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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