Before saying a word, take a deep breath and smile.
I received this treasured advice for speaking, teaching, and preaching either from a communications professor in college or from John Ortberg—maybe both.
Before shooting a free throw, hitting a serve, or taking a snap, breathe deep.
These words are valuable coaching for athletes in any sport.
Although I'm neither a polished speaker nor an accomplished athlete, I do have significant experience breathing. An entire life full of it, actually. Yet respiration has rarely captured my sustained attention or imagination.
It began when I saw Kirk Cousins, an NFL quarterback, on the local news as he shared the benefits of a new training regimen focused on his brain and his breathing. His goal: to gain a competitive edge by regulating stress and improving mental awareness on and off the field. I'd like that, too, I thought.
Soon after, the leader for a three-day retreat I was on guided attendees to begin turning full attention toward God by telling us to "pay attention to your breathing. Allow yourself to inhale and exhale slowly and deeply to help you relax and focus." Upon hearing those words, I first thought about how similar that sounds to Kirk Cousins' training. It took several deep breaths until my attention went elsewhere. But it eventually did.
Some will roll their eyes at something that sounds like new age drivel. But what if there is more to breathing than what first comes to mind? Specifically, many people know about "breath prayers." Let's venture further in that direction—and add a twist.
Recall the first and most important, very intimate interaction between God and man. "Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being." (Genesis 2:7)
This is how the Bible describes the start of human life. Considering the common knowledge that every cell in our bodies needs oxygen to survive, it's clear to see that the "breath of life" phenomenon continues to make life possible.
How does all this relate to the calming effect a deep breath has on a speaker, or the focus, stress relief, and competitive edge it delivers to an athlete? In 1975, Harvard Medical center cardiologist and researcher Dr. Herbert Benson coined the term "the relaxation response" to describe how short periods of meditation, using breathing as a focus, could alter the body's stress response. Nearly four decades later, the data continues to accumulate.
To consciously breathe well—to deliberately inhale/exhale in a slower and deeper manner—can serve as a spiritual act. Specifically, it can serve as a reminder of reliance on God and also as a thank you to God for his presence—an expression, however brief, of gratitude for life. More than a "breath prayer," this is a breath as the actual prayer. No words required.
What if doing this becomes a moment of personal and vulnerable worship?
Maybe our bodies know this already. That could be a big reason that deep breaths have a calming and strengthening effect. So whether you're in a match, on the field, taking a test, encountering a stressful person, finishing a long day, or about to start a sermon, the act of breathing deeply can be your quick prayer to God and a point of reconnection between you and the One who is in control of all.
That's reason enough to smile.
David Staal, senior editor for Building Church Leaders and a mentor to a first grader, serves as the president of Kids Hope USA, a national non-profit organization that partners local churches with elementary schools to provide mentors for at-risk students. David is the author of Lessons Kids Need to Learn (Zondervan, 2012) and Words Kids Need to Hear (Zondervan, 2008). He lives in Grand Haven, MI, with his wife Becky, son Scott, and daughter Erin.