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Relaxation itself can be useful in a number of circumstances including:

  • the promotion of rest, recovery and recuperation
  • the removal of stress related reactions, e.g. increased muscular tension, etc.
  • the establishing of a physical and mental state which has an increased receptivity to positive mental imagery
  • the establishing of a set level of physical and mental arousal prior to warming up for competition

Mental Imagery

When combined with positive mental imagery it is useful in:

  • developing self confidence
  • developing pre-competition and competition strategies which teach athletes to cope with new situations before they actually encounter them
  • helping the athlete to focus his/her attention or concentrate on a particular skill he/she is trying to learn or develop. This can take place both in or away from the training session
  • the competition situation

Internal Mental Imagery (IMI)

Research by Yao et al. (2013)[4] found that training by IMI of forceful muscle contractions was effective in improving voluntary muscle strength without physical exercise. In conclusion it is suggested that training by IMI of forceful muscle contractions may change the activity level of cortical motor control network, which may increase muscle strength. So perhaps when injured IMI may help in the recovery process and develop muscle strength.

How do I achieve relaxed muscles?

Progressive muscular relaxation involves the active contracting and relaxing of muscles. When a muscle is tightened for 4-6 seconds and then relaxed, the muscle returns to a more relaxed state. This process should be performed for the following parts of the body in turn - feet, legs, thighs, buttocks, stomach, back, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, jaw, face and eyes.

How will relaxed muscles feel?

J.H. Schultz in the 1930's (Schultz & Luthe 1959)[1] noticed that patients in a relaxed state experienced one of two sensations: the feeling of warmth or the feeling of heaviness in completely relaxed limbs . During the relaxation process, concentration should be focused on one of these sensations. For the first few sessions, the athlete should alternate the focus between sessions to determine which one they prefer.

Can Relaxation have a Negative Effect?

In a competition situation an athlete will either be:

  • Under excited; low in arousal; find it hard to "get up" for the competition; disinterested; etc.
  • Over excited; high in arousal; over the top; nervous-anxious; scared of the competition; sick with worry; etc.
  • Optimally excited; nervous but in control; looking forward to the competition but apprehensive; thinking positively; feeling good; etc.

If we were to use relaxation procedures with an over excited athlete, we might be able to reduce his/her arousal level to that of the optimally excited athlete. This would have a positive effect on his/her performance. However if we asked an under-excited athlete to use relaxation procedures it would only make it harder for him/her to "get-up" for the competition. The coach therefore has to know his/her athletes and how they react in competitive situations.

Relaxation Training

There are a number of relaxation techniques that have the following characteristics:

  • procedures for first recognising and then releasing tension in muscles
  • concentration on breathing control and regulation
  • concentration on sensations such as heaviness, warmth
  • mental imagery

Regardless of which technique is used, the following two conditions need to exist if the technique is to be learned:

  • the athlete must believe that relaxation will help
  • a quiet, dimly lit and warm room which is free from interruption


The Centering technique was developed by the Tibetan Monks over 2000 years ago. Centering requires you to focus your attention on the centre of your body, the area just behind your naval button. The technique has a calming and controlling effect, providing an effective way to manage anxiety.

  • Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, arms hanging loosely by your side
  • Close your eyes and breath evenly - try to keep the tension in the upper body to a minimum as you breath
  • Inhale deeply from your abdomen (your stomach will extend) and be aware of the tension in your face, neck, shoulders and chest. As you exhale let the tension fall away and focus on the feeling of heaviness in your stomach
  • Continue to breath evenly and deeply and focus your attention on the centre of your body, the area just behind your naval button
  • Maintain your attention on that spot and continue to breath evenly and deeply, feeling controlled, heavy and calm
  • As you breath out think of a word that encapsulates the physical feeling and mental focus you want e.g. "relax", "calm"

Self Hypnosis

This is one of the most popular self-hypnosis techniques employed by athletes. It aims to help you distance your mind from the here and now and place you in a setting that you associate with relaxation and inner calm. This script could be recorded as an MP3 file - where there are 3 full stops (...) leave a pause for a few seconds and remember to speak clearly and slowly. The following script (Karageorghis 2006)[3] is an adaptation of a script published by the London College of Clinical Hypnosis.

Firstly you need to relax, put on some very relaxing music or sounds of nature, sit or lie down in a position that you find comfortable in a place where you are unlikely to be disturbed.

