Head coach Tony Fagelman talks relaxation part 1

Head coach Tony Fagelman talks relaxation - part 1

Date: Sunday 10th May 2020 at Whittlesford

This and the next article are all about the use of relaxation to aid training. As with the article on Imagery, Relaxation can be practiced away from the gym and used to prepare the body and mind for the activities we will use in training and competition.

We, as sportsmen and women, need to overcome the myth that it is solely through practice and training that we improve our skills and train for competition and as if by magic, everything comes together and the desired result is achieved. Consider for the moment why you are able to perform well in training and yet at competition, you are unable to complete a routine to your satisfaction. We all know gymnasts who train brilliantly and yet at competition invariably fail. Equally, we know gymnasts who are capable of to rising to the occasion and perform to their very best in competition, even if sometimes their approach to training seems lackadaisical or unfocused. Additionally, why is it that at some competitions you perform well and at others you have a poor day. Has the training really made a difference between competitions? Or, was it that you were more mentally prepared for one competition and not the other?

Consistent high-level performance begins with the discovery of those factors and conditions that accompany superior performance (Williams, 2010). You need to accept the fact that all of us has control over our own behaviour and how we choose to participate in our own training. These articles and working diligently with your coach are here to help you identify the correct behaviours and aid you to consistently achieve superior performances.

Those of you who have been coached by me will have heard me use the phrase autonomic actions. This is where the body has learned the skill to such a degree that it acts naturally without conscious thought to undertake the action or actions requested of it. It is by the consistent repetition of a skill that it becomes autonomic or automatic. Equally, that skill must be performed with the correct technique, because if it has to be relearnt it takes up to 5 times as many repetitions to relearn the skill correctly. If the skill is also taught with the correct mindfulness, the correct emotional state is achieved during repetition, then the acquisition of the skill is improved and the repetitions may be reduced. Research has shown that every change in the mental-emotional state is consciously or unconsciously accompanied by an appropriate change in the body. (Green et al 1977)

Once you have identified which mental-emotional and bodily state and feelings accompany superior performance, you can learn to programme those responses voluntarily to allow you to set the stage for a repeat of those superior performances when you need it.

This readiness, or being psyched, energised, activated or whatever you want to call it is the integration of the mind-body feelings and thoughts that will provide you with the confidence of mastery and control and lead to success.

Probably, you are used to psyching yourself up before a competition, getting your buzz to allow you to feel ready. However, I want to tell you now that we're looking for the opposite, in fact what we're looking for is to lower your buzz, your activation levels, so you're in control. Whilst trampolining is akin to explosive sports such as sprinting or weight-lifting, where it might feel necessary to be buzzed, actually, our need to prolong our activity requires a calmness and measured approach. Generally, in competition, we have approximately 30 seconds of activity, where our mind and body are being asked to work at its optimum. It is very hard to do that if we have expended all our energies and focus at the very start. So, let's look at ways we can learn to control and direct those energies, mindfully and with precision to enable us to succeed. This by the way, works just as well in training single skills as it does in drill and competitive routines.

Learning to relax is essential to regulating the physiological, psychological and behavioural responses we put ourselves through especially when under pressure (in training or at a competition). Through identifying the best activities for yourself, you can avoid the detrimental effects on performance that come from worry, anxiety and stress over performance.

When a muscle tenses up, as it does when a person is worried and anxious (physical response to a psychological action), it contracts. This contraction also concerns the nerves as well, with the nerve activity alerting the brain to respond. As a muscle only works in one way, contracting, (shortening and thickening) the counter muscle (they are arranged in pairs) also reacts, to balance the segment of the body. This resulting double pull can build up to considerable tension throughout the body, and yet remain barely noticeable. Does this explain the muscle tremors you might experience before you compete? what about the leg shakes or bouncing? And during competition (or training), is this why you're unable to stay in the middle of the bed? By directing your energies smoothly and efficiently to higher and higher bouncing, rather than trying to correct movement caused by inappropriate muscle tension, you can massively improve your height and power. To bring about improvement, to ensure appropriate coordination of the muscle groups, requires the correct tension on those muscles, too much tension interferes with the execution of the skills.

We can learn to expend only those energies necessary to accomplish our aims and purpose without waste and with proper direction. This is called Differential Relaxation.

