Chapter 16. Relaxation

Definition of relaxation:

The act or process of relaxing, or the state of being relaxed; as, relaxation of the muscles.

Remission from attention and effort; indulgence in recreation, diversion, or amusement. "Hours of careless relaxation."

95% of trial participants needed to manage how relaxed they were; the only exceptions were the rare performers who never lose their naturally relaxed state.  Being mentally relaxed allows you to make good decisions quickly and promotes trust in your abilities.  Being physically relaxed allows your body to operate with freedom and speed, and also allows natural coordination skills to be effective.

Mental and physical relaxation

The link between mental and physical relaxation is strong in some athletes and weak in others.

You should find out how strongly they are linked for you, so that you can decide whether to manage one or both of these attributes.

Mental and physical relaxation are linked:  typically if a person increases how physically relaxed they are, then they will also become more mentally relaxed.  Similarly, increasing how mentally relaxed they are tends to lead to increased physical relaxation.  However, it is possible for the link between the two attributes to be quite weak and in such circumstances the person would need to manage both to achieve a strong mental state.  You should spend some time in a competitive environment discovering how strong the link is for you, and which attribute has the most effect on the other, so that you can decide if you need to manage one or both attributes.

The effects of mental tension on your physiology

When a person suffers from anxiety the body responds by exhibiting a number of symptoms.  This is known as the fight or flight response.  Some of the effects on the body are:

  • Stomach cramps.
  • Tingly sensations in your limbs.
  • Digestion slows down or stops.
  • Constriction of blood vessels in many parts of the body.
  • Loss of hearing.
  • Loss of peripheral vision.

None of these effects are helpful to an athlete’s performance.

In addition, the following effects occur:

  • Excessive acceleration of heart and lung action.
  • Excessive acceleration of instantaneous reflexes.
  • Excessive liberation of nutrients for muscular action.
  • Excessive dilation of blood vessels for muscles.

While at first it might seem that these effects could improve sporting performance, over a period longer than a few minutes they will surely be detrimental.  In addition, because the athlete may be very stressed in the hours before competing, these effects will take place before the competition starts and will therefore leave the body in a degraded state when the event begins.

If you watch world class athletes (good examples are 100m sprinters and boxers) you will notice how physically relaxed they are.  This is because they know that they can only achieve peak physical performance if their bodies are relaxed.

Ideal relaxation levels

You should be fully relaxed both physically and mentally before, during, and after competing (10 out of 10).  Being anything other than relaxed is stressful and detrimental to your ability to perform.

Incrementing methods for physical tension

The body scan

Tension in your muscles can lead to you becoming mentally tense, so it is important that you are able to detect and minimise any muscular tension that you find in your body.  In addition to producing mental tension, the presence of muscular tension greatly inhibits your natural coordination and motor skills.  Not only will you perform poorly, but you can even get injured by overexerting muscles that aren’t relaxed enough to respond correctly.

To reduce muscular tension, first you need to identify it and you can do this using a body scan.  A body scan is where you systematically check each part of your body that is prone to tension and decide if there is any tension present.  Your checks will probably include your legs, shoulders, forearms, neck, face, back, and stomach.  It’s amazing how some people don’t actually realise they have physical tension until they listen carefully to their bodies.

Once you have located areas of tension you can work on reducing them.  You can do this by deep breathing, massaging the affected areas, stretching, changing your posture, and focusing your mind on relaxing the problem areas.


Good breathing helps to relieve physical and mental tension.  Breathing techniques are widely documented in sports psychology and self-help books, and the key ones are:

  • Think of your lungs as having three sections, a lower section, a mid section, and an upper section. When you breathe in, make sure you fill each compartment in turn, starting with the lowest.  Then breathe out fully, emptying all the compartments.  Repeat the process five to 10 times.  This is also known as breathing from your diaphragm.


  • The cleansing breath. This is where you push the air out of your lungs in a single strong outward breath.  You will often see footballers doing this before penalties, or golfers doing this before particularly nerve-wracking tee shots; you can tell they are doing this because their cheeks will briefly inflate as they expel the air.


Good posture allows your muscles to operate as intended and your body to move correctly.  It also helps you to breathe deeply and lets the blood flow to all parts of your body more easily which fills your muscles and brain with more oxygen.

When preparing and competing, you should regularly check if your posture is creating any tension in your body.  If it is creating tension, then simply change your posture.  For example, crossing your arms between plays may feel comfortable but it can create tension in your back, neck, arms and shoulders – it is better to let your arms hang down naturally.

Facial expressions

Having a generally relaxed face helps you to relax physically and mentally.  Your face has a myriad of muscles in it to allow you to show hundreds of different emotions, so when you frown messages are sent to your brain that there is a problem, and this leads to mental tension.

In order to relax your face properly, you should allow your jaw to relax, your eyes to relax, and your cheeks to soften.  It won’t do any harm to smile a bit too!

Incrementing methods for mental relaxation

Rather surprisingly, being mentally relaxed is not especially instinctive.  Therefore you need some effective incrementing methods in order to achieve this attribute.  Here are some of my favourites:

There is no failure, only feedback

This is a great way of helping you to realise that when you compete, it’s OK not to win just as long as you get some feedback from your efforts which you can work on later.

Note your worries and then put them to one side

This is quite clever because you haven’t attempted to remove the worries altogether, but you have compartmentalised them and moved them away from your central focus.  This is from Dr. Joseph Parent’s book Zen Golf.

Creating congruence

Sometimes nerves come about from a difference between your goals or expectations, and your abilities.  If you have prepared well, and have gained a good understanding of your technical and physical ability, then you should be able to set your expectations to match this.  When your expectations are in line with your known ability, this can ease any pressure that you are placing on yourself, and all your thoughts become more in agreement with each other.

Comparison of incrementing methods for physical and mental relaxation

Note that the incrementing methods for encouraging mental relaxation tend to use reasoning, a moderately effective incrementing style.  Conversely, incrementing methods for managing physical tension tend to be behaviour-based.  Therefore, you may find that it is easier to relieve your physical tension than your mental tension.

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