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by Karlene Sugarman, M.A.

Updated 08/25/11

"Relax!" "Relax!" Thatís what coaches says to do, right? But how is this possible with the bases loaded, the game on the line and you at bat; or, the game tied in overtime with you going out to kick a field goal? One way to help during these stressful times is to use breathing techniques.

Being in a relaxed state is important to achieving optimal performance in any endeavor, not just sports. Itís important when youíre taking a test, giving a presentation, having a job interview, dealing with your children, etc. You name it, being relaxed will increase your productivity in it. It is a vital stepping stone to peak performance. If youíre not relaxed, everything you do will be a struggle. Relaxation provides a mind-body integration necessary for peak performance.

You can use relaxation skills at all stages of practice beginning, during and end. At the beginning as a way to get your mind clear and your body relaxed so you can get the most out of the practice session. During practice, you can use breathing skills to regain focus and slow your body down. And, at the end of practice as part of cooling down to help you return to a balanced physical state. Relaxation and breathing skills help improve your circulation (blood flow), which can help reduce the risk of injury and allows your body to get back to its normal state in a speedier fashion.

I am going to go over two basic relaxation techniques circle breathing and a progressive relaxation session. These skills are necessary to perform at an optimal level in athletics, and they are the same sort of skills that are taught in stress management classes for businesses, and can be used in any facet of your life. Itís important to note that the days of pep talks to psych up your team are over. Rigid, tight-jawed determination is not the key, a sense of relaxation and letting go is. During the track events at the Summer Olympics the commentators made note of how some of the runners looked so tense (their shoulders were being held higher and their facial muscles were tight). And, needless to say, these were not the athletes that went on to win. The athlete/team that is mentally and physically relaxed and has "quiet intensity" is the one that is going to come out on top.

Circle breathing is a great on-the-spot tool for athletes. Right before you throw a pitch, shoot a free throw, swing the bat, field a ball, kick a field goal all these tasks require great concentration and focus. The breathing will help you be better prepared and allow you to keep your poise in tough situations. You are better able to read your environment if you are calm and relaxed. Mental poise and emotional control are key to you performing well and being successful.

The center of your body is right behind your belly button, and this is where you want to start your breath from. Starting from there (the center of your body), draw air in slowly through your nose, all the way up to your chest for a count of 4, hold it for a count of 2, then slowly exhale through your mouth for a count of 4. Let go of all tension and old energy, and completely clear your mind. Focus only on your breathing. That is one deep breath. Approximately 5-10 of these in a row will help get you into a more relaxed state. Now, stop here and try to do a few deep breaths on your own before moving on. Go at your bodyís pace, it will tell you when to take another breath.

In the 1930s, Edmund Jacobson demonstrated that you canít be on opposite ends of the physiological and emotional spectrum (Tutko & Tosi). That is, an anxious mind cannot exist in a relaxed body; or, a quiet mind can not exist in a tense body. He introduced Progressive Muscle Relaxation. This entails tensing each muscle, holding it and then relaxing each muscle on the exhale. Itís a loosening up and letting go mentality. The letting go lets you know what absence of tension feels like. This type of relaxation skill gives you a heightened awareness of when and how you experience tension, this can then serve as a cue that you should do something to relieve the tension. You need to be able to communicate with your body and understand what it is trying to tell you.

Guidelines for relaxation sessions

1. It is best to do your relaxation session at the same time every day (i.e., before practice/game and before you go to bed). Providing this consistency is very important because regular practice is essential if you want to reap the full benefits.

2. Itís best if you have someone talk you through a scripted relaxation session the first few times until you become more familiar with it. Then you can do it yourself, or make a tape and play it whenever you want to do a relaxation session.

3. Find a quiet, comfortable place to relax, make sure you donít have any constricting clothing on and donít do it after you have just eaten a meal.

4. You can lay down, as long as you donít feel you will fall asleep. If that is the case, then sit up until you have disciplined yourself enough to lay down and remain awake. Sorry, sleeping does not equal practicing relaxation skills!

5. Completely clear your mind of anything else. Now is the time to focus only on your breathing. At this point in time there is nothing more important than this relaxation session.

Start off with 5-10 deep breaths. Then, when you have taken all the proper measures to prepare yourself for a productive session, start with your feet and tense them as tight as possible and hold for a count of 4, then let go and have all the tension leave your feet, imagining all the tension and stress slowly leaving both your feet (this is on the exhale). Then, move on to your calves, again tensing them for a count of 4, then releasing all the tension from them. And, do the same for your thighs, buttocks, stomach, chest, hands, forearms, biceps, shoulders, back, neck, and facial muscles. All the while you should be doing your circle breathing.

Do a quick body scan and see if there is any tension left in your body. If you tend to carry your tension in your feet, then there is a chance that you will still be tense there. So, this is the time when you need to go back to that place and tense and relax these muscles again and again until you feel completely relaxed. When you are done, your whole body should feel sort of limp. This process should take about 20 minutes (10-15 after you have honed the skill). Take note, some athletes feel that this is not the best technique to do right before practice or a game because it gets them too relaxed. Itís a trial and error approach, as with your physical skills, use practice as your forum to first try this.

Breathing techniques are so simple that I think they are many times overlooked. These are such powerful tools, yet many players have yet to buy in and take the time to perfect these skills. The team that is educated about their breathing and its impact on performance, and are able to recognize and control their own arousal states is the team that is going to be the most successful. They are the ones that are able to keep their wits about themselves and reach a state of "relaxed concentration." Using relaxation skills can improve your state of mind, both on and off the playing field if you take the proper time to learn and hone these skills.

[Adapted from Chapter 9 of Winning the Mental Way, by Karlene Sugarman, M.A. For more information on this book you can contact Step Up Publishing at 650-347-0826, or Karlene directly at]

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