Sports Psychology
Relaxation Exercises for Athletes

    Anyone who has ever had "butterflies" knows how drastically our anxiety level can effect our performance.  Even great athletes experience such feelings, but they learn how to suppress those feelings so they can perform at their highest level.  For many of us, the "butterflies" quickly fade away once competition begins.  Unfortunately, that is not always the end of them.
    Butterflies are famous for their metamorphosis, and our internal "butterflies" can change also.  Sometimes they seem to flitter away, only to reappear when the game reaches a critical moment.  Maybe they lurk in the distance until we are personally "on the spot", then come out to distract us from our task.  They might metamorphosize into giant monsters like Mothra, and frighten us so badly that we actually "choke".
    The athlete who gains control over their feelings of anxiety and unease is much more likely to succeed at tasks they've designated as important than the athlete who simply hopes those feelings will go away.  If there's anything you've learned in this course, I would imagine that it would be that hoping does not make things happen.  Having a plan with a strategy to improve our situation is the only way to feel confident that we will overcome any negatives we have to deal with.

    When developing a relaxation routine, it is important to keep the situation and the sport in mind.  Certain types of relaxation obviously work better for golfers than for football players, at least in game situations.  Golfers are faced with quiet, very internally intense situations, while football players have much more noisy, external events to focus on.  For a golfer, a smooth, relaxed technique when swinging is essential to accuracy, but a football player who makes a smooth, relaxed run through the line may get killed if he's too relaxed.  As a result, both athletes might have the same relaxation routine when they are at home in a comfortable chair, but their routines for use in competition will be drastically different.
    This is another strategy in which you may find anchoring to be beneficial.  Because all athletic competitions have a flow and pace all their own, you may need a physical cue to help you quickly access a feeling of relaxation.  In football you might use it just before the huddle begins, in golf you'd have a bit more time while lining up a shot, in soccer it would literally have to come in one of those moments when the flow of the game had gone completely away from you.

    In preparing our relaxation routines, we're going to want a very quiet place with no distractions, where we feel very safe and comfortable.  It is essential to the process that we develop a good technique (just as with any of our other physical or mental skills) so the process will come naturally when we need it.  As with any other strategy, if you do not practice it, do not expect it to work!  As I told you at the beginning, there is no magic in sports psychology.  Just as you must give good effort and serious purpose to your physical practice each day, you must also give good effort and serious purpose to your mental practice.  The benefits of doing so may seem like magic, but the ability was within you all along.  The key here is that not everyone is capable of great physical performance, but nearly everyone is capable of great mental performance.

    Since situations vary, I'm going to give you two scenarios to work with on your relaxation exercises.  This will give you a strategy for both instant anxiety reduction, and also for full relaxation.  The first can easily be used in practice or game situations, while the second is better for post-game work, or other times removed from actual competition.

[1]  Quick-focus Strategy
       There you are, in the middle of an intense competition, and you can feel the tension building in your body, restricting your movement and making it difficult to breathe or concentrate.  You need to get back on task immediately, and perform successfully.  Here is what you do:

    Close your eyes.
    Take one deep breath in, like the Complete Breath you learned on the Breathing page.  As you inhale, tense all your muscles somewhat.
    Picture your special place in your mind.  (The one you developed on the Visualizations page.)
    As you exhale, say the word "Relax" loudly within your mind.  During that exhalation, feel - in a very physical and dramatic way - all the tension in your body draining away and running out like water on the ground.  See and feel this occurrence fully.
    Open your eyes and immediately focus on what you intend to do next.  (Hit the ball, tackle the runner, shoot the shot, etc.)
    Return to your normal breathing pattern.

The entire process takes the length of only one breath, so time is not a factor at all.  The first few times you do this, you may not notice a great improvement in your anxiety level, but as you "practice" this technique it will become more and more effective.  So, of course, you are going to use it in with your physical practice whenever it might be relevant, right?  Basketball coaches love to end practices with a player shooting foul shots to cut the amount of running.  There stands the team, imploring you to make a shot so they can go home.  It's the perfect opportunity to practice the Quick-focus Strategy.  Now, when you get to State, the "pressure" foul shot will feel just like practice at home.  (well, reasonably so.)
    If you want to practice the Quick-focus Strategy at home, simply begin the process by visualizing a game or practice situation in which you feel uncomfortable, tense, and anxious.  Get yourself a bit "worked up", then use this strategy to relax you quickly.  Since you're actually in no real danger, practicing this way helps establish to your body how it is supposed to react, even though there are no consequences for failure.  (This is just like the kid shooting hoops in his back yard, who says before each shot, "He's got the ball, time is running out, the world championship is on the line, he shoots, the buzzer goes off...")

[2]  Extended-focus Strategy
    When we find ourselves with a bit more time to practice, the Extended-focus Strategy gives us a technique that works to help us fully relax.  This is an excellent technique to use just before going to sleep, because it will leave you feeling completely relaxed and at peace with yourself.  It is also good to use in the middle of a game day, to prevent too much tension from building up inside you in anticipation.  A good session of this type could take as little as 15 minutes, or could stretch on for around 45.  Your goals for each session should determine how much time you'll need.  (If your goal is to go to sleep at the end, you'll need several hours!)
    For this technique, you will need to be in a quiet place with no distractions, and seated or lying in a comfortable position.  Early on, you may also feel the need for a tape to go along with this, to remind you what to do and in what order.  This process is sometimes called Progressive Relaxation, because it moves logically (progresses) from one step to another that is more relaxed.  I know that at some point you're going to say, "Wow, this looks like a lot to do!"  Realistically, it is just different than what you usually do.  It will take you less than the equivalent of two physical practice sessions to get onto the idea, so PERSEVERE!  (See me if you need help with the process.)

