Relaxation has been defined as a psychological strategy used by sports performers to help manage or reduce stress-related emotions (e.g., anxiety and anger) and physical symptoms (e.g., physical tension and increased heart rate [HR]) during high pressurized situations. Several different types of physical and mental relaxation strategies will be discussed in this entry, all of which can be used to relax the performer and, potentially, benefit athletic performance.
Types of Relaxation Strategies
Different types of relaxation strategies have been advocated within the sport psychology (SP) literature and have been categorized as physical relaxation strategies or mental relaxation strategies. The rationale for using either type of strategy often has been dependent on the symptoms described by the athlete. Specifically, researchers have advocated matching the treatment (i.e., relaxation type) to the dominant set symptoms experienced by the athlete. Ian Maynard and colleagues termed this treatment approach the matching hypothesis, whereby symptoms of somatic anxiety are primarily treated with a form of physical relaxation and symptoms of cognitive anxiety with a form of mental relaxation. The notion also can be applicable to the experience and implications of other emotions such as anger and excitement.
Physical Relaxation Strategies
Physical relaxation strategies can be employed to reduce muscular tension and improve coordination during performance. Examples of such strategies taught by sport psychologists include breathing exercises, progressive muscular relaxation (PMR), and biofeedback (BFB).
Breathing correctly is a simple form of relaxation and has the benefits of increasing oxygen in the blood, improving mood, and reducing muscular tension. The process of breathing properly involves diaphragmatic breathing, where the performer is directed to breathe into the abdomen and then the chest. Specifically, when breathing in deeply, the performer should concentrate on filling the lungs by first pushing the diaphragm down and the abdomen outward then by expanding the chest and raising the chest and shoulders. To promote this breathing in a controlled manner, so that it is of benefit during competitive performances, athletes can be encouraged to be rhythmic in their breathing by inhaling, holding, and exhaling to a count of a predetermined number. In addition, making the exhalation audible (e.g., with a “hheerr” sound) could be of benefit to performance by helping to reduce muscular tension during key movements, such as releasing the javelin or striking a tennis ball. Some support for the benefits of breathing exercises have been provided by Adam Nicholls and associates in SP research.
Progressive Muscular Relaxation
Derived from the work of Edmund Jacobson in the 1930s, PMR strategies require an individual to focus on progressively tensing and then relaxing specific muscle groups, one at a time. Through this progressive technique, Jacobson’s premise was that the individual would learn the difference between tension and less tension. Consequently, the individual would become aware when tension occurred and begin reducing it by relaxing the relevant muscles. Jacobson also proposed that this form of physical relaxation would also decrease mental tension. Critically, Jacobson’s program was quite long and, consequently, inappropriate for the regular athlete. To overcome this issue, many sport psychologists such as Graham Jones have advocated a variant of Jacobson’s approach, where the objective is to teach a performer to relax within 20 to 30 seconds. To achieve this, a performer will undergo several relaxation training phases, typically over a period of 10 to 12 weeks, that progress toward much quicker relaxation. The first training phase involves twice daily 15-minute relaxation sessions where the muscle groups are progressively tensed (for 5 to 7 seconds) and relaxed. During this phase, it is commonplace for the athlete to be provided with an audio track that helps systematically work them through a full muscular tension or relaxation program. Once practiced, so that the performer is proficient in using this technique, a 5to 7-minute release only training phase is instigated. Here, the performer is guided (by an audio track or by the sport psychologist) only to relax (release) any tension in the muscles. The next progression is a 2 to 3-minute cue-controlled phase where the focus is still on release only, but the release is instigated by the performer through words such as relax. Sometimes rather than associate the relaxed state with a cue word, sport psychologists link the relaxed state to a natural “trigger” cue within the athlete’s environment (e.g., gripping the racquet in tennis, holding a basketball prior to a free throw). This phase is, therefore, only a few seconds long and involves the performer recognizing tension in specific muscles and focusing solely on reducing that tension. Preliminary research by Ian Maynard and colleagues has shown that PMR can help to reduce the intensity of reported bodily symptoms associated with the experience of anxiety (e.g., muscular tension).
