How does one effectively “relax”?

By Greg Chertok, Director of Mental Training at CourtSense, a high performance junior tennis academy in Bergen County, NJ, as well as private consultant with Telos Sport Psychology in the greater NY area. Greg has a Masters of Education in Counseling/Sport Psychology from Boston University and is a certified consultant with the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. He has worked with athletes from the junior to Olympic level.

It’s a phrase uttered by coaches in every sport, at every level, at any given moment: “Relax!”

Surely the intention behind the advice is sound: after all, we must be physically relaxed in order to run, jump, shift, change direction, and perform optimally, as our muscles are primed for ideal movement when loose. Tennis great Arthur Ashe’s quote speaks to this: “The ideal attitude is to be physically loose and mentally tight.”

But how does one effectively “relax”? We don’t all inherently know how to do this. And for those of us who don’t, a coach’s loud verbal command to relax has little benefit. If a student who has never taken algebra is introduced to a difficult multiplication problem, it would seem foolish for the teacher to shriek, “Come on, just solve it!” Without the necessary tools to succeed, how can we expect anyone to be successful?

There is no better starting point to achieve relaxation than to use a tool that is already practiced, often on the subconscious level, over 20,000 times per day: our own breathing. Breathing as a survival mechanism and breathing as a means for relaxing in your sport are two very different experiences.

We average between 16-18 breath cycles per minute. That is, when we’re unaware of our breathing patterns (you’re likely focusing on your breathing now, and your patterns have changed), we breathe in & out approximately 17 times each minute. In moments of intense anxiety, frustration, or embarrassment, our breath cycles increase exponentially, and our breathing becomes shallow, from the upper chest.

Deep, relaxing, diaphragmatic breathing (or from the diaphragm, the thin muscle that lines the abdomen) facilitates the flow of oxygen into the bloodstream and into the brain, allowing us to think clearly and make better decisions. Breathing reduces muscular tension, elevates our mood, and helps relieve aches and pains. Breathing also anchors us in the present moment.

And because there’s a remarkably strong tendency in most sports to shift focus to either the past (How could I have missed that shot?!) or the future (I win this match and I’ll be ranked 5th region!) something simple is needed to ground us back to the here and now, where performance actually happens.

And while a few deep breaths doesn’t guarantee success, it is a powerful tool that is quick and easy to do at any time, without drawing the attention of others to what you are doing. Here is simple demonstration of what deep diaphragmatic breathing looks like:

1. Breathe out deeply, contracting the abdomen (bringing your stomach in).
2. Breathe in slowly, for a count of 5, as you expand the abdomen (bring your stomach out).
3. Continue to breathe as you expand the chest and raise up your shoulders towards your ears.
4. Hold the breath for a count of 1.
5. Breathe out slowly for a count of 5.
6. Relax the muscles of your shoulders and chest completely.
7. Repeat 3 or 4-times until there is a sensation of calmness.