Psyched Online

MENTAL TRAINING: Techniques To Reduce Stress I

By Paul Schienberg PhD.

Diaphragmatic Breathing:

Often times when an athlete becomes anxious (nervous), the person stops breathing. This is a typical mistake but one that needs to be avoided. By breathing we are breathing oxygen to our brain so that we are able to take all the information from the environment and make appropriate decisions and actions. This usually results in a reduction of the anxiety since the more information we have at our disposal the less anxiety an athletic situation can generate.

This exercise teaches the athlete to relax through diaphragmatic breathing. The diaphragm is the muscle that separates the chest cavity from the belly. Essentially when it contracts it creates a space in the chest causing air to rush in and fill this space. When it expands it forces the air out of the lungs. When we are at rest we do not use all of our lungs. Think of your lungs having three parts: top, middle and bottom. At rest, we are typically using the top, and maybe some of the middle of the lungs. When an athlete is in an anxiety-provoking situation, we may not use any part of our lungs since there is a tendency to stop breathing. By filling the lungs completely we are providing the maximum amount of oxygen to our body thereby allowing the brain to function properly and thus reduce the nervousness we feel. At first, it is important to put your hand on your stomach in order to ensure that you are using all three parts of the lungs. Once you understand what this feels like, you can stop placing your hand on your stomach.

It is also important to breathe in a specific way for this exercise. After you have practiced this exercise for a while and seen its benefits, this will act as a signal to your brain that it is time to relax. First, breathe in slowly through your nose for five seconds. This will maximize the amount of oxygen to your since your nose contains capillaries that begin the process of oxygen absorption. Next, hold the breath for a split second and breathe out slowly through your mouth for five seconds. Your mouth does not have the same capillaries as your nose so this too helps to maximize the oxygen absorption. If you breathe out through your nose, those capillaries will absorb waste gases such as carbon dioxide and negate the benefit of having breathed through your nose.

The more that you practice this exercise the better it will work. Initially, it helps athletes out to use imagery (see below) before they engage in diaphragmatic breathing. Once you have gone through the imagery exercise move directly into diaphragmatic breathing repeating it five times with your eyes closed. You want to breathe in through your nose for five seconds, hold it a split second, and breathe in through your mouth for five seconds FIVE times. Once you feel that you have gained some confidence in using the technique (typically about a weeks time but it may be more or less depending on how often you practice) you can drop off the imagery portion of the exercise and just do five repetitions. As you gain more mastery over it, you will want to reduce the number of breaths that you take. Most athletes usually drop off one repetition each week., but again some people master it faster while others are some what slower. The goal is to eventually be able to control anxiety with just one repetition of the exercise.

At first you will want to practice this technique twice a day. Typically, athletes find that in the morning and early evenings are good times to practice. Mornings are good because you may have a lot of anxiety about events that are coming up that day. Evenings are also a good time because this exercise should alleviate some the anxiety that you may have developed as a result of athletic events that have happened that day.

Finally, it is important to realize that different events cause more or less anxiety depending on their importance. For example, taking a baseball player taking the position on the field may be a one breath event, bunting to move a runner into scoring position might take three breaths to quell the anxiety, batting with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth inning might be a ten breath event. If the exercise does not help to reduce your feelings of nervousness, try doing another repetition, the event might be more important to you than you thought.


Sometimes as athletes we find ourselves in situations that make us so nervous or upset that we were someplace else. The reason why we do this is because we think it will replace the negative feelings that we are experiencing at the time with more pleasant emotions. Most athletes have experienced a time in their lives when they felt completely relaxed; perhaps it was a day at the beach or at a park. Imagining ourselves in that relaxed situation frequently works to reduce our anxiety about upcoming sports events or situations. This is because in theory your subconscious will remember the relaxed feeling that you had at that time and bring it into your present consciousness.

There are a couple of important points to remember when using imagery. First, you should find a quiet place to do it. This is because your brain is able to direct attention to a limited number of events. When there are noises around us, a portion of our brain is working to decode these noises. Imagery, like so many other things, works best when all of your attention is on the task at hand.

Second, you should use self-statements in order to tell yourself how relaxed you are. Our bodies are easily fooled with enough practice. You can talk your body into thinking that it is relaxed by making self-statements such as the following: I feel very warm, very relaxed, calm, and at peace. You should try to make these statements throughout your imagery exercise.

Finally, try to make the scene as real as possible. This is done by including as much sensory information as possible. You want to try to use as many of your senses as possible. For example, if you choose a beach scene as your relaxing image, then you would want to include the following senses: touch (feel the sand on your back, the feel of the towel), smell (smell of the salt air or sun tan lotion), sight (the sights around you such as the blue sky, the color of the sand and ocean), sound (the sound of the ocean waves, children laughing, and the seagulls). By making the relaxing self-statements mentioned above after you go through each of the senses, this will facilitate your becoming relaxed.

The more that you practice this exercise, the easier it will become for you to relax. Different people have different experiences, so try to make the scene as personal to yourself as possible, that way it will seem more real.

Here is a brief breakdown of what to do:

  • Close your eyes
  • Imagine a relaxing scene from your past
  • Use different senses to try and make the scene as real as possible
  • Make relaxing self-statements alternating them with your use of senses.