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JAK'S MONTHLY ESSAY SERIES: Achieving Your Personal Best

The Man Who Breathed for Two

By Jak Beardsworth

In the mid-1980s the Paine Webber Classic Super Series tour event (analogous to today's "Master's 1000" events) was alive and well – yes, there was once world class tennis in SWFL – at the then recently opened Sanibel Harbour Resort, aka the Jimmy Connors Tennis Center. Connors, who was the properties' touring pro, would meet Ivan Lendl, a back court wrecking machine and the world #1, in the finals at week's end much to the delight of Jimmy's new home crowd.

It was a heady time for the area to be hosting a big time ATP tournament, complete with a national television coverage (not so common back then), and a 32 player field so strong that a previously injured Pat Cash, the Wimbledon holder, had to come through qualifying.

Something else noteworthy took place during an early round match that not only escaped NBC's coverage, but also just about everyone else since 11:00 a.m. start times are never well attended then or now. Jay Lapidus, a former Princeton #1 when college tennis was a more viable segue to the pros, and a solid journeyman, would breathe for two.

Ground breaking sport's psychologist, Dr. Jim Loehr, had hung up his shingle at the resort and was spreading his mental toughness training gospel through his books, videos, and his on-site work with aspiring players, and off-site work with elite athletes and teams in other sports.

Today the term "mental toughness" – originally coined by Loehr - is an integral part of the sport lexicon and has become standard fare for even the most Neanderthal of coaches in any sport. Tom Brady, the New England Patriots' quarterback and recognized GOAT, or his coach Bill Belichik, cannot get through a single press conference without mentioning it as a key component to their success.

Optimum breathing represented one of Loehr's essential components in harnessing a player's full potential, both physiologically and psychologically, and was beginning to be embraced by serious tennis players at every level. So, what better place or time than at Connors' new home – after all, wasn't Jimmy the original poster boy for demonstrative breathing (Bud Collins, the leading tennis journalist at the time, referred to it as sounding like a "wounded seal") – for Lapidus to go where no man had ever gone before on a tennis court.

Upon entering the permanent 5,500 seat stadium (it's still there but, sadly, not being utilized and shuttered) as a member of the center's professional staff making my rounds for Lapidus' first round match I immediately saw, no, make that heard, that something very strange was taking place on court. Not only was he audibly exhaling on his own shots, but, incredulously, also breathing audibly on his opponent's shots as well! Huh?
I was always amazed when established tour players, great ball strikers all, would fly in to work with Dr. Jim – to either extricate themselves from some lingering, dreaded above the neck malaise often referred to as choking, or, for others, to leave no stone unturned in their quest for an edge – and turn out to be "breath holders," habitually holding their breath during the shot making moment creating undermining tension above and below the neck.

But what I was witnessing was not only the antithesis of that, it was at first glance-listen an aberration of some magnitude. Yet, after the novelty of observing this wore off, it occurred to me that it make sense that regulating one's breathing pattern 100% to the rhythm and dynamic of tennis' give and take, at both ends of the court, had merit, at least, minimally, as a training device.

This was breath control on the tennis court, inhaling and exhaling on cue, in its most precise form.

In today's typical application – breathing for oneself only - it is a proven tool for focusing attention, relaxing muscle tension, reducing the always understated and often unrecognized emotional stress (why do you think players become louder in the big moments or in an extended rally where so much has been invested), staving off O2 deprivation, synchronizing the ball striking chain, and, ultimately, going "unconscious," as we used to say back in the day when someone was in that mythical zone and "playing out of their mind," another often repeated reference in earlier times.

Lapidus was so committed to this controlled breathing pattern it was readily obvious that any unwelcome distraction would be hard pressed to penetrate his single-mindedness. He could then, one can surmise, get the very most out of his existing game.

Inhaling just prior to your shot; exhaling during your shot. Then inhaling again just prior to an opponent's shot, and exhaling during their shot. In and out, over and over, analogous to the way an Olympic swimmer coordinates their considerably more challenged breathing with their strokes, necessitated by being submerged in the water approximately half the time.

The former college All-American would enter into his little trance and huff and puff his way around the court with a completely unflappable presence. This guy was way down deep into the points. No, he was the point!
Today, although I occasionally make use of his example as a training device in my lessons, it, curiously, never caught on and became a mainstream teaching tool. Lapidus went on to coach at Duke University where he compiled a win-loss record of 372-126, the winningest coach in school history. I have no idea if he ever utilized "breathing for two" in his coaching, but I do believe that that there was no madness to his method, especially in light of its clear potential as a training technique.

In Dr. Loehr's program he/we would often ask beginning breathers, even highly skilled tour players, struggling with the timing, to say "yes" in place of a pure exhalation as a way to introduce breath control (I'm always amused when a well-intentioned student sincerely explains to me that saying "yes" is a good way to get started. Folks, hello, I was right there at the beginning 30 years ago!).

Breathing for two can create an immediate and very acute awareness of one's breathing patterns, or lack thereof, and provide instant, positive input in how breathing can either enhance performance, or adversely affect it if not practiced methodically.

Next time you're practicing, or playing in a doubles friendly, give Lapidus' approach a try. Note: It's not at all necessary to be breaking the decibel sound barrier as is now all too common in our game. Think Federer. Being relatively quiet can be physically more economical than screaming or bellowing at the top of your lungs, not to mention more favorably viewed by your peers.

If discovered, just call it The Lapidus Maneuver. It won't save your life as another far better known anti-choking "maneuver" can, but it will definitely add to your understanding of the importance of breathing, and its positive impact on both performance and the continued growth of your game.

Adapted from More Than Just The Strokes, "The Man Who Breathed for Two" (2005)

Copyright© 2018 by Jak Beardsworth Tennis. All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.

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Essay Archives

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