Why You Need to Take a Deep Breath, According to the Red Sox

Pro athletes are meditating. Kind of. Here's how a simple technique can improve performance, reduce stress, and maybe even help you manage your kid's tantrum.

by Alex Tzelnic
A collage of Matt Whistler, Lebron James and a swimmer all taking deep breaths

Watching the Boston Red Sox surge through the playoffs on their way to 119 wins and a World Series trophy was remarkable. The team, arguably one of the best of all time, prevailed thanks to a killer combination of timely two-out hitting, dominant pitching, and a technique you might not expect — deep breathing.

The Red Sox were an exceedingly talented team with a monster payroll, but in an era when every edge counts, is it possible that they were able to capitalize on the most subtle one of all? In the clinching game, starter David Price threw 89 pitches, and over the course of seven innings, he stepped on the rubber, gathered himself, and took 89 very deep breaths. And it wasn’t just Price getting in on all the oxygen. As he stepped into the batter’s box, slugger J.D. Martinez routinely did something similar, taking a single deep breath before digging in his cleats. Joe Kelly clearly took some quality respiration before striking out Yuvi Grandal.

We take 24,000 breaths every day. According to Dana Santas, a mind-body coach who has worked closely with dozens of professional athletes and teams over the years (including Price’s former team, the Tampa Bay Rays), most of us are not taking these breaths optimally. Correct breathing, she says, is the key to countless issues of body and mind, from back pain and migraines to achieving peak performance. “Breathing is a superpower. It’s not always the answer, but it’s always the place to start.”

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Watching Price perform, Santas can see the alignment at work. “I always say the money is in the exhale,” says Santas. “When you see Price take that breath, the exhale is actually the relaxed state of the diaphragm. When people exhale a sigh of relief, you release that chronic tension that we get in the upper body, the chest, shoulder. Now you’ve got a stable core and mobile shoulder girdle. It’s putting him in the best possible position he can be to start that pitching motion.”

Another benefit to this kind of exhalation is that with training, it can allow an athlete to regain their composure in a single breath, rather than the 90 seconds it typically takes to trigger the relaxation response. In the midst of a game, a pitcher doesn’t have 90 seconds to spare. “They have to have a tool that’s going to enable them to get into that state much quicker,” explains Santas. “That one big exhale is that tool.” She continues, “Most people don’t recognize breathing as the fundamental movement pattern that it is, influencing virtually all other movement patterns. When athletes understand this, it’s a game changer.”

One athlete who grasped the power of breathing early on was former Oakland A’s and San Francisco Giants pitcher Barry Zito. When Zito won the 2002 CY Young Award he began to get press for his quasi-mystical ways. A profile in Esquire (headline: “He Came From Outer Space”) explained that “Barry performs an elaborate pregame ritual that includes meditation and yoga and a lot of awfully deep breathing.” At the time, such techniques were considered fringe. The profile identified Zito as the latest in a lineage of pitchers like Bill “The Spaceman” Lee, Oil Can Boyd, and Mark “The Bird” Fidrych who also dabbled in weird. But Zito’s ways became less weird in 2007, when the San Francisco Giants made him the highest-paid pitcher in baseball history (at the time).

Zito had been working with Alan Jaeger, a former pitcher with a background in meditation and yoga, whose goal was to train minds as well as bodies. Not longer after Zito signed his mega-contract, a piece in the New York Times described Jaeger’s methods in further, awed detail: “Jaeger’s regimen lasts five hours a day, and for the first four hours, no one touches a baseball. The pitchers meditate, stretch, listen to music, perform yoga poses, meditate again and listen to more music. They talk about dreams and visualize games.” In describing Zito’s mound presence, the author wrote, “[Zito] takes so many deep breaths on the mound that it can look as if he is hyperventilating.” But such training was producing results, and baseball, perhaps more than any other sport, is all about outcomes.

It was around this time that Santas starting working with former Red Sox manager Terry Francona. Up to this point her understanding of the breath had been largely based on her own background in yoga. But her focus began to shift as she realized what could be accomplished with a modern approach to an ancient practice.

“I’m on a mission of getting people to stop teaching this concept of belly breathing,” she says. “Five thousand years ago, when yoga started focusing on the breath and life force, they understood the sheer magnitude of its influence, but they didn’t understand the biomechanics.” Attempting to breathe from the belly can result in a costly chain reaction, in which one is pulling from the shoulders and neck and back. “When you start using one muscle to do another muscle’s job, something is going to break,” says Santas. “There is no other controllable movement pattern that we do, besides blinking, as breathing. So if that pattern is bad there’s no amount of functional training or corrective exercise that you’re going to do that’s going to trump bad breathing.”

Instead, Santas has her clients home in on what they can control. “Focus on rib movement,” she explains. “The only way to really control the movement of the diaphragm is to control the muscles that move the rib cage. It should be a horizontal breath, 360 degrees, not vertical. The diaphragm is your primary respiratory muscle, so it should be used for all of your breathing.”

As her understanding of biomechanics has evolved, so has Santas’s client list. The body and mind training that was once thought to be fringe has gone mainstream, and Santas is as busy as ever. “My goal is not to be needed all the time by all these teams,” says Santas. On the heels of the breathtaking performance by the Red Sox, that seems unlikely.

The upshot for professional athletes, weekend warriors, and the average joe is that this technique, when mastered, is no longer a technique; it is the simple act of breathing. Remember this the next time your kid is throwing a tantrum, or you’re about to give a presentation, or your ski tips are balanced over the edge of a precipice, and you may find the way that much easier.

As a daily meditator, I’m used to being consistently aware of the breath, but the idea of centering myself with a single deep breath was less familiar to me. And then I found myself, on the cusp of an important meeting, tensed up, shoulders drooping in a defensive posture. So I took Santas’s advice, sat up straight, felt the ribs expanding, and then let it all out. The relief I felt from such a hearty breath is immediate, and kind of addictive. My posture opened up and I was able to relax and enter the meeting more composed and present. We might not have the same access to top-notch athletic facilities, dedicated training staffs, or cutting-edge data as the pros, but we are all breathing the same air. And it turns out what matters most may actually be how we breathe it.

Alex Tzelnic is a writer and teacher living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He frequently writes about the intersections of sports, education, and mindfulness. You can follow him on Twitter @atz840.