The connection between mind and body is something that sports professionals have become more conscious of in recent years. A wealth of research suggests the close link between to two. As such, techniques developed for relaxation in sport have become an important part of athletic performance training for athletes of all levels.
What’s more, the benefits of relaxation extend way beyond wellbeing. The simple act of taking time to breathe, relax and focus, if even for a few moments, has been shown to have a positive impact on sports performance as well.
Using relaxation techniques in daily sport is therefore a particularly useful skill for athletes to develop. It’s part of the way one can self-regulate and manage a spectrum of unhelpful emotions. Unhelpful emotions we might commonly associate with competitive sport.
The Problem with Stress
Primarily managed by our endocrine system and nervous system, stress and anxiety can affect our adrenaline function, muscles, and behaviour. There is much more that might also be affected. It is our natural response to a stressful situation, and part of the ‘fight or flight’ theory.
With pressure and anxiety ever-present in sport; from dealing with injuries to managing the stresses of competitions, relaxation in sport is an important area of focus.
Learning to relax has numerous reported benefits. It help reduce stress levels. It can also help reduce unhelpful tension, improve body function and redirect energy in a positive way. But relaxation in sport differs to just ‘resting’ it is a very conscious act that involves time and dedication.
Working with a sports coach, there are many relaxation techniques that can be incorporated into a daily sport regime. Developing these skill will allow you to anticipate, identify and act upon stressful moments in a controlled way.
Here we look at a few of the most popular techniques that can be employed.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Guided relaxation differs from simply being relaxed. It involves focus and dedication, much like the practice of meditation.
One of the most popular relaxation methods for athletes to adopt is Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR). Scholar Dr Jacobson highlights that muscles tighten up when we feel anxious or stressed, resulting in headaches, body pains and even difficulty breathing, among other signs. This in turn creates further anxiety and so the vicious cycle perpetuates. Relaxation in sport is recognised as the best way to control those feelings.
If you haven’t already heard of PMR, this technique requires athletes to tense and relax muscles repeatedly. It takes place in a quiet place where they can’t be disturbed. There are many podcasts and audio resources available to help guide you through this. Look at using these if you need help focusing the mind.
Focusing on each of the main body groups, from fists to toes, athletes are invited to clench and relax while deep breathing at the same time. Each area takes 10 to 15 seconds, and the practice should be adopted for at least 10 minutes twice every day, for two weeks. Positive thinking is an important part of this process, since upon completion, athletes should take a few minutes to breathe whilst thinking about something pleasant.
Breathing Control Explained
Hand-in hand with PMR is controlled breathing.
Breathing plays a crucial role in our overall wellbeing. A recent study found that athletes who adopted breathing exercises as part of their training regime improved their times by up to 12 per cent. Paying attention to breathing allows us to focus on our diaphragm. This might also need to be relaxed, and is often in a state of contraction.
There are many types of breathing techniques that can be used. Deep breathing for instance invites the athlete to take a deep breath in, then completely exhale out. In doing so, it opens up our lungs and engages our diaphragm. Pay extra attention to how you feel and the calmness that it brings about, since positive thinking plays its role in this.
Rhythmic Breathing and Concentrated Breathing
Rhythmic breathing, on the other hand, is a simple technique that involves setting your own rhythm for breaths. This is often seen in yoga with cyclical breaths that start long, and are followed by medium and short breaths. Studies have found that it can help overcome levels of stress and anxiety and can enhance our overall wellbeing.
It is also known that athletes can struggle with increased ‘arousal’ when faced with stress and anxiety. This often happens during intense periods such as competitions, and can be detrimental to performance. Concentrated breathing, which include imagery techniques (later discussed), may help in decreasing these arousal levels.
The Art of Centering
Eastern influence has slowly started to filter into western sport over the years. The ancient art of ‘centering’ is the perfect embodiment of this.
Widely practiced in martial arts, this tool helps opponents stay calm and focused, even in the most stressful of situations.
As the name suggests, the technique is about focusing on the present: the here and now. Through practice in training, athletes can hone this art which involves redirecting energy into positive feelings to create sense of inner calm. It is clever way to channel negative emotions and energy, into a more positive outlet.
Relaxation in Sport with Imagery
Bringing together all the elements of guided breathing, centering and focusing on the present, the next level of relaxation in sport involves the use of imagery.
This popular stress management tool is widely used; from business to personal wellbeing and of course sport.
It starts by imagining a scene that makes you feel relaxed and peaceful, with underlining tones of happiness. This might be a ‘happy place’ a picture, or indeed a person.
Using all your senses, this involves taking time to notice everything in your vision. The sounds, the sights, the smells, the sensations. This is what makes is so overwhelmingly powerful and transports you to a happier place. It may be that it distracts you from the external pressures around you. Due to the concentration needed, it is often performed before an event, when athletes need to get in the right frame of mind, and exercise positive thinking.
That said, there are certain opportunities that lend themselves to this type of relaxation in sport. Think back to the last time you watched Sky Sports. Did you see a footballer come up to take a penalty, or a professional golfer mentally and physically rehearsing a swing? Alongside this, you might well have noticed them take deep breaths. Maybe even visualising the shot with their eyes closed beforehand. It is likely that they were refocusing their energy, taking deep breaths and exercising positive thinking, before completing this highly-pressured task.
The Importance of Cue Words
Taking guided breathing and relaxation with imagery one step further, is the use of cue words. This is often developed in early training sessions with a sports coach.
Trigger words such as ‘relax’ and ‘breathe’ are often used as cue words, teaching your body to associate the word with the feeling or act.
Using guided breathing, this is used by mentally repeating the words, such as “relax and breathe” – working from the inside out to create a sense of serenity and calm.
Athletes familiar with self-talk will be aware of how this works, and the sports psychology behind it.
Another form of this is called ‘cue controlled deep muscle relaxation’ (CCDMR). This involves being conscious of the subtle cues of muscle tension in specific areas of your body, and to consciously release that tension. Much like PMR, it involves focusing on every part of your body.
As athletes, your body is your tool. The more you pay attention to it, the more you will become in tune with it.
It is vitally important for athletes to find a way to incorporate relaxation techniques into their daily sport practice. It has an impact on their wellbeing, their performance and their overall longevity in the sport.
Stress and anxiety can have debilitating effects on athletes, both mentally and physically. As we have seen, the link between mind and body should not be underestimated. In paying extra attention to the way we internalise and manage our emotions, we can slowly start to understand the benefits of relaxation in sport.
Being tuned in to our body is an important first step. Using guided breathing techniques and PMR, we can start to give our body the attention it deserves.
Using guided breathing with imagery is a strong tool, and can help reframe our way of thinking.
To conclude, relaxation in sport is as important as performance. Therefore, relaxation techniques should be incorporated into daily sport and training sessions. In doing so, you are setting yourself up for success!