breathing. This focus on your breathing will distract you from other worries or concerns, too.
3. After each (long) rally, take a few deep breaths.
Although most pickleball players are eager to get back to the game and begin play when a rally ends, you might deviate from this norm and take a few moments to breathe deeply, restoring oxygen to your body. Currently, no time limit has been established for how long you may wait after a rally before incurring a delay of game. I'd suspect you could take at least ten seconds without penalty, and that provides quite a lot of time for breathing.
Side-outs are a good time to take slow, deep breaths (5 seconds) followed by even slower exhalations (5 seconds). The key is to get control of your oxygen intake before the rally and maintain control throughout it.
Links to my other articles about breathing and relaxation in pickleball:
Yoga for Pickleball and On-Court Relaxation
Focus on the Mental Game with Practice
Your Inner Opponent