How Proper Breathing Helps Your Tennis

Apr 24

You may be surprised that we have to discuss breathing in relation to tennis since we all breathe all the time; don’t we?

And yet, in practice, you may be holding your breath in different stages of playing and therefore holding back your best performance as well.

While this article explains how you need to breathe properly while playing tennis, we need to look at different underlying reasons why you don’t breathe properly in the first place so that you can become aware of the deeper issues that need to be resolved, too.

Why You Hold Your Breath Or Breathe Shallowly During Tennis

There are three main situations during play when you may hold your breath:

1. Holding your breath when you’re about to hit the ball

As you suddenly hold your breath as you’re swinging towards the ball, you’re also suddenly “holding” your arm from swinging smoothly since you’re creating tension/tightness in your body.

You may hold your breath for different reasons, but the ones I know of are:

  • experiencing some level of anxiety when the ball is approaching, especially if it’s fast (and anxiety affects breathing),
  • tensing up in expectation of a “collision” with the ball – even though the ball weighs just 59 grams, and
  • wanting to hit the ball very hard or wanting to be “very strong” while hitting the ball – therefore tensing up and holding your breath.

(Note that in reality very little strength is needed to bounce a 59-gram ball off your racquet. The problem exists only in your mind and not in reality.)

2. Holding your breath as you’re observing your shot and/or your opponent

If I tell you to pay attention to the video below, you’ll unconsciously hold your breath as you’re observing what’s happening.

The same happens on the court as you’re observing your shot and observing your opponent in anticipation of what will happen next; you’re unconsciously holding your breath.

That’s why you’re soon going to run out of breath (oxygen), start to lose energy, and very likely go for a risky shot just to end the rally and get a chance to catch your breath.

Remember: attention causes tension because we hold our breath and for that we need to tense up our core muscles.

You must learn to override this instinctive reaction of the mind/body connection if you want to play higher level tennis.

3. Breathing shallowly after the point is over

If the point you played affected you emotionally, you’ll also not breathe to your lungs’ fullest potential.

Getting irritated, angry, disappointed, frustrated, and so on will cause different breathing responses.

Try to imagine or recall these emotional states and observe your breath. You’ll see how it changes and how it’s not deep and rhythmical.

If you’re staying in those emotional states for too long, you’re losing the opportunity to enrich your lungs and body with oxygen which you need to help you play longer rallies and longer matches.

You may also be thinking and analyzing the previous point too much; as you pay so much attention in your mind to the previous point, you’re breathing shallowly again.

How To Breathe Properly During Tennis

Now that you’re more aware of the reasons why breathing becomes shallow and why we even hold our breath sometimes, you’ll most likely breathe better already.

Here are the key points to keep in mind to improve your game even more when it comes to breathing in tennis:

1. Exhale as you’re hitting the ball

exhale as you swing

Start your exhale as you start your forward swing.

Your exhale should be long for groundstrokes and serves and just naturally shorter for volleys and overheads.

A good way to practice is to start exhaling slightly early – immediately as you’re beginning your forward swing towards the ball.

Your breath should also last for a while after you make contact with the ball. Don’t release all breath as you hit the ball.

Hit the ball in the middle of your exhale, half of it happening before contact and half after contact.

I am certain your groundstrokes and serves will improve more with this breathing technique than they did with the last mechanical instruction you tried to apply to your strokes.

2. Maintain a steady rhythm of breathing between strokes in the rally

breathe during a tennis rally

Maintain steady rhythm of breathing during the rally

Tennis is similar to running and hitting some strokes in between.

(And yes, lots of decelerations and accelerations when it comes to point play, but for a free hitting session, it’s fairly comfortable to move between shots.)

Try to get the rhythm of breathing between strokes as the ball is leaving you and also as it’s approaching you.

This may be more challenging than it seems because your attention to the ball and your opponent will instinctively make you hold your breath.

I suggest you practice in easy conditions first by just rallying with your partner down the middle and seeing if you can establish a nice rhythm of breathing.

Then ask your partner to move you around the court and see if you can achieve the same calm and steady rhythm of breathing.

3. Recover after each point with a few deep breaths

breathing after a point

Get some oxygen!

The first thing you need to do after each (longer) rally is to resupply your lungs with oxygen as that will give you the energy you need for future points.

Take a few deep breaths as you walk around the court until you feel you’re almost back to normal breathing.

Remember, in a real match, you have only 20 seconds in between points, so you need to recover quickly (in about 10 seconds) before you start preparing for the next point.

In summary, proper breathing as you play tennis is another often overlooked skill that you need to master if you want to get to the next level.

Being able to exhale smoothly (a full, long exhale) as you hit the ball can do wonders for the consistency of your strokes as it will also smooth out your stroke and get rid of little jerky movements that caused problems in the first place.

And now that you’ve come to the end of the article, you can take a deep breath again as paying attention to all this information surely made you breathe very shallowly. 😉

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(29) comments

Emanuele April 24, 2015

Eheh so I guessed well last time about the next topic! Thank you…

I have been practicing this for the last two or three months and noticed how even if I manage during training in a match it’s still very easy to forget.