As mentioned above, muscle tension can be triggered by mental input generated by worry, anxiety and stress about not performing well. Or via external anxieties that creep into your training and competition, such as worries from home or school life. These worries and anxieties reach back to our earliest days, where we survived through our wits and speed. The muscle reactions were 'tuned' to respond autonomically to the need to fight or flight. When the nerves are occupied by impulses derived from the flight or flight mode inherited from our ancestors, they are inhibited in conveying messages that allow for skilful, coordinated movement, and the result is a panicked or rushed action. The greater the muscular tension, the more difficult it is to execute good form or proper coordination. We need to train the muscles to relax, to allow you to develop a much greater sensitivity to your bodily feelings and responses. Relaxation can assist in removing localised tension, i.e. headaches or back pain and can aid with injuries. I used to do it all the time for headaches, and it would be very successful. But probably the most important contribution it will make to you, if you can make this work for you, is to teach you how to regulate muscle tension so that the nerves are never overcharged and you retain focus and control.

There are two techniques that I want you to consider: Muscle-to-Mind and Mind-to-Muscle. The first one, which I will cover in this article is muscle to mind and involves breathing techniques and neuromuscular relaxation (progressive relaxation), which will train the muscles to become sensitive to tension and be able to release it. Conversely, mind to muscle includes, meditation and imagery to train the mind to release the tension and I will cover that in Part 2 of the article.

An outcome of Mind-to-Muscle strategies is the ability to achieve momentary relaxation. This technique allows you to quickly and efficiently achieve a state of relaxation prior to activity, it will reduce muscular tension, removing worry and anxiety and lead to enhanced body awareness. If you can achieve this in the moments before competing, or attempting a new skill, then your chances of success increase massively.

Muscle-to-Mind skills and strategies: You are more likely to find these easier than mind to muscle as you are used to physical exercises. Practice these at home, now, in lockdown is the perfect time as it will be a comfortable environment. However, when we get back into the gym, these should be continued at home as well as bringing them into the gym with you.

Breathing exercises: Breathing properly is relaxing, and it improves and facilitates performance by increasing the amount of oxygen in the blood which carries more energy to the muscles and facilitates the removal of waste products.

How many of you hold your breath while bouncing? Do you get part-way through your routine and find you are losing energy? That is because you are not breathing at all or breathing too shallowly, this creates further tension and further impairs performance.

Exercise 1: Complete breath

Proper breathing comes from the diaphragm (thin muscle that separates the lung and abdomen). Deep breathing involves the diaphragm moving down during inhalation push the abdomen out and creating space (a vacuum) in the lungs). This then fills the lungs from the bottom up, leading to that deep breath. Imagine your lungs are split into three parts, concentrate on filling the lower part of the lungs, try pushing the diaphragm down and forcing the abdomen out. Then move to the middle section, expand the chest cavity and raise the rib cage, Finally, raise the chest and shoulders slightly to fill the upper portion. These stages should all be done in sequence in one breath and should be continuous and smooth. Hold the breath for several seconds, then exhale be pulling the abdomen in (raises the diaphragm) and lower the shoulders and chest to empty the lungs, as you are finishing pull the abdomen in further still to force the last bit of air from the lungs. Then let go of all the muscular action at the end to relax the chest, shoulders and abdomen.

You should feel you fully empty every last drop of air from the very bottom of the lungs, emptying them from the top down.

Repeat this exercise until you find it comfortable to do without conscious thought. The inhalation should be as deep as possible and the exhalation should be as long as possible, During the exhalation you should feel all your tension is expelled along with the air. You should aim to take 30-40 breaths a day once you have learned the technique. Find triggers that make you stop to take a deep breath and exhale, such as if you receive a text message, or every time you check the time, you take a breath. Once you have mastered this, you can bring it to training. Then every time your coach asks you to perform, take a steadying deep breath before you start (either at the side of the trampoline or stood on the bed).

Exercise 2: Sighing

Sighing aids in reducing tension. I want you to inhale slowly then hold your breath for 10 seconds. Feel the tensions building in the throat and chest, exhale through the mouth with a slight sigh as you let go of the tensions in the rib cage. Let taking your next breath happen naturally, hold it and repeat. The calmest time fof the breath is between the exhalation and the inhalation, aim to feel the stillness of that moment directly after the exhalation and the end of the sigh. If you can become fully aware of this quiet time between the breaths, this moment of peace, calm and stillness, then you can use this to reduce the tension you are feeling when you are nervous or anxious.

