Relaxation in Sport

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.

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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 Exercises

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.

Transcendental Meditation

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.

Mindfulness Meditation

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

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.


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