Today I played at nine o clock in the morning with a hard hitter on fast court. I was sleeping, my strings didn’t feel at the best, my control oriented racquet was delivering a lot of short balls and the opponent started to hit hard angles… In these situations I forget to move my feet, to breath, anything… I start playing defensive but I have the wrong frame for that. Any tips?

It would be interesting to know your opinion or to see a video about changing grips during rally. I see a lot of people that play only three shots… While I like to play with my racquet and keep it loose and move my grip according if I wanna hit more flat, defensive, backspin, topspin.. I hold it looser, tighter, I play like a bored kid (literally I have seen this in kids and Federer only) and that helps me to relax and to stay cool…

Another thing I’d like to hear from you, since it looks like you have a good culture, is to know how generally we should see tennis, matches, improvements… The right attitude to enjoy and to improve faster and so on… How to deal with bad moments, with bad strings, racquets, losses, up and downs in our technique and so on…

Thanks great job again!

    Tomaz April 24, 2015

    Hi Emanuele,

    Yes, I realize that we forget to breathe in “tense” situations hence this article as a reminder.

    Go through the reasons of why we hold our breath and see what applies to you.

    For practice, have a hard hitter hit with you but don’t play for points.

    Can you stay calm and maintain breathing as you exchange shots? Work on that, it may take one season to master that…

    As for grips, do whatever works for you.

    I find that the longer I play, the less I am bound by a certain grip and I simply adjust – actually my grip adjusts just by itself – to the situation I am in.

    I’ll keep your suggestions in mind too.

    The right attitude is to become lost in the process of training and not be constantly obsessed by the outcome, meaning “When will my stroke get better?” or “When will my breathing get better?”, etc.

    All puzzles of the tennis game improve with time if you give some attention to them and you can’t “make them” improve faster by trying very very hard.

    That doesn’t work in tennis and I’ll share some thoughts on this in a future article.

    As for bad moments, know that tennis is extremely demanding sport and it looks easy only when someone has really mastered it.

    Don’t underestimate the difficulty of tennis and focus more on how good you are besides of course working on improving your skills.

    Every day you step on the court you played some shots and some situations perfectly. Do you remember those when you drive home or do you remember mistakes?

    I typically remember a couple of good shots I made and if you ask me about mistakes, I have to think for a while to remember them even though I missed hundreds of balls in one session. See if you can adopt such attitude…

      Robert April 27, 2015

      This long, thoughtful response was helpful on many levels, even inspiring.

Ed April 24, 2015

Hi Tomaz

Good video; I do have this problem of holding my breath when hitting the ball and it messes up my game. What works for me is low-key grunting (ie not loud enough to bother my opponent but loud enough for me to hear). I try and do this on all shots, even during the mini-tennis warm-up, and it does help a lot.

    Tomaz April 24, 2015

    Good tip, Ed. Grunting is a good first step towards exhaling comfortable during hitting.

    In time you can try and make less and less sound…

      ric April 29, 2015

      … unlike Sharapova, Azarenka, etc.

Cédric B. April 27, 2015

Excellent. Tricks. I come from martial arts and breathing is very important, almost crucial. Strange, tennis may be considered as a martial art: concentration, perfect gesture repeated hundreds of time before and freed in match, combat, breathing… Racket is a sword!

    Tomaz April 27, 2015

    Very much like martial arts, Cédric, I agree. It’s body and mind mastery and breathing is the bridge between them…

Zac April 27, 2015

I think of tennis as a martial art, too, and this came to mind as I watched this video.

Breathing well doesn’t only improve your strokes; in my case, it also helps me get the most out of tennis in terms of my general well-being, like yoga or tai chi.

marky April 27, 2015

Hi Tomaz,

I suppose blisters/hard skin on finger and palm after a couple of hours play are systematic of holding the racquet too tight and tensing up at impact?

Any other tips for eradicating tension?

cheers, marky

    Tomaz April 27, 2015

    Most likely, Marky. Well, exhaling as you’re hitting is the first tip you can apply.

    I also suggest you play with the minimum effort drill often (especially for warm up) so that you can feel how little energy you need to hit a normal rally ball.

    And of course, keep asking yourself if you can grip the racquet lighter and still control the ball.

tomi April 27, 2015

the site has a vivid & modern look still the former one had more FEEL:)

Pam April 27, 2015

Great videos, always terrific instructions. I barely have time to notice the new site!

Joanna April 27, 2015

I’m an avid follower of professional tennis–all that grunting and screeching now makes sense! The players are exhaling.

Interesting article, Tomaz. The next “mantra” to add while I play.

Hubby, with whom I play most, is wondering where I’ve been getting my game. You blog is my best-kept secret (well, from him 😉 ).

Marcelo April 27, 2015

Thomaz, excellent article as always. I enjoyed the tennis association with martial arts, I think tennis is the sublimation of the fight with swords, like Samurai.
Congratulations on the new style website, it was fine.

