Relaxation: Learning to control mind and body

Have your athletes ever been nervous or scared before or during a competition? Have feelings of cold clammy hands, increased muscle tension, headache, dazed look, inability to concentrate, butterflies, or just feeling sick? Most coaches would agree that one of the biggest issues their athletes face is being too nervous or too psyched up that they couldn’t focus and ended up playing poorly. The more anxious the athlete is the harder it is for them to concentrate.

One of the most important aspects of good performance is becoming aware of and staying in control of our emotions. Arousal is the activation of physical and psychological emotions and feelings. How you view arousal or anxiety (as pleasant or unpleasant) depends on your perception of the performance. If these emotions are perceived as helpful they can help an athlete stay focused, feel ready, and have a successful performance. If not it can cause them to worry, over think, and have a poor performance.

When athletes view nerves or anxiety as positive it tells them they are focused, excited, motivated, and/or ready to play. When they view anxiety as negative they are worried, scared, play conservative, distracted, and/or their body feels weak and unsteady. Athletes should feel in control and believe that they have the resources to handle any event that comes their way.

Many athletes think this is “just part of the game” and hope it goes away after the game starts. For some athletes this may be the case but for others this can be the beginning of a downward spiral and at times end with the athlete becoming physically ill or avoiding the game or meet altogether.

Fortunately, athletes can learn to control these emotions. They can be taught to become aware of their emotions and learn to control them in practice and competition and therefore create greater success.

Following are a few techniques athletes can learn and use to help control emotions:

  1. Deep Breathing – The more oxygen that is brought into the body the more that will go into the blood, which pumps to the muscles and gives them more energy and keeps them moving so athletes don’t fatigue as quickly.
  • Start by exhaling and emptying your lungs. On your next breath, take a deep, full breath in through your nose. Hold for a second and then breathe out through your mouth. Do it again and focus on the movement of the belly. You want to fill your stomach (push belly out) when you breathe in and let your stomach relax and deflate like a balloon as you breathe out. This slow inhale and exhale will help to calm the body, which then calms the mind.
  • If your mind wanders gently bring it back and focus on your breathing.
  • Start at your toes and work your way to the top of your head. Scan your body for any areas of tension. If you find any tense muscles, loosen them and feel that area become relaxed and then continue with the body scan. You can purchase a recording of Progressive Muscle Relaxation here
  • Sitting in a comfortable position with correct posture repeat your mantra (a word or syllable that helps you feel calm and in control) over and over again.
  • If thoughts enter your mind become aware of them but then redirect your focus back to your mantra.
  • Lie down or sit in a comfortable position and close your eyes. Take a few deep breathes. Create a picture that represents tension and then replace it with a picture of relaxation. It is best to create your own images that have more meaning to you but here are some examples to get you started:
  1. Progressive Muscle Relaxation – Helps you learn the difference between tensed and relaxed muscles.
  1. Meditation-Focusing your attention on one thing at a time (i.e., an object, spot on the wall, your breathing, etc.)
  1. Imagery – Everyone does imagery – through day dreaming, memories, and remembering events. It can be used to help calm the mind and the body.

-The color red fading into pale blue

-The tension of a cable loosening

-A ball of wires that then untangle

-The sound of a siren that grows quieter and quieter and fades into a calming hum.

One of the most important aspects of a good performance is becoming aware of and staying in control of our emotions. When athletes are in control of their emotions they can play free, focused, and in the moment. The techniques listed above, when practiced and applied, can help athletes gain control of their emotions by learning to calm their mind and body so they can think and perform to the best of their ability. These techniques will also help them become mentally tough and help them keep their heads in the game.

Hillary Israelsen, M.S. is the author of this article and works for HeadStrong Consulting. HeadStrong Consulting has been helping athletes soar since 1998. If you have any questions or would like to meet with a consultant please contact us at 801-712-7956 or visit us online at

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