As far as secrets to success go, that’s probably not going to rank among the most revealing or mind-blowing. It’s safe to say we all find breathing very important.
According to Tsitsipas, though, he has been thinking a lot about how he inhales and exhales of late. And it’s helping.
“Breathing is something I’ve been working on the last couple of months with my psychologist [Costas Pergantis],” he said. “Especially when I’m performing or playing, breathing helps me control myself and have full control of what I’m doing out there.
“When you breathe well, I feel like your game is capable of reaching the top. If you can’t breathe and you're trying to play, makes it twice more difficult to perform at your best.”
Breath control isn’t a new concept, of course, and Tsitsipas isn’t the first tennis player to discover its power. Novak Djokovic, for one, has credited breathing exercises with helping him improve his conditioning and consistency over the last 10 years. But Tsitsipas’ sudden rise comes at a time when the health benefits of proper breathing are clearer than ever.
Unfortunately, it’s also clearer than ever that most of us aren’t enjoying those benefits, because we’re not breathing the right way. Last year, in his book Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, author James Nestor detailed the ways in which our breathing methods have deteriorated over the centuries, and the consequences that have flowed from that, including increased stress, loss of sleep, smaller lung capacity, and physical decay.
“So many people don’t breathe correctly,” says Jeff Greenwald, a Northern California sports psychologist and author of The Best Tennis of Your Life: 50 Mental Strategies for Fearless Performance.
The first step is simple, or at least it sounds simple: Keep your mouth shut.
“Mouth breathing causes a lot of problems,” Greenwald says. “Breathing in through your nose is the optimal way to inhale. The nose is able to filter out toxins, and it helps balance the oxygen and carbon dioxide in your blood, which increases the flow of oxygen to your muscles and lowers your heart rate and blood pressure.”
Despite this, few of us are in the habit of consciously breathing through our noses, and it becomes even harder to do when we’re competing.
“When they’re under stress, people breathe through their mouths,” Greenwald says. “Think of how we gasp when we fear something. That disrupts the O2-Co2 balance in our blood.”
Oxygen is essential to every aspect of our performance. It helps us focus and think, it helps us recover, it helps our stamina, it lowers our stress levels and keeps us calmer. Yet it’s not something we’re taught to think about on court, or consider an important weapon in our arsenal.
“It’s one of the few things we have total control over,” Greenwald says.
How can we make sure we’re using our breathing to our advantage and maximizing our oxygen intake when we’re playing? To start, we should make ourselves aware of our current breathing patterns.
How many breaths do we take per minute? The fewer the better.
Do we breathe through our nose or mouth? The nose is preferable.
Do we breathe down into our stomach, or just into the chest?
“Stomach and diaphragm is better because it kicks in the parasympathetic nervous system, designed to chill us out,” Greenwald says. “Most people breathe from their chest, which is more of a fight or flight mechanism.”
Through the day, take a few deep breaths, diaphragmatic breaths; this will make it feel more natural when you’re on court. As you prepare for a match, take some time to clear your mind and visualize how you want to play as you take half a dozen full breaths. During the match, as you recover between points, gain control of your breath by inhaling slowly and deeply, through your nose. This will help you gather yourself before your next serve or return. It also has the side benefit of keeping your brain occupied.
“You technically have 25 seconds between points, and your mind can wander all over the place during that time,” Greenwald says. “Keep it focused on the simple act of breathing for a few seconds, and you’ll maintain your concentration. If you’ve just lost a point, it’s a good way to prevent a mental train wreck.”
For Tsitsipas, controlling his breathing has been a way to maximize his game. For the rest of us, it will likely never help us win Monte Carlo, but it might offer something even more worthwhile: Better health, less-stressful days and nights, and maybe even a longer life. Tennis teaches us a lot of things; how to take a breath may be the most important of all.