Robert April 27, 2015

I have a background in resistance (weight) training, where breathing is done in the cycle of the exercise movement, inhaling on the negative movement, exhaling during the positive part of the cycle. When doing free weights, one is often cinched into a support belt, and breathing is done with upper thorax expansion while the core supports the exercise movement. But I also have extensive experience as a clarinet and single reeds player, where, quick intakes of air are drawn by the diaphragm and released in time with a phrase of music the player is making.(I won’t even talk about breathing for fitness or competitive swimming.)
I struggled with this issue of breathing while playing tennis after noticing the breathless effects of not breathing well during a series of shots, and it is embarrassing to say how long it took to figure out how to breathe — I mean what system of breathing to use, when serving, when playing ground stroke rallies, when at net in doubles, when running for balls. What I settled on was the lower abdominal type, with a rhythmic intake and exhale, with certain triggers cued to my split step, stroke phase, etc.
Fascinating topic!

    Tomaz April 27, 2015

    Very fascinating, Robert. In my view, step 1 is becoming aware that there is such a thing as not breathing properly during strokes and the game overall.

    Step 2 is then trying to figure out how to breathe – and I am quite sure our bodies will figure that out as long as we’re aware of what’s going on.

    But a good tip on breathing more from abdomen, it’s very efficient and it helps us focus on the core which is the main engine of groundstrokes.

Luiz April 27, 2015

Thanks a lot!

Kalle April 27, 2015

Hi Tomaz
and all of you crazy tennis guys,

Great video again!

it is my first and for sure delayed comment and I just want to send you special thank`s..

I´m a former soccer player and started playing tennis at the age of 30 and became a real tennis addict, now I am 35.
At the beginning I took lessons with our club coach which worked well and went through different groups of better levels, but I really wasn´t satisfied with my game of tennis at all, although I won some matches ( maybe like Emanuele below ).
Too many questions ( what grip, technique, technique always technique, open or close stance, how to hit hard, how tight or not to hold a racket, court position, consistency, do I have to be strong to play fast or hit hard, where to play the ball, strategy, bad moments, how to stay relaxed and play effortless, miss hits why etc. ???) and I felt nobody has the answers.

I remember two years ago accidentally I visit the site for the first time and I realised immediately my game will improve.
I have to say I ordered the ebooks from Tomaz too and now two years later I feel I understand the basic tactical patterns of tennis and can say I am an all court player ( Tomaz, think this style of play suits me best:-) and know how to play a specific type of opponent and accept mistakes as they are and not feel bad about them.
My motivation on court is to play good tennis and to become a better player in every single match or training session.

Emanuele, I recommend to order the ebooks, you will not be dissapointed!
My game approved a lot and I hpoe it still will…

So Tomaz, hope you never stop doing videos!
I really appreciate your effort, thanks!!!!

Wish I could have written in german, so sorry for mistakes.

Best regards from berlin.

    Tomaz April 27, 2015

    Much appreciated, Kalle, thanks for the promotion. 😉 More videos on the way…

Slimane April 27, 2015

Think of it a classic kung fu movie where your racquet would make a swoosh sound from preparation all the way to the follow-through 🙂

mojtaba ghafghazi April 28, 2015

thanks for all, I learn soo much from your subjects

Walter Pearson May 13, 2015

I share the opinion of other commenters that belly breathing is superior to chest breathing. I think it also provides a more relaxing component. Also recommended by some endurance gurus is to lengthen the exhale period compared to the inhale period – often by as much as double. Your thoughts on this?

    Tomaz May 13, 2015

    Agreed, Walter. Belly breathing will also happen more naturally when we hit more shots by engaging the core more. And yes, longer exhale…

Paul May 22, 2015

Hi Tomaz,

Good to point out the importance of breathing!
I’ld like to add another important moment of breathing and that is:
breathing in while preparing.
In my experience as a player and coach this helps with the rythm of the stroke as well as building up the energy for a powerfull release.
I’m looking forward to hear your view on this?

Kind regards,

    Tomaz May 22, 2015

    Hi Paul,

    Yes, I agree that we inhale as we prepare but I found it to happen automatically if the player focuses only on the exhale as they hit.

    My goal is always to minimize the instruction, say as little as possible to achieve what I want.

    The less the players think, the better they track the ball and the better they will play.

    So for me the instruction on when to inhale is redundant. It would be my last resort to mention it and I would do it only if some player struggled for long time with proper breathing and finding the right rhythm.

Stu July 24, 2016

Hi Tomaz
Thanks this is very useful (as always).
So on the serve – would you start exhaling as soon as you begin the motion?

    Tomaz July 25, 2016

    Hi Stu,

    I would start exhaling when I would start swinging upwards towards the ball.

Zac October 27, 2016

Hi Tomaz,

A lot of the grunting in professional tennis makes it sound like they’re exhaling after contact. For example, Murray does a sort of relaxed sigh after contact on his serve, but during the serve motion he does this sort of squeal that would be hard to do if he were beginning to exhale earlier.

What do you think about this?

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