    (A) You are in a quiet, safe place, and your body is positioned comfortably, and you are breathing normally.
    (B)  Close your eyes.
    (C)  Take a Complete Breath, and as you exhale, feel all your tension, worries, and cares draining out of your body with the air.
    (D)  Take a second, deeper Complete Breath, fillin your lungs with good oxygen, and again draining your cares away as you exhale.
    (E)  Take a third and even deeper breath, holding it just slightly, and again letting every concern drain out of your body with it.
    (F)  Return to normal Abdominal Breath and remain relaxed and comfortable.
    (G)  Now begins a sequence of tightening and relaxing each muscle group.  For each group, you will tense the muscles as much as you can in your comfortable position.  By tensing them, you will force all tightness in your muscles to the surface, where it can then be released from your body as you relax each muscle group.  The process is: tense the muscles, push the tightness to the surface, relax the muscles, let the tension float away from you.  The groups, in order are:
       (1) the toes, feet, ankles, calves, thighs, and buttocks;
       (2) the fingers, hands, wrists, forearms, and upper arms;
       (3) the abdomen, lower back, chest, and upper back;
       (4) the shoulders, neck, and facial muscles.
    (H)  Repeat steps C, D, E, and then F, draining away any residual tension or discomfort you might feel.
    (I)  Breathe normally for a little while, letting your body feel relaxed and be at peace with yourself and the world.
    (J)  In your mind, go to your "special place".  Here, you are totally in control, at peace, comfortable and safe.  Here you can focus totally on exactly what you wish to do, and it will occur just the way you imagine it will.  It is the perfect opportunity to try new things, experience new sensations, and risk anything, because you will succeed here.

    At this point, you have to make a choice about where you want this routine to go, and the way you proceed is governed by that choice.
~    If you wish to work on developing specific physical skills, then (K) is to visualize yourself performing successfully, seeing all the details and nuances of your performance, and changing whatever needs to be changed in order to improve your current functioning.  You can see this in slow-motion, or even stop the action and change what your next move will be.  You may be using images you created back on the visualization page.
~    If you wish to work at improving personal relationships that are inhibiting your success in some way, then (K) is to visualize a conversation with that person in which you tell them honestly exactly how you are feeling and what is going on in your mind.  You can imagine them responding as they normally would, so you can practice saying to them what you really need to say while remaining positive and under emotional control.  You can ask them about their "side of the story" and work to refute their misconceptions rationally and intelligently.
~    If you wanted to prepare for a difficult upcoming test, then (K) might be to have a piece of paper in your special place, and write on it only the very most significant things that you know you will need to master for this test.  Visualize the paper clearly and write neatly on it the absolute essential information (especially things you believe to be giving you "trouble" - lists, formulae, etc.).  Now you can be confident and peaceful, because you know that during the test you will be able to access this piece of paper, and remind yourself of the items that were important.  It's like having a "cheat sheet" in your mind - and there's nothing illegal about that.

    If you plan to follow all this by going to sleep, the process is as follows:
    (L)  Working from your toes toward your forehead, imagine that every part of your body is getting heavier and heavier.  You feel as though you are lying on a cloud, and you are sinking down into it.  You have no desire to move any part of your body, and you are perfectly relaxed, peaceful, and at ease.  Let every part of your body become heavier and heavier, keep your breathing relaxed and rhythmic, and feel totally relaxed and at peace.  Focus all your attention on the bridge of your nose, breathe gently and easily, and let your body sink into the cloud, and you will be asleep before you finish reading this.

For those of you who feel that you require some "outside help" in moving through this process, I have created an mp3 that talks you through the steps.  Click HERE.

    If you plan to follow steps A-K by returning to a normal day, you must proceed somewhat differently:
    (L)  Having completed your visualization, you now want to re-energize your body so you can go on with your day.  Begin with another Complete Breath, drawing in energy as you inhale.  (If you have become adept at all the breathing patterns, you may rather use Victorious Breath here.)
    (M)  When you exhale, allow any tiredness or fatigue to "blow" out of your body along with the air.
    (N)  Do at least 2 more breaths using the above imagery.  Breathe in energy and vitality, breathe out waste particles and fatigue.  Feel more energized, alert, and "ready to go" with each succeeding breath.
    (O)  When you feel fully ready to go, open your eyes, stand up, and stretch your body out fully (just like cats do when they get up from one of their many naps).
    (P)  Reward yourself for a good session (candy bar, pat on the back, personal pep-talk, etc.) - make it brief.
    (Q)  Proceed to a task that needs to get done, and do it now, while you have all this new-found energy.  (Doing so will actually make you feel more energized!)

    Kay Porter, in her book The Mental Athlete calls relaxation "a transferable behavioral skill applicable to a wide variety of situations".  What she's saying, in technical jargon, is that just like many of the other techniques you are learning in this course, relaxation has applications that can make your everyday life better every day for the rest of your life.  If you look back on what we have done with positive thinking, visualization, mental confidence, the elimination of obstacles, self-affirmation, perseverance, problem analysis, record keeping, and relaxation, you should be able to clearly see that you can take control of your approach to life, and be successful in anything you do.  That's real power!

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