Similar to PMR, in which performers are taught to become more aware of muscular tension, BFB is a method that helps performers become familiar with such autonomic nervous system (ANS) responses as muscular activity, HR, and respiration (R) rate. By becoming more aware of these and other physiological responses, performers can then attempt to control them for the benefit of sporting performance. Biofeedback training (BFBT) involves the use of electronic instruments to provide visual or auditory feedback about selected physiological responses and the requirement of the performer to then use such strategies as relaxation to reduce the level of these responses. For example, if using an electromyograph to measure the electrical activity of the muscles, a high amount of electrical activity may mean muscle tension. Consequently, visual feedback showing high levels could help the performer become aware that muscular relaxation is needed when experiencing sensations associated with that level of activity. This method does require some training in relaxation techniques such as PMR. Limited research has been conducted on the combination of BFB and relaxation, but some evidence has been provided by Tammy Evetovich and her associates that suggests BFB and relaxation can help reduce muscular tension.
Mental Relaxation Strategies
The mental relaxation strategies that have been promoted within the SP literature have been focused primarily on reducing anxiety, which is a negative emotion caused by situational appraisals of threat or harm. Nevertheless, they also can be used to reduce the intensity of other emotions experienced such as anger or excitement, as these and other emotions can be distracting if too high in intensity. Examples of mental relaxation techniques include transcendental meditation, mindfulness meditation, and autogenic training.
Meditation generally involves the individual’s focusing attention on a single thought, sound (often called mantra), or object. Transcendental meditation is an approach in which the individual repeats a mantra, which is a sound (e.g., the syllable om) or a key word or phrase that has personal meaning—such as “relax.” This technique has been suggested to reduce the focus on negative thoughts and also lower HR, blood pressure (BP), and R, all cognitive and physiological changes that could be beneficial in fine-motor-skilled performances such as rifle shooting, archery, or golf. When practicing transcendental meditation, the performer is required to sit in a quiet environment, adopt a comfortable position, and repeat the mantra aloud. As with PMR, the challenge here for a sport psychologist working with a performer is to progress from prolonged training sessions in quiet environments to sessions that help the performer mentally relax within seconds in competitive environments. At present, few studies in the SP literature have documented a successful transfer of meditation from peaceful surroundings to the pressurized sporting arena.
The practice of mindfulness, which originated within the Buddhist tradition, can be loosely defined as a state of awareness achieved through purposely and nonjudgmentally paying attention to the present and ongoing experiences of yourself and others—that is, attempting to put aside judgments of current situations, thoughts, or feelings as “good” or “bad.” Mindfulness meditation is an approach that helps develop this nonjudgmental awareness and that promotes calm and focus in potentially stressful situations. Other documented benefits of mindfulness meditation include reduced reporting of depression, anxiety, and chronic pain. Different forms of mindfulness training exist, but the general principle is to guide the individual to develop concentration by focusing their attention to the sensation of breathing. Then, when thoughts, emotions, or body sensations distract the focus from the breathing task, the individual is directed to nonjudgmentally acknowledge the distraction and return to the breathing exercise. A progression is to then focus on body sensations during the breathing task. If such labels as “good” or “bad” are used to describe sensations, the individual is guided to again nonjudgmentally acknowledge the label and return to focusing on the body sensations while breathing. Such approaches help individuals to become more aware of the stressors in the present situation (e.g., work demands, family issues, coach expectations) in a nonjudgmental way by reducing the common appraisals that something experienced is good or bad. This nonjudgmental approach then influences more constructive solutions to problems, as they are approached in a more impartial manner. Although the benefits of mindfulness are well documented in other areas of psychology, they have only recently been explored within sport and exercise psychology. Early findings from Rachel Thompson and colleagues support the positive cognitive (appraisal) and performance outcomes of mindfulness training.
