When our minds become focused on worries, doubts and fears, we become anxious. Anxiety (or nervousness) sets our bodies’ stress responses in motion. This natural reaction, designed to facilitate an optimal response to life’s demands, can carry with it adverse effects. Specifically, an increase in muscle tension can interfere with an athlete’s performance.
Excess Muscle Tension Negatively Effects Athlete Performance
As a tennis player and coach, I’ve seen this in action. If muscles become too tense, it interferes with motor performance. Players whose muscles are tense from anxiety will especially see negative effects in their serving, footwork, and follow-throughs. Subsequently, they lose critical spin and speed on their serves. They aren’t in position to hit shots they would otherwise hit well. And their shots fall short in their opponent’s side of the court, making for an easy target.
Muscle tension can affect any athlete. Here are a few other examples of what can happen when muscles are too tense:
- Golf: because a player’s hips are tight he may open up his hips too early, which opens up the club face and results in a slice
- Basketball: because a player’s wrist and forearms are tight she may not flick her wrist normally on a shot which results in the ball hitting the front of the rim
- Softball: because a player’s arms are tight she may have a slower than normal reaction getting the bat around to hit the pitch which results in a strike or foul ball
- Swimming: because a swimmer’s legs are tight, he may be slow off the blocks and will not get the same power from his flutter kicks
You get the idea.
How to Control Muscle Tension
Some astute coaches can diagnose this tightness in their players. The coach knows the athlete needs to relax. However, the problem is that many coaches don’t know how to get the athlete to relax.
There is a simple technique athletes can use to gain both awareness and control of muscle tension. The technique is called progressive muscle relaxation (Jacobson, 1938). It isn’t a quick fix, but with repetition, athletes will be much more in-tune to when muscles are too tight or too loose and be able to adjust accordingly.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
PMR is an exercise of systematically tensing and releasing muscle groups to produce a deeper sense of relaxation. It is based on the idea that tensing muscles causes fatigue. Therefore, after tensing muscles for 5 to 7 seconds, athletes release that tension all at once. Focusing on this complete release of muscle tension for up to a minute allows for more pronounced relaxation.
By practicing PMR consistently, athletes can learn to adjust their muscle tension to be at their best in competition. They will be better able to notice excess muscle tension and release it during breaks in the action.
To practice increasing control of muscle tension, follow this simple two-part procedure.
Part 1. Take a few deep breaths.
By slowing down your breathing, you trigger your body’s rest and digest response (the opposite of fight or flight). This begins to lower your physiological activation: heart rate, sweaty palms, muscle tension. Slowing your breathing helps prepare your body for the following relaxation exercise.
Part 2. Systematically tense and relax muscle groups.
Begin by establishing muscle groups. Use the chart below and choose either the left or right column. The left column is best for those with less body awareness. Then cycle through the separate groups following this process:
- Tense the muscle group.
- Hold the tension for 5 – 7 seconds.
- Release the tension as fully as possible, focusing on relaxation of the muscles for roughly 20 or more seconds
It is helpful to take slow deep breaths as you relax.
Once you’ve completed the cycle for one muscle group, move on to another.
Muscle grouping adapted from Burton and Raedeke (2008), Sport Psychology for Coaches.
Practice PMR Regularly
As I said before, this isn’t a quick fix technique. It takes practice to build the muscle awareness that will allow an athlete to release tension that is detrimental to performance.
Practice PMR 2 to 3 times per day for the first week or so. As you become more in tune with your muscle tension, you may gradually reduce this practice to once per day. It can take several weeks to really get the hang of it.
Coaches can incorporate PMR into their team practice routines. For example, following a cool down and stretching, players practice PMR. Coaches could guide them through it or let them go at their own pace as appropriate.
Take Control In the Moment
Once you’ve practiced PMR, it’s time to take advantage of it when it really counts. During practices and competition, relax extra muscle tension when you notice it.
Since the muscles are already tense, skip the tensing step. Focus on the tense muscle group and release that tension just as you did when practicing PMR. Allow the relaxation to set in, freeing up those muscles to perform their very best.
Stay Loose Under Pressure
In pressure situations (the biggest moments of competition) players need to have the most control of their bodies. These are the same moments when worries, doubts and fears creep in. Practicing progressive muscle relaxation can help athletes play their best in the biggest moments.
As John F. Kennedy said, “The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.” The best time for players to learn to relax their muscles is well before the game is on the line.
To make practicing PMR easy for you, I created this PMR Guided Relaxation MP3.
Click the button to download it for free!
Question: In what situations are athletes most likely to tense up? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section.
- Book: Progressive Relaxation by Edmund Jacobson
- Book: Sport Psychology for Coaches by Damon Burton & Thomas D. Raedeke