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Relaxation Skills

One way to avoid uncontrolled tension is to cultivate the ability to relax at will. In the 1930s, Edmund Jacobson developed a simple technique called progressive relaxation.

Jacobson said it was important to learn to recognize the feeling of muscle relaxation by contrasting it with the feeling of muscle tension. A person learning Jacobsonian progres­sive relaxation practices tensing and relaxing various muscle groups of the body, from the feet up.

At each level one is supposed to notice the feeling of muscle tension (when muscles are tense) and the contrasting feeling of relaxation (when letting go). Gradually one learns to discriminate the feeling of relaxation, then to bring it under control, so it can be made to happen at will.

What was the idea of Jacobson's progressive relaxation technique?

Biofeedback is very helpful in learning muscle relaxation. This type of biofeedback involves the measurement of muscle tension by a device known as an EMG or electromyograph.

In this type of biofeedback training, elec­trodes are placed on a muscle such as the forearm or the fore­head. The biofeedback machine produces an audible tone that rises when muscle fibers are more active and falls when they are less active. The goal, in relaxation training, is to lower the tone as far as possible.

EMG biofeedback confronts people with a fact about human muscle physiology. There is nothing a person can "do," in an active sense, to relax a muscle. There are no com­mands from the brain to make a muscle relax.

Relaxation is the absence of commands from the brain to the muscle. The only way to make relaxation happen is to let go.

This becomes clear when a person is hooked up to a biofeedback machine, because the only way to make the tone drop (indicating lower muscle tension) is to cease all attempts to influence the activity of the muscle and simply let it go limp. Then it becomes relaxed.

How does EMG biofeedback relaxation training work?

Once this is learned, relaxation can be accomplished at will, by letting go of the desired muscle group.

Here is a typical set of relaxation instructions for athletes, from a web page by sport psychologist Karlene Sugarman at

What does Sugarman recommend as a relaxation procedure for athletes?

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. It is 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 don't have any constricting clothing on and don't do it after you have just eaten a meal.

4. You can lay down, as long as you don't 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. [This is the Jacobsonian progressive relaxation approach.]

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. Use a trial and error approach to find the time when it is best to relax. Use practice sessions to experiment. (Sugarman, 1998)

Write to Dr. Dewey at

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