“Just relax.” How many times have you heard your coach say that or told it to yourself? As a sport psychology consultant, I know that it’s easier said than done.
Athletes’ lives have become a competitive frenzy. Not only are you participating in year-round intense sports programs, but you’re also trying to excel academically. Add to this the desire (and pressure) to take part in other activities—and it’s no wonder that you’re feeling stretched too thin.
You might even believe that you need to be a superstar in every activity you do. You probably don’t realize the effects of mounting stress on your performance. For example, you forgot your homework, got in a fight with a friend and received a bad grade on a test—and you have an important soccer game later in the day. How do you shake off that other stuff and get psyched up for the big game? This is where the importance of sport psychology comes in! Using stress management techniques is critical for leaving stress off the field and being able to play your best.
Relaxation is often under-emphasized, but it can make a big difference in performance. Many athletes, particularly at the elite level, work hard to find ways to become relaxed. Below are some simple mental skills you can use to help lower stress and get ready for competition. Remember that these are skills, so you need to practice them for five to 10 minutes a day to stay sharp.
- Deep Breathing: Inhale slowly through your nose, drawing air deep into your lungs. Hold your breath for about five seconds, then release it slowly. With each exhalation, imagine that you are getting rid of any stress or fatigue that might prevent you from performing your best. Focus only on each breath. Repeat the exercise five to 10 times. Repeat “energy in” while inhaling, and “fatigue out” while exhaling.
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation: Isolate and contract muscle groups, creating tension for eight to 10 seconds, then relax the muscles and let the tension go. Concentrate on the feel of your muscles, specifically the contrast between tension and relaxation. In time, you will recognize tension in any specific muscle and be able to reduce it. Use words and phrases as you progress through the muscle groups—try “relax,” “let go,” “release,” “stay calm” and “feeling fresh.” Commonly-used muscle groups are:
- Abdomen and chest
- Arms, shoulders and neck
- Visualization: Capitalize on the power of your imagination. Close your eyes and picture a peaceful place or a happy event from your past. Use all of your senses to create a vivid picture, and imagine stress flowing away from your body. In times of stress, particularly when confidence wanes, it helps to visualize success. As a sport psychology consultant, I often tell athletes to imagine themselves achieving success—completing a pass, serving an ace or scoring a goal over and over. Then when it comes time to compete, you can recall your stored images to calm your nerves.
Jennifer Gapin is an assistant professor in sport and exercise psychology at Southern Illinois University. She received her Ph.D. in kinesiology with a specialization in sport and exercise psychology from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro; her master’s degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and her undergraduate degree from Bryn Mawr College. Since 2005, she has provided sport psychology services to athletes, teams and coaches at all ages and levels of competition. She is a certified consultant through the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, and she currently provides supervision and mentoring to prospective sport and exercise psychology consultants.