Tennis Mental Lesson #3

David’s Tennis Lesson #3:

What Do You Know About Breathing When Hitting?

Did you read the 2nd Lesson on seeing the ball that I sent to you a week ago. If not, please take the time now. Even if you did read it, it may be a good idea to read it again because the concept of seeing the ball is so critically important.

Some of the things you should have noticed is that you were more consistent, you hit the ball more solidly, and your strokes felt better. Did you notice any of these things?

In this lesson you will learn something that I know you won’t hear anywhere else. This is another long lesson but it is a very powerful technique and you absolutely have to work on it.

Just about all my students say it is the most difficult thing to do when you are playing, but it can be the most incredible one you will do. You may be wondering what this powerful techniques is. It involves a breathing pattern when you hit the ball.

An Unknown But Powerful Technique When Hitting:


After seeing the ball as described in Lesson #2, the second most important thing to focus on is your breathing. This is because focusing on your breathing keeps the upper body more relaxed, thereby allowing your body to hit the ball better.

Have you ever taken a yoga class? What is one of the important things the instructor tells you while you are doing the postures? You quickly learn that breathing is a big part of getting the full benefit from it. Tennis is no different except that you will be using the breathing to stay in the here and now, as well as using it to help you learn how to keep your “conscious mind” out of the way. And, like yoga, working with your breathing, helps you relax properly.

Since breathing is the most important part of the relaxation package, you will need to work on it as much as you do on seeing the ball. I will discuss the full relaxation package in a later session. In the Mental Game Core Principles, I talked a little about how to breathe but not about some of the practical ways to work on it. Here I will go into more detail.

Up until I wrote my book, I have always told my students that the jury was still out as far as the “best” way to breathe, because I have always had difficulty allowing my breathing to be the way I felt it should be. Well, the jury has arrived at a verdict. I had experimented with just about every possible way to breathe and I believe the way I will describe to you now is the easiest and most beneficial way to do it while hitting.

Do you think you hold your breath when you hit? Have you ever been out of breath and realized that you didn’t really run anywhere? If you have, then you are holding my breath.

Early in my days of working on my mental game and trying to find out how to play my very best, there was a time when I was playing doubles, and after most points, I found myself out of breath. I thought that this was very strange because, as you know, there is not a lot of running in doubles and I was only a few feet away from where I started. I said to myself, “How can I be out of breath when I didn’t run anywhere?”

This was when I realized that I was holding my breath and when I began to discover what the best way to breathe was when hitting the ball. And, as I said earlier, I experimented with many ways of breathing. The thing I found was that no matter how I breathed, I felt so much more relaxed.

The next time you play, begin by just being aware of your inhales and exhales as you are hitting the ball back and forth. Check to see if you are holding your breath when you make contact with the ball. Without this ability to consciously pay attention to yourself breathing, it will be difficult to work on changing your breathing patterns in the way I describe next.

Once you have the ability to pay attention to your breathing,you can start working on the quality and rhythm of it. Here is what I consider to be the most effective and natural breathing pattern while hitting the ball.

When you are hitting from the back court, start your exhale before, as, or just after the ball bounces on your side as the ball is coming to you. This exhale should be a sigh that is long, slow, and relaxed and should continue well through contact with the ball. In fact, the exhale should last until your ball bounces on the other side.

At the same time, of course, you are consciously seeing the ball all the way to the blur of your racket. You don’t have to concern yourself with your inhales as I guarantee that you will do it. Your sigh should sound like this. (Do a sighing exhale).

Exhaling as you hit is a very natural way to breathe, so all you have to do is start your exhale before you hit the ball, make it smooth and relaxed, and make it longer than usual. It doesn’t get any easier than that.

When you watch the pros play, you will hear some of them actually grunt out loud as they hit the ball. Especially Sharapova. If you notice closely you will hear that they start this grunt or forced exhale as or after their racket makes contact with the ball. I don’t think this way of breathing is very helpful since it does little to relax their upper body.

