By Coach Jim Dabney

As a former athlete and now coach I always enjoyed the use of various mental relaxation techniques to calm anxiety and arousal levels throughout my training. During any sort of competition, mental relaxation techniques helped me to compete at my optimal performance level and luckily for others there are a variety of additional exercises that athletes and coaches can use for relaxation. Since some athletes are naturally relaxed they may not need to use these practices but for those who are not naturally relaxed, they may find value in practicing different ways to alleviate mental stress as they prepare to train and compete at a higher level.

The goal of a relaxation technique is to reduce physiologic arousal and help sharpen one's focus on the task they are completing. Most often they are used before an important competition, or when learning a new skill. As a former athlete, I have found it valuable because it helped to slow down my thoughts and channel my focus into different portions of my events, the 50, 100 and 200 freestyle; all of which lasted roughly 90 seconds. If my mind wandered for a split second I could miss a huge opportunity to have a successful race.

One exercise that is suggested for beginners is diaphragmatic breathing. This is often called “belly breathing,” and is used as a basic relaxation technique. It can also be used as the foundation for all other types of mental training. Belly breathing helps athletes remind themselves that they always have control over their breath. Ultimately it is an action that can impact heart rate, muscle tension and trigger an increase of parasympathetic activity. This calms the “fight or flight” response and results in relaxation while calming anxiety and arousal levels. In any mental relaxation exercise, the attention to deep, rhythmic, relaxing breathing is important.

Another mental relaxation technique is the use of progressive muscle relaxation (PMR). This technique utilizes the control of muscle tension to aid in muscle release and promote a relaxed mind. During PMR, an athlete alternates between tension and relaxation cycles in several small muscle groups throughout the body. For example, excessive and uncomfortable flexing of the biceps for: 10-:15 seconds followed by a release of this tension can increase the warmth and heaviness within the arms. This can play an important role in recovery from injury, full-body relaxation and even enhanced sleeping patterns if done before bedtime. Some athletes may feel uncomfortable or that there is no personal benefit. In these cases, autogenic training can be a more appropriate route. This is when there is no muscle tension, but just a focus on the warmth and relaxation of certain muscle groups to achieve the same relaxation state.

The final relaxation technique that I have used and enjoyed in the past is mental imagery. This is a great skill for athletes to practice using all their senses to create a vivid and descriptive mental experience of an upcoming performance. Essentially, this is a mental rehearsal using visual, auditory and kinesthetic cues to prepare their mind to feel comfortable in a scenario that may have the potential to cause stress, anxiety or unwanted arousal levels. The goal is for an athlete to use their mind to create a real-life experience to slow down thoughts, focus on what they can control, while executing an appropriate plan of action when the time comes to perform. I would use this exercise during the championship season with my swimmers as it helped to prepare them for a successful meet, event, or moment before a race. I found that the majority of the swimmers I worked with would also apply this towards their individual training. It helped them to prepare and succeed during difficult sets and/or practices that were used as markers to evaluate where they were currently at in the season during training.

When it comes to SHOWING UP for a competition, keeping the mind sharp and ready is crucial. As a coach, it would be extremely beneficial to introduce these mental training exercises to your athletes as another tool for them to reach their full potential. Before asking your athletes to do this, I would highly suggest trying it out for yourself first. In order for coaches to talk the talk, we must also walk the walk!