Improving performance through breath

Tim Cox
July 1, 2014

Previously I’ve only given the subject of breathing any real thought when I or someone I’m with can’t do it.  I vividly remember my younger brother staring goggle-eyed, winded and struggling for breath in the aftermath of a serious ‘play fight’; the panic, the fear, and then the relief as he could breathe again.

It doesn’t need Maslow (or a purple faced brother) to highlight breathing as an essential to survival.  Of all Maslow’s priorities though, breathing is the one most of us pay least attention to in the context of improving performance.

To improve health, performance and ability to succeed in the workplace we are bombarded from all sides with advice on diet and super foods (Kale is Number One by the way...).  Thanks to a generation of supermodels we’re aware that water consumption is a good thing, and if that didn’t resonate we see in sport ‘water boys’ or latterly ‘Hydration Technicians’ trotting across our screens ensuring players get their fill.  There is plenty of debate on perfect sleep patterns from the eight hour rule, to Margaret Thatcher’s four hours and Thomas Edison’s claim it was a waste of time.  Think shelter and we are swamped with advice and thoughts on how work environments shape performance (pot plants do help with creativity...).

How much better could we perform if we improved our breathing?

I’ve been mulling this over for a couple of weeks following one of our events hosted by Susanne Lurger, Co-founder of BEYOCO, the Business Yoga Company.  Susanne brings a unique perspective to executive coaching, working with innovative organisations and individuals to introduce body-mind discipline, yoga and meditation to improve performance.

I and other coaches spent a fascinating afternoon exploring how yoga techniques could inform our practice, both in terms of our own performance and that of our clients.  I was the only person present not already practising yoga and really appreciated the experiential session investigating the impact posture, stretching and breath exercises could have.  Other participants well versed in yoga became more aware of how transferable the skills could be.  Shirley Greenaway, an experienced coach remarked: “I really enjoyed the session as it pulled some of the physiological ‘stuff’ I already know to the forefront of my consciousness and made me realize that although I dabble with breathwork in my coaching  I’m not that explicit with my clients.  I’ve come away with the intention to pay more attention to this.  I will be much more up front about why I’m introducing the breathing/posture work to them and bolder about what I actually do e.g. more stretching.”

It’s the breath work dimension of Susanne’s input that resonated most for me.  On previous courses I have experienced elements of breathing practices and indeed worked with clients in the coaching room around improving their presence through breathing, but it had never really struck me what an absolutely integral part of peak performance it should play.

According to Don Campbell, co-author of Perfect Breathing, the breath is responsible for 90% of our body’s energy:  “The simple act of inhaling oxygenates and energizes every one of the trillions of cells in the body.”  It stands to reason we should concentrate on improving our breathing capability.  Susanne referenced this in her session: “Energy is like money, it has to be regained after you have spent it, or you end up in deficit. When there is deficit check your energy expenditure and make space to recover for it. Avoid getting into energy deficit and strive toward staying energised consistently.”

In the sporting world coaches are now working with athletes around breath awareness, making the unconscious conscious.  Once the athlete develops a heightened awareness they move on to develop breath strategies to enable them to reach their maximum potential in a given moment.  One example is that of the Giant Slalom skiers: just before they launch themselves down the slope they consciously fill their lungs with as much breath as possible.  Apart from the aerobic benefit the action of short sharp breath intake also activates the sympathetic nervous system, replicating ‘fight or flight’ reactions and brings them to a high state of focus ideal for navigating poles at speed.

From my own sport of rugby I can see immediate applications for different breathing strategies.  Just before a likely collision, some sharp breaths would replicate this “fight” focus ensuring a better chance of making the tackle or winning the contact.  Compare this to the need to still the mind and become calm before taking a kick at goal, or moving on from a costly error, when slower, deeper breaths would help.

This calming strategy is perhaps most applicable for the help coaches can offer their clients.  Under stress, we replicate breathing associated with fight and flight. In the short term this can work for us in helping us hit a deadline or respond quickly in the moment.  Unchecked though, this breathing pattern can become the norm, meaning we fail to unwind and our body gets overloaded with stress hormones – we are constantly in fight or flight mode.  This does not serve us well and can result in exhaustion and illness.  The risk to business is significant.  Lloyds Banking Group was thrown into chaos late last year by a sudden leave of absence taken by Chief Executive Antonio Horta-Osorio who was said to be suffering from fatigue.  Shares immediately fell 4.5%.  And he is not alone; a former Chief Executive of Barclays took a leave of absence for similar reasons, and the CEO of Pfizer, Jeff Kindler resigned to ‘recharge his batteries’.

Typically coaching clients describe themselves as being under constant pressure to deliver, often experiencing anxiety against a backdrop of constant change.  If we can help our clients become more conscious of this pattern they can develop their own breathing strategies, employing diaphragmatic breathing techniques to encourage longer, deeper breathing, reducing stress levels and re-supplying energy levels.

I’m at the start of my breathing journey and beginning to think through how I might apply breathwork with clients.  What I do know is I will be concentrating on my own breathing, making the unconscious conscious.  And certainly, before a coaching session, I will make sure I breathe deeply ensuring I am truly present and ready to perform.

References

Susanne Lurger, BEYOCO, http://www.beyoco.com/

Don Campbell & Al Lee (2009) Perfect Breathing: Transform Your Life One Breath at a Time. New York, NY: Sterling Publishing

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