If you listen to Nadal’s breathing, it will be closer to what I am describing as the optimum way to breathe. He does sometimes start his breathing before he hits the ball, but he still exhales after hitting the ball. From my way of thinking, he is exhaling too tensely, but I believe it has great value anyway.

When you are at the net, you will notice that your breathing will have to be a little quicker. You will need to start your exhale just before, as, or just after the ball hits your opponent’s racket and allow it to continue well through your hit. Do this, and you may see some amazing things happen with your volleys.

Like when you are at net, when your opponent is at net, it is also a little trickier because the ball is also coming back sooner than normal, and you will have to start your exhale before you make contact with the ball. You might need to start your exhale just as your opponent hits the ball or you can still start the exhale when the ball bounces. Again, the important thing is to start the exhale before you make contact with the ball.

Again, while you are working with your breathing,it is ideal to also be focusing on the ball all the way to the blur of the racket. However, you may want to forget about focusing on the ball for a while and just work on the breathing part. After you have spent some time with the breathing, you must then see if you can do both at the same time. Achieving both the correct breathing and seeing the ball at the same time, and without judgment, is the ultimate focus and leads to playing in the zone.

One of the ways I help myself pay attention to my breathing is to make a little sound as I exhale. It is not a grunt, and no one else can hear me, but I can hear it inside my head. This way I can stay more aware of what is going on with my breathing.

The breathing will be a little different on your return of serve. I will be discussing the return of serve in more detail later. Until you get to that part, here is what you need to do. You should be starting to exhale just as or before your opponent hits the ball. But the exhale is still a long, relaxed sigh and continues well through your hit. This way your upper body has a better chance to stay relaxed even when your body has to move quickly. This is especially important when playing someone with a big serve.

When you are serving, you will also start the long, relaxed exhale before you make contact with the ball. And again, continue to exhale well through contact. You may also find that you will be able to see the ball to the blur of the racket that much easier.

The important point to remember is that no matter what shot you are hitting, the exhale should always be like a very relaxed sigh and that you start it before making contact with the ball and continue it long past contact.

This may be a good time to let you know that there will be no shot that you will ever hit where you won’t want to see the ball and breathe. This includes drop shots, lobs, overheads, behind the back shot, every shot. Every ball you hit. Again, this is easy to talk about, but may be hard to do. When you can do this, have you seen how much better you play?

Breathing was the last part of the inner game that I worked on. I didn’t work on it very much in the early years because I just couldn’t let go enough to focus on both breathing and seeing the ball. However, once I did get serious about doing both, my game started to really improve.

Doing both is not easy. It takes a lot of work and a lot of letting go. Please don’t let that keep you from working on your breathing.

The obvious way to work on it is to just hit balls and see if you can pay attention to your breathing and for the moment forget about focusing on seeing the ball. If you are just playing a practice match, you can do it then also. However, if you are playing a match that is important to you and can’t yet focus on both the ball and your breathing, I would rather have you just focus on the ball. I guess what I am trying to say is that when playing an important match, it is not the time to practice the way you breathe, but it is the time to have your breathing be as relaxed as possible, even if you can’t consciously focus on it.

Another way to work on breathing and you can even do this in a game, is to play two points or rallies just paying attention to yourself exhaling. This means from the time the first point starts to when the second point ends and includes the time in between points. And, of course, any thought of trying to see the ball, trying to hit the ball into the court, or trying to stroke it a certain way needs to be eliminated. If you happen to see the ball well at the same time, that would be wonderful and an added bonus.

Then play two points just seeing the ball. Again, make sure that you are focusing on the ball from the time the first point starts to the time the second point ends. Likewise, if you happen to feel yourself breathing at the same time, that is better.

Then see if you can pay attention to both your exhaling and seeing the ball for two points. 

The ultimate goal here is to program the “other than conscious mind” to have the breathing be very relaxed. Just as when you are seeing the ball and the time comes to play the game, you need to get the “conscious mind” out of the way and again let your “other than conscious mind” keep your breathing relaxed.