The secret to keeping cool during the NCAA basketball tournament – just take a breath
A new study reveals how inhaling before a task can help improve performance.
While you're sitting at home, following your NCAA basketball bracket, hundreds of young, ambitious athletes are seeing their names in lights for the first time, hoping to hold that coveted championship trophy in their hands before the proverbial madness of March subsides.
For those in the latter category, this is arguably the most career-defining moment of their lives. And naturally, such moments come with plenty of nerves.
Luckily, science has a remedy for that, in the form of a new study out of Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science. In it, scientists say they have solid evidence that the best way to ensure that a task is completed successfully – despite anxiety, distractions and mounting adversity – is simply by taking a breath first.
University of Michigan head coach John Beilein of the Michigan Wolverines clearly could have used a few breathing exercises last week for the Big Ten Basketball Tournament. (Photo: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
According to research conducted in the lab of Weizmann Professor Noam Sobel, people who inhaled when presented with a task were better at completing it than those who exhaled in the same situation. The results of the study, which were published in Nature Human Behavior, suggest that breathing might be more integral to brain function than previously thought.
"Our results show that it is not only the olfactory system that is sensitive to inhalation and exhalation – it is the entire brain," Sobel said. "We think that we could generalize and say that the brain works better with inhalation."
To test this, the team first hooked up a group of participants to a device that measured nasal inhalation and exhalation and then showed them a shape or word. The participants were instructed to answer whether the shape was physically possible or if the word was real or made up.
Then, the researchers switched up the format, giving subjects only the spatial problems to solve, but half of the problems were presented as the test-takers inhaled, while the other half were presented as they exhaled. Inhalation turned out to be significantly tied to successful completion of the test problems.
“One might think that the brain associates inhaling with oxygenation and thus prepares itself to better focus on test questions, but the time frame does not fit,” said Sobel. “It happens within 200 milliseconds – long before oxygen gets from the lungs to the brain."
Those who practice meditation know that breath is key to controlling emotions and thoughts. This new study, however, lends empirical evidence to the idea that breathing before doing a task not only helps the task along, it also helps you focus better and complete it faster.
Which – as many of you bracket bettors know – is a huge component in winning a game. Many high-profile coaches encourage their players to take a deep breath before going into a stressful game. It's a useful tool for anyone preparing for a challenging or nerve-wracking situation.
And with science on the case, we're bound to discover even more benefits of something as simple as taking a breath.
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