Most sports are about the proper execution of bodily movement. The irony here is that for athletes to optimally execute a particular sporting movement, they have to be relaxed during the actual movement (or in some sports like weightlifting, a split-second right before the action). I say it’s ironic because when you talk about sport, it’s always the intensity, energy or effort that grabs the headlines. It’s always “a smashing forehand,” “a thunderous right hook,” or a “back-breaking three” that you’ll read about. Can’t blame the sportswriters for that, but I hope sometimes, we also notice and appreciate the relaxation that took place when Sharapova smashed that forehand, Pacquiao thundered that hook, and Nowitzki launched that three-pointer.
With all the athletes I’ve worked with, I have yet to encounter an athlete who thinks that relaxation (in terms of his or her athletic performance) is unimportant.
A junior golfer said that he hits the ball longer when his swing is relaxed. A boxer said that he punches harder and faster when his hips and shoulders are relaxed. A basketball player told me that his shots swish the net regularly when his release is relaxed.
In mixed martial arts, the fighters who escape a guillotine or rear-naked choke are those who are able to relax their neck and shoulder muscles and slip out without having to tap out. Even lifeguards would say that those who drown are those who tense up and flail themselves to the bottom of the ocean.
If relaxation is so important to sport, then why can’t all athletes do it regularly?
Kay Porter, in her book, The Mental Athlete (2003), says that, “the hardest task in athletics… is to know who or what helps them feel good about themselves and their world, that is, who or what promotes a state of relaxation and well-being.”
While athletes are taught all the skills and drilled no end in making their bodies stronger, no one really teaches them how to relax. Coaches would usually tell their athletes, “Relax! Relax!” or “Easy lang, relax lang,” but rarely will you find a training session in which five or ten minutes are set aside just for relaxation exercises.
The hard part about teaching relaxation techniques is that we’ve always taken it for granted. One of the best and practical ways to relax is through an exercise called, “diaphragmatic breathing” (breathing from your gut instead of from your chest). You’d be surprised to find out how many athletes have a hard time doing this. I can’t blame them because we don’t usually take note of the number of breaths we take in a day.
Consider this scenario that Mark Anderson describes in his book, Doing Sport Psychology (2000): “A hiker encountering a 1500-pound grizzly might live if she is calm enough to recall her plan to slowly retreat and act unaggressively, and a quarterback reacting to a linebacker blitz may successfully find the outlet receiver if he remains relatively calm and poised.”
So what’s the key? What should athletes do to make relaxation a training and competition staple?
I know Allen Iverson won’t like this answer, but it’s all about practice, practice, and more practice. “Although the relaxation response is innate, eliciting it… needs to be learned and practiced” (2000).
Any mental skills training plan that seeks to teach relaxation effectively should provide athletes with various relaxation techniques that they can rehearse and utilize during training sessions and actual competitions. As Shane Murphy stated in The Sport Psych Handbook (2005), “…relaxation is a skill that improves with training; but as with physical training, once the athlete no longer practices relaxation training, his or her ability level decreases rapidly” (Murphy, 2005).
It may seem like a stretch to allocate actual training time for something as “simple” as relaxation, but it’s also hard to go against research saying that “…there is good evidence that learning to relax can enhance performance or is part of an effective performance enhancement routine” (2000).
Of course, it is always easier said than done. I’ve been using different ways to help my athletes relax (from letting them listen to my own relaxation .mp3 file to going through breathing drills with them), but it is an uphill climb simply because they aren’t used to doing it. However, it is very encouraging when more and more of them are starting to see how it is helping them not just in their athletic performances, but also in their daily lives.
Hopefully, more coaches start integrating a relaxation portion in their training sessions, and more athletes see the performance and personal benefits of relaxation in the practice of their sport sooner rather than later.
In the meantime… inhale… exhale…
Andersen, M. (2000). Doing Sport Psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics
Murphy, S. (2005). The Sport Psych Handbook. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publishers, Inc.
Porter, K. (2003). The Mental Athlete. Champaign, Il: Human Kinetics Publishers, Inc.