Autogenic training involves a series of exercises designed to produce warmth and heaviness sensations—feelings that are typically associated with relaxation. Within this form of self-hypnosis, attention is focused upon the sensations the individual is attempting to produce. Developed by Johan Schultz in the 1930s, autogenic training has been associated with reduced anxiety, fatigue, HR, and an increased sense of control, and better focus and sleep. The process involves six sequential training stages where verbal self-statements are used to direct the focus to specific bodily sensations. In Stage 1, the individual is guided to focus on achieving heaviness in the arms and legs, starting with the dominant arm or leg. Here, self statements such as “My right arm is heavy” are used repeatedly to achieve heaviness, before the sensation is “cancelled out” by the individual— often through bending the arm, breathing deeply, and/or by opening their eyes. Once trained, the next stage is to achieve warmth in the arms and legs. Similarly, the self-statement “my right arm is warm” may be used repeatedly during training sessions to help facilitate warmth in the right arm and then other extremities. The third stage involves HR regulation, with the self-statement of “my heartbeat is slow, relaxed, and calm.” Stage 4 focuses on regulating breathing rate (e.g., breathing is slow, relaxed, and calm); in Stage 5, the sport psychologist aims to promote sensations of abdominal warmth (i.e., with hand on abdominal area, the self-statement is “my abdomen is warm”), and stage six the cooling sensation of the forehead (i.e., the self-statement is “my forehead is cool”). Once the individual is competent enough to control the sensations of heaviness and warmth of their extremities, their sensations of heart and breathing rates, and the perceived temperature of their abdominal area and forehead, then the potential to achieve a relaxed state increases.
Crossover Benefits of Relaxation
Even though the relaxation approaches identified here have been categorized as either physical or mental in nature, it is documented within the SP literature that a physical relaxation strategy focused on reducing muscular tension also may have mental effects, such as reducing the incidence of negative thoughts. Similar crossover effects have also been reported for mental relaxation strategies primarily focused on reducing negative thoughts and emotions; these strategies also have been found to reduce the incidence of negative physical symptoms associated with anxiety.
Relaxation Used With Other Psychological Strategies
Alongside the physical and mental benefits of relaxation, a further benefit is that the reduced incidents of negative thoughts associated with relaxation allows for other psychological strategies such as self-talk and visualization to be used. For example, consider a situation in which a sport psychologist attempts to guide a performer to use self talk, to talk to himself or herself more effectively to help change negative thoughts experienced. If the negative thoughts were causing extremely high levels of anxiety, then the thought changing exercise would prove fruitless. Consequently, the sport psychologist could first reduce the experience of anxiety by helping the performer to learn to use mental relaxation strategies. Then, with the performer able to achieve a more even-tempered state through the use of these strategies, the commitment to, and understanding of, appropriate self-talk can be improved. A similar example can be provided when developing a performer’s ability to visualize himself or herself performing a certain skill effectively. If the performer is not sufficiently relaxed, the ability to image effectively may be compromised by experiences of intense negative thoughts, emotions, and images.
Centering is a strategy in which the performer directs their thoughts toward adjusting their body weight so that the weight feels like it is about their center of mass. This allows the performer to feel in control and comfortable so that he or she can consciously modify such physiological symptoms as HR and R, along with their focus of attention. Indeed, focusing internally (in this case focusing on adjusting their body weight) helps the performer to ignore unwanted negative thoughts and then focus on performance relevant information. Within this approach, performers are guided on becoming aware of their center of mass, so to promote recall of where their center of mass should be during stressful situations. This awareness gives the performer a point of focus to switch attention to. Then, the performer is guided to concentrate on breathing appropriately to reduce arousal and tension, which helps the performer focus on the task at hand. This three-step approach of centering, breathing, and task focus is trained and then encouraged just before the performance action is to occur; this way, attention is directed to the appropriate information at the right time in competition (e.g., the behaviors needed to complete a free throw in basketball).
Autogenic Training and Imagery
The use of autogenic training followed by imagery (when trained to visualize effectively too) has numerous benefits. First, when the performer reaches the calm state at the end of autogenic relaxation, he or she can imagine relaxing scenes, colors, or thoughts that help translate the physical relaxation reached through autogenic relaxation into the mind. Second, the relaxed state promoted by autogenic training will allow the performer to imagine proficient execution of performance related skills that can be used to increase confidence and performance, as no unwanted thoughts or images would be present during such relaxed states to disrupt such constructive imaging. The benefit of combining autogenic training and imagery training for sporting performance has been documented by SP researchers such as Alain Groslambert and colleagues.
Given the proposed benefits of physical and mental relaxation strategies to sport performers, sport psychologists will continue to train performers in the use of these strategies to help performers reduce or control their cognitive and/or physical state. However, as with any strategy, the effectiveness of the use of the strategy during competition depends on the extent to which the strategies have been practiced. Once learned, these strategies can be used by performers to function better within competition and everyday life, and to allow other strategies to be learnt more effectively.