What would you pay to improve your golf? Lessons with top pros, gym sessions and top of the line gear can all give you the advantage. But what if you were missing one of the key fundamentals that could make a big difference to your handicap. What if it was as simple as learning how to breathe?
I know what you’re thinking, I am breathing when I play golf. But let me ask you this, are you breathing for optimal performance? Top athletes from around the world are learning that one of the key tools that give them the edge is as simple as changing the way they breathe.
Improving Golf Performance
In today’s blog, I outline how your breathing pattern can impact your golf swing, how your breathing muscles change your kinematics, power and even your emotions. If you want the secrets to improve your golf swing, then read on.
Health and Golf Performance
In 2019, one of the best experiences I had was travelling to Europe and China as part of a team that supports one of New Zealand’s top professional golfers, Josh Geary. It was one of my dreams to do this and I was very much in my happy place, travelling to phenomenal destinations, doing the work I love. My time working with Josh taught me a lot and highlighted the drive and commitment it took to compete at the top level of this sport.
What it also highlighted, was how our small habits, such as how we walk, along with our body’s tolerance to stress, gym workouts, sleep and our daily routine can all impact performance. Working intensively with Josh over several tournaments, brought to light the areas of issues and how they were impacting his game.
Some issues could be fixed quickly with acupuncture, breathing techniques and gym workouts. And other parts needed a longer-term approach to management.
Playing at that top professional level comes with a huge amount of stress with the travel, back to back tournaments, living out of a suitcase for weeks on end and being away from family. My conversations with many of the pro golfers on the European and Challenge Tour, highlighted a few key areas of golf performance and life on tour that often get missed.
One of the biggest lessons from the tour experience, was that small changes made large improvements physically and mentally and resulted in more fluidity. A key component to elite performance in every sport, which is often missed, is how we breathe which impacts our ability to control stress.
The Science of Breathing
Breathing is automatic and under subconscious control which is why you are probably not aware if you are inhaling or exhaling when standing at the tee. The great thing is, breathing is one of the only parts of your autonomic nervous system (which controls your body’s stress response), that can also be consciously controlled. This is important in golf, because if your body is under stress, it can change the way you breathe, like breath-holding on the inhale or exhale and breath stacking. These changes in your breathing pattern can alter the flow of movement with both your golf swing and putting.
Golf Swing and Breathing
What we know both clinically and from research, is that you need to be able to activate the muscles for the activity you are doing. Most of the time with your core muscles they should be relaxed and allow flowing movement without guarding. With golf, your core muscles/cylinder need to be strong enough through range to transfer force generated from the legs and the torque of the golf swing through the upper limb. That means, you still need to flow through the sequence and not be rigid. Learning to breathe through your golf swings allows that, and increases rotation and torque i.e. better wind up, force generation that crosses over into range.
Proper Abdominal Breathing
The diaphragm is where 70% of your breathing should come from. But the problem is when we are worried, sad, fearful, angry (I have definitely seen all these emotions on the golf course!!) we change our breathing pattern and start to use our accessory breathing muscles.
These are the muscles around our neck (scalenes, sternocleidomastoid, upper traps) used to increase our lung volume and help us take larger inhales. And our outer core muscles (external obliques, quadratus lumborum) end up being overused forcing out our exhalation. Altered breathing patterns have a knock on effect to our blood chemistry, trigger point formation that causes pain, endurance and much more.
Breathing with Golf
Being our main breathing muscle, the diaphragm plays several roles. Respiration is king, then next is speaking and finally, stability. The great news is that like any muscle in the body, it can be strengthened. This is essential because as performance level increases, so does stress.
If you push the diaphragm past its tolerance of fatigue and endurance, then it will resort to its priority, which is to breathe. Core stability is then sacrificed and in golf this can translate into poor swing mechanics, poor accuracy and distance, and even pain.
A round of golf has several areas that will strain the breathing muscles and can trigger the stress response. From warm ups, to long drives, to pressure when putting, there are all areas of the game that can be impacted. While our breathing is one way to reset and bring the body back to calm, if the mental or physical driver isn’t addressed, you might as well be stuck on repeat.
Breathing During Golf Swing
How you breathe can make a huge impact on your golf swing. I’d like to tell you that it’s as simple as breathing in on your back swing and breathing out as you follow through, but there are a few more factors that influence how you breathe with golf. However, the reality is by inhaling on your backswing and exhaling on your follow through, it will allow for increased thoracic mobility (your rib area which is essential to generate power through your core) and will help with force transfer from your lower body and through the club.
