One time while playing soccer in grade school, I got body checked so hard by another player that I flew through the air and fell flat on my back. For a few moments I gasped and struggled to pull air into my lungs.
My coach casually and frankly told me that I got the wind knocked out of me. ‘Duh,’ I thought, ‘but why are you so calm when I’m literally about to die. And what does that even mean?’
Nearly 20 years later, I finally looked it up. And the answer has to do with your diaphragm.
The mechanics involved in breathing are extremely complicated, but your diaphragm — that dome-shaped piece of muscle and tendon that your music teachers tell you to sing from — is key to the process. It lies just beneath your lungs and separates your abdominal cavity from your chest cavity.
When you take a breath in, your diaphragm tightens and is pulled down to allow your lungs to expand. When you exhale, your diaphragm relaxes and is pushed back up to expel the air from your lungs.
If you take a punch to your gut or back, your diaphragm essentially spasms and tightens up, rendering it useless. And when your diaphragm isn’t working properly, you won’t be able to breathe.
Getting the wind knocked out of you can be terrifying, but it’s not life-threatening. Other muscles in your abdominal cavity kick in to help your breathe while your diaphragm is temporarily paralysed. And you usually can resume your normal breathing program within a few minutes or so.
But there are some tricks to help get that muscle working again. Try sitting upright and breathing in slowly through your mouth while pushing your stomach out, and then sucking your stomach back in as your exhale to stretch out your diaphragm.
And in general, deep breathing with your diaphragm is good for you. It reduces stress and anxiety by increasing the volume of oxygen that your lungs can take in. So make sure to practice good breathing techniques — both on and off the soccer field.
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