Relaxation is a skill that must be learned both physically and mentally. Coaches and athletes must make relaxation practice and important aspect of their yearly training plan. This will help aid recovery and prevent overtraining that can occur from long term training. As muscular tension and fatigue build as a result of constant overload from training, relaxation practices become increasingly important. If this muscular tension and fatigue are not monitored properly they could have an adverse effect on performance and could possibly result in injury or burnout.
The first relaxation exercise is extremely simple and one that everyone can practice no matter where they are. It consists of breathing in a slow, controlled manner. The athlete will close his/her eyes and take several very slow deep breaths. It is recommended that during the inhale the athlete pictures taking in refreshing, relaxing and rejuvenating fresh air. During the exhale the athlete should picture the release of stress, tension, fears and doubts. This practice should be a part of the daily training program. It has been proven to enhance recovery times, decrease muscular tension and help control arousal levels. Another positive of this relaxation method is that is can be performed during competitions. For example, this would be excellent for lowering arousal levels prior to game winning free throw attempt during a basketball game. However, athletes performing high intense sports such as jumping or throwing events in track and field should time the use of deep breathing carefully. A drop in arousal levels immediately prior to a jump or throw will have detrimental effects on their performance.
Another type of relaxation training is called progressive relaxation. This is an excellent way to create unity between the body and mind and create mental calmness. This mental calmness is essential for achieving the vivid mental images needed for successful visualization. Progressive relaxation involves the systemic relaxation of every muscle in the body. The athlete will start in a calm and quite state with his/her eyes closed. Then, starting from the head and finishing at the feet the athlete will relax each muscle group individually. Focus areas include the neck muscles, between the shoulder blades, lower back and legs. Once the athlete has reached a relaxed state he/she will find visualization much easier to achieve. This type if practice is excellent for the night before a competition or game. It can give an athlete the final preparation he/she may need without expending any energy. It is not recommended for athletes to use progressive relaxation directly after a hard training session. Here the athlete is fatigued and generally not in a state where long concentration could be maintained. It is best that the athlete rest and recover for a few hours after training before practicing this method. Prior to them going to sleep is a perfect time for this.
Visualization is another common relaxation method. The physical body does not realize the difference between mental images and real stimuli. Muscles contract the same way during visualization as they do during the real life situation which is being visualized. It is therefore realistic to think that by visualizing calmness, one could become calm. This tool can be very successfully used during sports requiring fine motor skills and therefore low arousal levels. For example, during a golf playoff final hole a player may find his arousal level to be very high prior to his final putt. Here the player can close his eyes and visualize calmness or the shot he is about to attempt. If the athlete has practiced this many times before he will find that arousal levels will respond accordingly giving him a better chance of a successful shot.
The final relaxation method we will discuss is meditation. Here the athlete will attempt to position himself in a quiet and still position for at least 15 minutes per day. During this time it is common to have him focus on a single point of reference. This could something as simple as a physical object or a cue word which has large relevance to his training or sport. This method will induce relaxation and also help the athlete work on his focusing abilities. Meditation is best performed at the beginning or end of the day. It is not recommended that this practice is performed directly before a training session or competition which requires high intensity work.
The methods discussed above are all closely linked with one another. They are however also quite different. Some take a while to perform correctly and others can be done on the go for a few seconds at a time. They also can be used simultaneously. For example, it is common for athletes to begin in visualization session with deep breathing combined with progressive relaxation techniques. They can all be valuable tools for athletes of all levels to develop familiarity with. For optimum results athletes should practice one or more of these techniques daily.
Written by Nick Newman, MS, NSCA-CSCS
Athlete Performance Coach, Champion’s QUEST Athlete Academy