Breathing in helps to increase your intraabdominal pressure and activate your core stability for your golf swing which is best to do on your backswing. Don’t believe me? Try doing all three options next time you’re at the driving range. On the backswing, breathe in, breathe out, and hold your breath on the inhale and see what feels best.
Breathing Between Shots
One of the most powerful things I learned through touring with a professional golfer, was watching the way he moved and behaved between shots. When he was in his head and worrying about his performance, his whole body movements and walking changed. This would then impact performance over the next few holes. It’s hard work to train the body and the mind to not to react to a bad shot or the wind coming up at the wrong time.
I suggest having someone film you between shots or observe how you move around the course and if your body tensing or fatiguing. The time between shots is a great opportunity to reset your breathing. Learning to breathe 360degrees into the diaphragm and lengthening the exhale can help reduce the stress reaction and keep you calm between holes.
Mistakes in Breathing with Golf
Some of the main things golfers do when swinging, is holding their breath. When you hold your breath you tense your muscles which stop the flow of movement. While you increase intraabdominal pressure – which can be good to have a bit of when you swing, with breath-holding it can cause too much pressure making it hard to move through the swing, blocking flow.
How Long to Train your Breathing
A few low slow breaths between holes isn’t going to be enough to retrain your body’s stress response. One study looked at coping strategies that International golfers used. Breathing and muscle relaxation was one of the positive strategies that worked, but it took practice. Like anything you do, you need to be able to do it before times get tough.
Like any muscle, the main breathing muscle, the diaphragm, can strengthen with load and repetition. Research into breathing retraining is often set around the 6-12 weeks range which makes sense clinically as we need that time and load for the muscles to get thicker and stronger.
I suggest at least 10 minutes, twice a day of focused breath practice whether that’s lying down, sitting or on the golf course.
I challenge you to try this for 6 weeks and see how you feel at the end. What have you got to lose?
Emotions and Golf
Great research from Canada looked at both top down regulation of your emotions on your breathing pattern and bottom up regulation of your breathing pattern on your emotional state. What they found was the emotions we feel change the way that we breathe, but you may have already guessed that. The game changer was the second part of the research that showed the breathing pattern we have can change our emotional state. What if you are breathing in a fear, sadness or anger breathing pattern?
And how is that impacting your golf?
Are you ready to change your bad habits off the course to help your game on the course?
Psychology and Golf
Another one of the biggest lessons I learned whilst on tour, was the impact life has on your golf game. During a conversation with a Dutch pro player, he shared that he’d reached a point in his life where he realised that if he wasn’t happy in life, then it would show on the course and impact his results. And that is exactly what I saw too.
You can have off days where things don’t go right, but if bigger issues are happening outside of golf such as grief, loneliness or depression it will impact your body, mind and eventually your performance.
Learning to tune in to what your body and mind is telling you is key to managing the highs and lows of being on tour, and like every skill, your mental and emotional health needs practice too.
Our physical and mental health is on a sliding scale and some days will be better than others. But what is key is building up your tool box to help bring your body back to equilibrium as quickly as possible.
Taking Rests with Golf
Our nervous system, mind and body are not designed to be on the go all the time. If you don’t tune into this, your body will tell you it’s had enough and it’s not happy. Signs such as fatigue, poor sleep, irritability, upset gut and pain can all be hovering in the background. Taking rest, recharging and nurturing your body is important to every part of life. Working out what counts as rest for you is important as it’s different for everyone.
It could be taking a week off from playing, or leaving the driving range an hour early to take a nap, it could be getting a massage, going for a swim or even hitting the gym. Learning a breathing practice that works for you can be key to switching your body out of the flight, fright and freeze mode. And it could be something simple like learning to exhale for longer between shots. Or scanning your body and noticing where you’re tight and let it go. Observing your body and your breath is a simple tool to slow the body down in the moment.
Find out what works for you and make time for it so that when your body needs to work at its peak performance, it isn’t maxed out with stress hormones and tension.
How to Maximise your Golf
Hopefully my tips have inspired you to rethink how you approach your golf game. The key steps to success are building the right team around you to increase your knowledge bank and awareness of your own body, looking at how your slow your body’s nervous system to reduce the impact of stress, tuning into your emotions, habits and getting golf fit to support your body to perform at its optimum.
If you take one thing away from this blog, I hope it’s the idea that you have untapped power in your breath when it comes to your golf game. As they say it won’t happen overnight, but it will happen.