Learning to relax to improve sports performance

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, May/June 2016

Coaches constantly encourage athletes to relax (often by yelling, which seems contradictory), but rarely does a coach explain or demonstrate relaxation or a process to relax. Encouraging players to relax becomes a throw away; something that everyone says, and everyone assumes the other person understands, but which has virtually no practical meaning. 

Despite the lack of meaning, it is true that elite athletes have a superior ability to relax, both physically and emotionally. In Body and Mature Behavior, Moshe Feldenkrais connected muscular and postural habits with emotional disorders. Chade-Meng Tan added in Search Inside Yourself that emotional experiences are not just psychological; they are physiological experiences. The physical affects the emotions, and the emotions affect the physical, and change requires a plan to affect both. This connection appears in successful performance and disorders.

Several years ago, I gave a presentation to high-school athletes. I spoke about confidence and positive feelings improving performance, and one athlete raised his hand and asked why some athletes play better when angry.

I asked the athletes to clench their fists as tight as possible and try to get their muscles bulging. Then, I asked them to throw a punch without hitting anyone. They managed. Next, I had them relax and shake out their arms. I asked them to throw another punch. On the second punch, I told them to wait until the last possible instant to make a fist. Finally, I asked what they felt.

The athletes said that the second punch “actually felt more powerful” and “it was stronger.” They left out quicker, but they understood the idea. The tenser that one feels, the slower will be his or her movements. The tension interferes with the synchronization and timing of the movement. To perform optimally, one must activate the muscles at the right time and in the right order. In a punch, the fist does not do the work; the fist transmits the force generated by the legs and torso. In Awareness Through Movement, Feldenkrais wrote, “In a well-organized body work done by the large muscles is passed on to its final destination through the bones by weaker muscles, but without losing much of its power on the way.” A disorganized body leaks power.

Occasionally, an athlete makes a great play when angry, and they attribute it to their anger or the adrenaline rush. This is a happy coincidence. Playing angry negatively affects performance because it diverts attention from the task, and the adrenaline and hormonal rush affects fine motor control (Of course, some sports require little to no fine motor control, and these are the sports, such as football, generally associated with anger and aggression. However, when the anger creates tension, it affects synchronization and coordination in motor skills, whether fine or gross).

Waiting to form a first until the last possible instant is an example of relaxation in movement. Tensing the muscles prior to throwing a punch demonstrates tension, and this tension affects coordination and performance in any sport skill. Rick DeMont, associate head coach for men’s swimming at the University of Arizona, said, “Tension is slow, tension is inefficient. You need to be relaxed.” The top athletes have a superior ability to relax the muscles not actively involved in the immediate muscle contractions or co-contractions. When the muscles relax, they do not inhibit the performance of the prime movers or synergists involved with the movement. In Triphasic Training, University of Minnesota strength and conditioning coach Cal Dietz wrote that the speed of relaxation following muscular contraction was nearly 200% faster in top athletes than lower-level athletes.

DeMont called the need for relaxation “the paradox of athletics” because coaches otherwise stress hard work and effort, which appear to contradict with the need for proper, and timely, relaxation. In a 2008 article by Gina Kolata in the New York Times, Clyde Hart, the director of track and field at Baylor University, pointed to the way that children run. “They throw their heads back….They think that the harder they go, the faster they run.” The paradox between hard and fast, efficient, and relaxed. That tension is the first thing that he corrects. “The quickest way to improve a sprinter is to teach him to relax.”

Unlike many coaches who tell players to relax, but fail to provide the tools to relax, Hart has his athletes concentrate on their eyes. He instructs them to run sleepy eyed; when they run with eyes wide, they are tense. As the eyes relax, the face relaxes, followed by the jaw, and finally, Hart tells runners to let the feeling spread through the shoulders and arms (Kolata, 2008).

Boxing instructors focus on breathing because holding one’s breath is another action that increases tension. Beginners tend to hold their breath through a round, which slows their movements and quickens fatigue. Instead, fighters are taught to exhale as they punch because it increases stiffness through the torso and decreases unnecessary tension that disrupts coordination and timing. In other sports, athletes hold their breath when they feel pressure, and this increases fatigue and decreases performance. Creating a breathing routine or keyword for athletes is a second way to decrease tension.

When I worked as a personal trainer, the first lesson that I learned was to warn clients about white knuckles when lifting heavy weights. White knuckles occur when one’s hands squeeze too hard around a barbell or dumbbell. When people struggle with the resistance, they tense their grip and squeeze harder. This tightens their muscles, restricts blood flow and oxygen, and generally makes the lift harder, not easier (It generally is accompanied by holding one’s breath too). To push past the sticking point, exhale, like a boxer throwing a punch, and relax rather than squeezing harder. The same idea holds true with any racquet or stick sport, such as tennis, golf, or baseball. Squeezing a golf club harder and harder makes the swing more difficult, reduces accuracy, and creates unnecessary tension through the entire system. It does not add strength, power, or distance. As Feldenkrais wrote, “Light and easy movements are good ones, as a rule.”

Running with sleepy eyes, breathing/exhaling, and easing one’s grip are three physical keys to assist with relaxation. However, as Feldenkrais suggested, simply alleviating the physical symptoms of stress or tension, without affecting the mental or emotion stressors, will not relax the athlete entirely. This, I believe, is why meditation is so common among high performers. Meditation positively changes the structure of your brain in areas affecting emotional regulation. If one learns to control his or her mind through meditation or other means, he or she can reduce tension and stress. Tan wrote, “The more we are able to create space between stimulus and reaction, the more control we will have over our emotional lives.” Controlling one’s emotional life means controlling one’s physiological life as well, and meditation has been shown to improve athletic performance, decrease pre-competition stress, and enhance recovery after training.

Playing a game or competing in a sport requires fast, coordinated movements. To maximize these movements, athletes must relax; when athletes move with tension, their movements slow down. The goal is to teach relaxation when moving to increase movement efficiency. Rather than yell at athletes to relax in the heat of the moment, teach athletes to breathe and incorporate meditation or another mindfulness technique to decrease physical and emotional stress and tension. The athletes will move more efficiently, which leads to quicker, more effective movement.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice and Fake Fundamentals

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