Take a Breath!

Off-Course Training Through Deep Breathing

By Neil E. Wolkodoff, PhD

In golf, mental focus just before the shot is essential.

Knowing your mental state, heart rate level, and tension, aids focus and emotional regulation. Keeping the best focus in good times and after poor shots determines your ability to play optimally.

Golf is best played more relaxed than amped up. Getting charged is excellent for the WWE or football but not for golf.

Knowing where you are on your scale is essential. With tour players, if they are rattled in any way, they step back and start again. And while the golf course is the ultimate demonstration of your self-awareness and re-control in this area, it is not the best place to develop an understanding of your inner monk.

Deep Breathing (DB)and Meditation, two popular methods of increased focus and stress reduction, work on the same basic principles. Both aim to counter the autonomic nervous system, which increases physiological arousal or level. The parasympathetic pathway lowers the responses in this area. DB gets at this link via controlled breathing, especially by using the diaphragm (the muscle at the base of the chest). Meditation is mind-directed in the connection.

Research shows that athletes in breathing exercise programs lower their overall heart rate, blood pressure, and other integrated body responses. Slow down and control your breaths, then your levels in these areas subside. As an entry point to improved golf focus, DB is more manageable for most golfers to apply and start a program than meditation.

The plus of DB programs is that you can perform these at home, the office, and even the golf course. The actual golf application depends on knowing when your levels are too high and being able to calm down and focus quickly. After making DB a routine, many athletes add “mindfulness” components, including meditation.

An entry-level to get started is to sit in a comfortable chair and control your breathing with a pattern. One famous sequence is 4-7-8. Inhale or take in air through the nose for a count of four. Hold your breath for seven counts. Then let out the air or exhale for eight counts. An accepted starting point for deep breathing. Four cycles are a good starting point, and five minutes of total DB has researched benefits in self-awareness and health.

If you want more structure, the next level up is a phone or computer app to coach you through deep breathing exercises as a more directed tool in the DB application. The apps have timing cues, yet little measurement of how you performed in keeping pace. Many apps will allow you to set the timing, sequence, total time, and signals. A step up from counting in your mind.

Biofeedback is two steps up from guided DB. Using sophisticated measurement devices, your state of anxiety and relaxation is constantly monitored during biofeedback. You know when it goes up and when it goes down. Typically, this is performed in a clinician’s office.

To explore this level on your own, tools like the Neuropeak Pro ( provide more sophisticated feedback without a trip to the therapist. The belt resembles a heart rate monitor and compares breathing patterns to optimal ones. It uses directed and coached breathing to gain self-awareness and control physiological arousal. Through the app on the phone, the system uses your breathing rate to influence parasympathetic control, thus lowering your heart rate. It also has rating metrics for effectiveness, consistency, and breath-by-breath balance.

Through deep breathing, you can spot negative patterns and levels much more quickly and implement breathing and/or tension reduction strategies to get you back in the zone. And more importantly, with practice, it takes a shorter time to return to the relaxed/optimal focus state. If you practice any of these methods, your golf will be better in the long run.

Neil E. Wolkodoff, PhD, performs research on golf and sports, and provides programs to improve human performance and health. He has worked successfully with PGA, collegiate and junior golfers over the last 25 years. Neil is the Medical Program Director for the Colorado Center for Health & Sports Science.