There are different methods to estimate the intensity in sport such as using heart rate, VO2, blood lactate concentration, and Rated Perceived Exertion (RPE). Breathing techniques have an effect on the Nervous System, and the heart rate and is a good method to measure the athlete's optimal intensity.
Professional athletes try to reach the optimal intensity in order to have their best performance. Optimal intensity is an equilibrium state where one is in control of mind and emotions and is as prepared as possible to fight, the past and the future disappear and the focus is on the present moment. This state of mind can be affected if one feels threatened by the situation and/ or the outcome, or if they feel very relaxed so they don’t care about the competition.
The Autonomic Nervous System consists of Sympathetic (fight or flight) and Parasympathetic (relax and digest) nervous system. Different types of breathing can impact each of these systems. Being aware of breathing and applying breathing techniques are game changers for any athlete so the tennis coaches should strive to show their players how and when to apply these techniques. If one is a bit too chill before the match, they need to activate their sympathetic nerves and increase their heart rate by taking quick and shallow breaths. In this scenario one should use Rapid Breathing: inhale rapidly and shallow 10 times through your nose, do it two to three times. On the other hand, if one is stressed out they should breathe slowly and deeply to decrease their heart rate. In this case, one could use Triangle Breathing: inhale through the nose slowly and deeply for four seconds, fill your lungs and stomach and hold your breath for four seconds, then exhale slowly through your mouth for four seconds (4x4x4). One should do it two to three times between the points when you need to calm your mind and release all those negative emotions and fears.
In order to train your athletes to become aware and control their breathing you need to put them in an adverse situation. The coach also needs to measure their heart rate with a monitor like a chest strap. Set up a match against a rival and put your athlete in a pressured situation by asking him/her at an important point to have only one serve for each point, or ask them to start the game 0-30 down, or ask to do serve-and-volley on both serves. When the heart rate monitor shows the athlete is psyched up, remind them of the breathing technique and expect a drop to lower than 80 percent of the maximum heart rate within 20 seconds which is the rest time between the points. If the athlete couldn’t calm their heart rate, give them more time to do it. The athlete can mix these breathing techniques with positive self talk and self affirmation, also having the eyes closed while breathing helps to bring down the heart rate.
The coaches should be careful with interpreting heart rate because some other factors besides stress such as dehydration and thermal stress can increase the heart rate. Sometimes heart rate does not reflect the oxygen uptake (VO2 max).
Farhad Roshanaie is a USPTA Competitive Junior Developmental and a USPTA Tennis Fitness Specialist. He is a graduate from the USTA High Performance Coaching Program. Farhad is also a USPTA Elite Coach and a USPTA Professional Tester. Farhad has developed multiple top junior players; he coached in the US Open 2019 and the Australian Open 2020 Junior Championship. As a former collegiate coach, he worked with both D1 and D3 schools. He was born in Tehran, Iran, he was ranked number 1 in most of his junior career, and he still practices and competes.