Coaches Clipboard Presents: Mindful Breathing

coaches clipboard breathing

Welcome to this week’s installment of the Coaches Clipboard!

Swimming World will be bringing you a drill, concept, or tip that you can implement with your team on a regular basis. Each article is designed to be easily understood, outlining the what, why, when, and where of each concept in addition to pictures and videos. While certain weeks may be more appropriate for specific levels of swimming (club, high school, college, or masters), Coaches Corner excerpts are meant to be flexible for your needs and inclusive for all levels of swimming. Check out last week’s article here.

This week features an out of the water exercise that can dramatically impact your athlete’s ability to stay calm and focused prior to a competition: mindful breathing. This exercise will teach your swimmers how to control their breathe and, by extension, better control their minds. See the info below to learn how to implement this drill with your team!

The What:

You can think of mindful breathing as a form of meditation practice. Don’t let the word meditation throw you off; this isn’t a skill meant to turn your entire team into zen monks! Rather, this is a focused drill to teach swimmers to control their minds through their breathing.  

Have your swimmers get in a comfortable position (standing or lying down is fine, eyes closed or open). In the span of just 5 minutes, your swimmers goal is to focus only on their breathe, silently repeating the phrase “one” to themselves every time they exhale.

The trick is maintaining the focus on that breath. If they catch their focus moving to a different thought, they need to bring their attention back to repeating a new number for that breathe, this time repeating “two” every time they exhale. Each time their focus drifts, they add one to the number in their head. The goal is to keep the lowest number possible within the five minutes.  If they catch themselves thinking of something different, they want to be able to bring their attention back to their breath.

Push Further:

You can integrate this mindful breathing practice with one of the previous drills from our Coaches Clipboard Series, Croc Drill. By taking this exercise into the water, it challenges your athletes to practice staying mindful in an aqueous environment.

The Why:

This is an exercise designed to teach your swimmers keep their focus of attention in the present moment by creating a greater awareness to their breathe. Athletes whose thinking is scattered or unfocused will clearly struggle with this activity. That is okay! As with any skill or technique, practice makes perfect. A unique feature of this practice is that it provides your athletes an honest self-reflection of their ability to focus. Similar to the time in a race, the number of times their mind drifts is an objective measurement and can help challenge them to improve their mental skills.

Think of this as a tool for your swimmers to stay engaged when it matters the most. Athletes at all levels battle fear, anxiety, and negative thoughts. By teaching your swimmers how to focus inward through their breath you will teach them how to stay in the present moment and push past these negative thoughts. While it is totally normal to experience performance anxiety, this practice can help your swimmers move past it and prevent it from obstructing their performance!

There are many proven benefits to deep breathing exercises, which can be useful in managing stress during training, race preparation prior to a big meet, or as part of a pre-race routine to get your athletes in the zone. This exercise will help your athletes more consistently be able to bring their focus of attention inward when they want to.


It’s common to see some athletes who struggle to understand this exercise or refuse to take it seriously. As with any drill or set, those who resist the most are likely those who could most benefit! Be patient and understand that their buy in is key. Praise those athletes who take it seriously and continually reflect on improvements week to week to show its value.

The When:

This is an exercise that can be integrated throughout the season. Ideally, like any skill, this should be something introduced in a team setting early in the season that is re-visited once or twice a week. Encourage your athletes to continue on their own individually as the season progresses.

Additionally, it is important to schedule this exercise during a time when you can take a few minutes to reflect the goal of the activity. As you continue to practice, athletes should be able to focus more and more on their breathing.

The Where:

This exercise is useful because it can be done in a variety of circumstances and with a small or large group. It would be best to start this in a quiet place that is free from distraction, such as the pool deck before a Saturday or Sunday practice.

In Conclusion:

This is a mindfulness exercise that can develop mindfulness in your athletes. The ability to maintain composure and focus inwardly is integral to success in a high intensity sport such as swimming. Did this drill work for your swimmers? Comment below to share how your athletes reacted to this quiet drill and don’t forget to check back for regular postings of Coaches Clipboard!