Look up at your eyebrows and begin to concentrate on the sounds around you... maybe the distant sound of a car driving by or the hustle and bustle outside on the street... then concentrate on the sounds of the music, feel it flowing over you as if it were the tide going in and out, in and out... now begin to pay attention to the sound of your thoughts... concentrate on your breathing. Take deep breaths in and out... in and out... listen to your heart beat... become aware of your eyelids and feel them blinking quickly and notice that you have a strong desire to close your eyes... allow your eyes to close and feel a deep sensation of relaxation. In a few seconds, you will imagine your favourite place of relaxation... maybe somewhere you have been before, a beautiful garden, a deserted beach, a summer meadow or somewhere you can imagine you would feel relaxed... and now... just imagine that you are standing on a balcony... and there is a long set of stairs in front of you... leading down from this balcony... there are strong stairs... with wide steps... and a handrail on each side... the stairs are well lit... and you can see them clearly... In a few seconds' time... you can count down from 10 to one... and with each descending number between 10 and one... you will take a single step down the stairs... and with each descending number you will become more and more calm, more and more relaxed... each step down from the balcony will take you deeper and deeper... into your wonderful state of relaxation... and as you slowly descend these stairs... you are going to experience a sense of ever-deepening relaxation... throughout your entire body... You will feel the stairs under your feet and when you eventually reach step one, you can pause and wonder where you might go next... again you feel very tranquil and this tranquility is accompanied by a sense of anticipation... you will then step off... and when you do so... you will find yourself in your favourite place of relaxation... and enjoy... this beautiful place... Provide yourself with only positive and beneficial suggestions. For example, relating to increasing your self-confidence, attaining peak performance in an upcoming competition, or mastering a specific sports skill that has perhaps proved elusive to you. If, at any time, for any reason, for example in case of emergency or any situation where full attention is required, by opening your eyes, you will be fully alert.

To take yourself out of your relaxing place in a gradual manner, simply count up slowly from one to ten, on reaching the number eight, open your eyes, and at the number 10 you will be fully awake and alert. As you stand up, have a stretch and notice how good you feel.

Meditation for Relaxation

A number of people involved in sports psychology believe that meditation can be useful in getting maximum performance from an athlete (Syer & Connolly, 1984)[2]. Engaging in meditation helps reduce stress before an event and with experience the athlete can learn to relax different muscle groups and appreciate subtle differences in muscle tension. The technique includes the following steps:

  • Lie down on your back in a comfortable position and close your eyes
  • Relax all your muscles, beginning at your feet and progressing to your face
  • Breathe through your nose and become aware of your breathing. As you breathe out, say the word "won" silently to yourself. For example, breathe in . . . out, "won"; in . . . out, "won"; and so on. Continue for 20 minutes. You may open your eyes to check the time, but do not use an alarm. When you finish, lie quietly for several minutes at first with closed eyes and later with opened eyes.

Maintain a passive attitude, permit relaxation to occur at its own pace and expect other thoughts. When distracting thoughts occur, return your concentration to your breathing. Try to practice a relaxation technique once a day.

Doke (2015)[5] is a strong believer that meditation is great for relaxing after training, calming nerves and helping you focus prior to competition. He is the founder of of the Anamaya App, a meditation programme founded on 20 years research and featuring more than 350 meditations and 11 focus areas, including sport.


  1. SCHULTZ, J.H. and LUTHE, W. (1959)  Autogenic training: A psychophysiologic approach in psychotherapy. New York: Grune and Stratton
  2. SYER, J. and CONNOLLY, C. (1984) Sporting body sporting mind : an athlete's guide to mental training. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  3. KARAGEORGHIS, C. (2006) Imagery in sport - how imagination can enhance performance. Peak Performance, 238, p. 1-4
  4. YAO, W. X. et al. (2013) Kinesthetic imagery training of forceful muscle contractions increases brain signal and muscle strength. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 7
  5. DOKE, G. (2015) The right application, Athletics Weekly, 12th March, p. 54

Related References

The following references provide additional information on this topic:

  • KOSSLYN, S. M. et al. (2006) The case for mental imagery. Oxford University Press
  • MURPHY, S. M. and MARTIN, K. A. (2002) The use of imagery in sport
  • HALL, C. et al. (1985) The measurement of imagery ability. Human Movement Science, 4 (2), p. 107-118

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work then the reference for this page is:

  • MACKENZIE, B. (2000) Relaxation [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

Related Pages

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