Achieving ‘Relaxed Alertness’

At some point in your athletic career, you have probably been told to ‘relax’. But, this is not necessarily as straightforward as it sounds, and two problems could arise. First, though you’ve probably been told to relax, you may not know specific strategies you can use to do so. Second, relaxation may seem to contradict what most deem an essential part of performance: getting physically and psychologically ‘pumped up’. Many athletes may find it difficult to get relaxed before or during intense competition. Some individuals may feel that relaxing actually hurts their performance. Others may struggle to achieve a good balance between relaxation and game-readiness. However, learning how to relax can be a beneficial part of your competitive mentality. Former Olympic swimmer and swimming coach at the University of Arizona, Rick DeMont, noted that “It’s the paradox of athletics…Tension is slow, tension is inefficient. You need to be relaxed.” But, to avoid becoming too relaxed to perform at a high level, try to get yourself to a state of ‘relaxed alertness’ – when your body is free of tension, yet prepared, and your mind is focused on the game.

To achieve a state of relaxed alertness before and during competition, many athletes use ‘centering breaths’. A ‘centering breath’ is different from the breathing you engage in during a normal day. Rather than inhaling shallow breaths that fill your chest (bringing tension into your shoulders), inhale and try to bring the breath down to your stomach, filling it slowly with air, holding for a second or two, and letting the air out, simultaneously releasing any tension in your muscles. Use this strategy on the way to the game, in the locker room before your warm-up, at half-time, or even on the field during a stoppage in play. It might help to place your hand on your stomach to feel the air fill your belly like a balloon.

Athletes may also use a form of visualization prior to, or during, competition to focus on the task at hand, rather than the tension or anxiety they might be experiencing. DeMont explains that recalling a time when you performed very well in a game or training can help you release pre-performance tension from your mind and body, while simultaneously remaining ‘pumped up’ and motivated to perform. Develop a vivid image in your mind of successful performance, attend to the mental and emotional elements of that positive experience, and try to duplicate them. You should first try these strategies in training sessions, before using them in games, to determine which ones work best for you. When you find one that is effective, it can then be transferred to a more competitive setting to help you consistently find your optimal level of game-readiness, while not hindering your enjoyment of competition. Using relaxation strategies to manage ineffective tension can be an invaluable strategy for achieving peak performance while enjoying the intrinsic benefits of competition.

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Elena Delle Donne Dodges Burning Out

This past year has been quite a transition for Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) rookie of the year Elena Delle Donne of the Chicago Sky. During her senior year at the University of Delaware, Elena led the women’s basketball team to their first ever appearance in the Sweet 16. Within the next four weeks, Elena was selected as the number two overall pick in the WNBA draft and began training with her new team, the Chicago Sky. In her first professional season, her team finished first in the Eastern Conference and advanced to the playoffs for first time in franchise history.

After making the jump into professional basketball right after her college season, Elena admitted that she struggled with fatigue. “I struggled the most just being a little bit tired especially by the end of the pro season. That was about a full year of basketball for me, so my body was pretty exhausted. Other than that though, mentally I was able to get through it. I had really great captains, kind of leading me through that, and warning me that the tiredness was going to come.” Although Elena described feeling exhausted at points during the season, it appears that she relied on the support of her teammates to get her through the season and avoid burnout.

Burnout is a term used to describe players feeling emotionally and physically drained due to excessive strenuous activity. If not recognized or addressed, burnout can lead to unhappiness, negative performance, and quitting the team or sport. You can prevent burnout by first recognizing the signs. Some signs include exhaustion (beyond normal tiredness or soreness that result from training), a lack of motivation, and feelings of loneliness. The majority of players experience moments when they lack motivation or feel fatigued, but if these signs develop into a pattern, it’s time to take action. One way to take action and avoid burnout is to schedule periods of relaxation throughout each week, allowing your body and mind to recover and reenergize. Also, reminding yourself the reasons why you are playing and why you want to improve can be an effective way to boost levels of motivation and drive and overcome periods of fatigue. In Elena’s case, her teammates played an important role in helping her overcome fatigue. Consider who your support system is. Whether it’s teammates, coaches, friends, or family, your support system can help you get through challenging situations or circumstances during the season. Like Elena, identifying the signs and developing strategies to cope can help you prevent burnout and reach your true potential on the field.

Being a Responsible Player

A responsible player focuses on what he/she can control. This includes being prepared for every practice or game, both mentally and physically. To be a responsible player, arrive on time and have all your equipment ready. Make sure that you are well rested, have had proper pre-training or pre-game nutrition, and are sufficiently hydrated. Additionally, you are responsible for getting yourself mentally prepared by staying focused on your routine.

As an individual you are accountable for your own actions. The emotions you experience occur automatically, and are therefore out of your control. However, you can control what you do with them. In order to play to your full ability you should focus only on what you can control, such as your effort and attitude. Maintaining a positive outlook, keeping a cool head, and trying your best can help you react in a constructive way. You may start experiencing negative feelings as you play, resulting from situations such as making mistakes or poor officiating. If you act out, stop trying, or lose focus because you are frustrated, your performance will likely be negatively affected. Responsible players train themselves to control those reactions and work hard and stay focused for the good of their own performance and that of the team’s. To become a more responsible player, be aware of yourself and how you typically react to certain situations. Find the source of the emotional response and use tools to help you stay composed and focused.

Tools that can help you act more responsibly, instead of letting emotions take control, can include relaxation and refocusing techniques. If you make a mistake, let it go and remember that everyone makes them. Take a deep breath, calm your head, and move on; you can always reflect upon your performance after the game or at stoppage time. To help you refocus, try a short cue to help you stay in the present moment. Cues can be something you can do or a short phrase that you can say instantaneously. You are responsible for finding what strategies work best for you and using them as you play.