Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Tactical Breathing to Enhance Tactical Performance

Bruce Siddle, an international authority on use of force and training and the effects of survival stress on combat performance, argues that breath control should be a mandatory component of survival stress management. He suggests that the relationship between breath control and the ability to concentrate or focus has been recognised for centuries, and that ancient philosophies and martial arts texts abound with references drawing parallels between combat performance, breath control, and the ability to focus and concentrate when exposed to survival stress.

Lt. Col. Dave Grossman (ret.) refers to this voluntary breath control as 'tactical breathing.' He explains that it can be used in a stressful situation to slow your thumping heart beat, reduce the trembling in your hands, and to bathe you with a powerful sense of calm and control. Grossman provides a convoluted explanation of why this simple breathing method quickly restores your calm and control. It is more easily understood with reference to the 'survival process.'

The survival process is a concept I have developed. It is based on the integration of the theories and concepts of the stress and emotion disciplines. The survival process refers to our evolved defensive mechanism. If a stimulus is appraised as a threat, that appraisal elicits a subjective feeling response that motivates an urge to act, or action tendency, that the body is prepared to enact by a physiological response. The urge to act may or may not result in a behavioural respone that is designed to deal with the threat-appraised stimulus that set of the chain of events in the first place. The very interesting thing about this survival process is that all of the components are intimitely interconnected. Change one and you can change them all.

A stimulus is appraised as a threat eliciting the feeling of fear and an associated physiological response. Part of that physiological response increases the heart and breathing rate in order to increase the supply of oxygen to the muscles that are used to flee which is the action tendency motivated by fear. By 'intervening' in the natural survival process through controlling our breathing, we are intervening in the fear physiological response. This can change the appraisal, feeling, and other physiological responses as well as the nature of the urge to act.

I instruct my students that when they are doing a free fighting grading or exercise, when they feel like things are overwhelming them or going too fast, back off, take a couple of deep breaths, and everything will calm down and slow down. It works. I've employed this technique myself. Now I understand why it works.

The interconnectedness of all of the survival process components can explain certain methods that are taught within 'survival activities' (those being those activities associated with preparing a person to survive a violent encounter). 'Facial feedback hypothesis' refers to the notion that amplification or inhibition of facial expression of emotions can modify the intensity and possibly change nature of subjective feeling. For instance, smile when you are sad can reduce the feeling of sadness or change it to happiness. I've written a post about the putting on of a war face in the past. Putting on your war face could be, in addition to communicating a threat message to your enemy, an attempt at turning fear into anger and thereby changing the associated action tendency from flight to fight when in combat. 'Putting on a brave face' may lead to becoming brave (although brave is not an emotion but rather a moral judgement we impute to certain actions, as is heroism, courage, and cowardice).

When I was training pencak silat with Richard De Bordes school in London (under an extremely capable instructor I only knew as 'Randy'), we were instructed to smile when hit. A feature of emotions is their communicative function. An expression of pain tells the opponent you are hurt. A smile tells your opponent that his efforts were not effective, possibly leading to some self doubt in the opponent. It could also be argued that by not expressing the pain, it could be intervening in the pain experience. Pain is not 'felt' but experienced and relies on the various centres of the brain involved in emotion that shape the pain experience. Don't show it, don't feel it.

Knowledge is power. The mere academic understanding of this survival process has practical benefits for surviving a violent encounter. Research suggests that preparatory information about a potential threatening event can lessen negative reactions to that event. Driskell et al (2008) suggest that preparatory information reduces negative reactions to stressful events by enhancing familiarity, predictability, and controllability. Understanding the survival process, and the benefits of tactical breathing and why it works, increases confidence. And developing confidence is what Siddle suggests is the primary goal of survival instructors.


  1. Randy would Randolph Carthy I think

  2. Hi John,

    I liked your article. I just wanted to add that tactical breathing, does, without a doubt, have a major impact on your effectiveness and, depending on the situation, your ability to survive it. It can bring you back from panic and return you limbs to use, even regaining some fine motor skills under extreme stress. The simplest way I've found is to breath in to a count of four, pause for a count of one, and breath out for another count of four. This forces you to slow down and regain a degree of composure. It's also a great way just to get your breathing back under control after intense bursts of exercise.

  3. Thanks anon, I'll check out to see if Randolph Carthy is in fact the 'Randy' instructor that left a lasting impression on me.

    Jman, thanks for the comment. Hopefully now you have an explanation of why tactical breathing works based on my work with the survival process.


Your comments make my work all the more relevant as I use them to direct my research and theorising. Thank you.