Exercise 3: Rhythmic breathing

Inhale to a count of 4, hold for a count of 4, exhale to a count of 4 and pause for a count of 4. If you feel good with this, change the ratio to 1-2. This time take a full deep breath and exhalation (as in exercise 1), then count to 4 on inhalation, hold for 4 and then exhale for 8 and hold for 8. This is a very powerful way to relax. If you start to find it easy, change the count to 5 and 10 or even 6 and 12. This will deepen your breathing even further and really improve your relaxation. Try a 5:1 count. This time mentally visualise the number 5 as you take a full, deep, slow, breath, then exhale fully and completely. Then, mentally visualise the number 4 and as you exhale say to yourself, "I am more relaxed now than I was at Number 5", do not rush the thought. Repeat again this time visualising the number 3 and as you exhale say again, "I am more relaxed now than I was at number 4" allow yourself to feel a deepening of your relaxation. Continue the sequence and breathing until you reach number 1. By then should feel totally calm and relaxed. This whole exercise, done correctly can take up to 2 minutes, so do not rush it. You can use it as you are preparing to compete while on the warm-up mats or sitting waiting for your turn.

Exercise 4: Concentration breathing

Concentrate totally on your breathing, focus on the inhalation and exhalation of your breath as in Exercise 1. If your mind wanders between inhalation and exhalation, redirect your attention back at the next breath, letting the intruding thought disappear. With each exhalation, aim to become more relaxed and calmer. This is a really good exercise if you find yourself being distracted in training or at a competition. This allows you to re-focus and attain a level of calm and relaxation

Exercise 5: Active Progressive Relaxation:

This one is a bit more difficult to do on your own. If we were in the gym, I would lead the class or you individually and you would react to my voice. You may want to get someone else to help you with this, or you could record the instructions on your phone with the correct timings and then play it back when you are ready to do the exercises.

  1. Sit or lie down in a comfortable position and try to put yourself in a relaxed state. Try not to move more than is necessary and remain as comfortable as you can. Particularly, do not try to move muscles that have already been
  2. Close your eyes and try to achieve relaxed deep breathing (Exercise 1). Feel the tension leave your body as you exhale the long deep breath. Take another deep breath, feel your tensions, worries and anxieties flow away with every exhalation.
  3. As we progress through each of the 16 muscle groups you will tense each muscle group for 5-7 seconds and then relax it for 30-40 seconds. Do not start tensing until you hear the word Now, hold the tension until you hear the work OK and then relax that muscle group fully.
  4. Begin with tensing the muscles in the dominant hand and lower arm by making a fist. Now Feel the tension in the hand, over the knuckles and into the lower arm. OK relax and feel yourself letting go of the tension. Let the relaxation last for 20-30 seconds. Repeat it and hold again for 5-7 seconds in the fist and 20-30 seconds in relaxation.
  5. Now repeat but this time in the dominant bicep by pushing down against the floor. Feel the tension in the bicep, but without tensing any of the muscles in the lower arm or hand. OK release the tension in the bicep all at once. Repeat again as before, hold for 5-7 seconds and release all at once and then relax for 20-30 seconds. Notice the difference between the tension and letting go into relaxation.
  6. Repeat again with the non-dominant hand and lower arm, keeping your upper arm relaxed
  7. Once again move to the bicep of the non-dominant arm and repeat
  8. Hopefully by this time you are feeling the relaxation, you may be feeling a sense of warmth and comfort in your arms as well
  9. Now turning to the face, using the three muscle groups in your face we will do them sequentially. Initially tense the muscles in your forehead by raising your eyebrows. Hold for 3-5 seconds, as these are smaller muscles, and relax for 15-20 seconds, enjoy the spreading sensation, your forehead should feel smooth. Now squint your eyes and wrinkle your nose and hold for 3-5 seconds and relax again after 3-5 seconds and hold for 15-20 seconds. Finally, for the face, pull the corners of your mouth back and clench your teeth, not so hard that they hurt, but enough to add the tension. Again, hold for 3-5 and release for 15-20 seconds.
  10. Now move to the neck, back to 5-7 seconds, try to pull your chin downward and upward at the same time, contracting the muscles at the front and back of your neck simultaneously. Relax again for 20-30 seconds.
  11. Now bring your shoulders upwards and pull your shoulder blades back, pushing into the floor (if lying down). Hold and then relax completely, letting your shoulders sag down.
  12. Tighten your abdomen as though a ball is being thrown at your stomach, while squeezing your stomach. Think about holding your stomach for that great front landing and release.
  13. Now turn to your right leg, starting at your thigh, localise the tension, keep it just in your thigh and then release. Repeat again as before with the arms, feel the tension drain out and the enjoyment of the relaxation.
  14. Now flex your right ankle as though you are trying to touch your toes to your shin. Feel your calf tighten and the tension in your ankle and foot. Hold again for 5-7 and relax for 20-30 seconds. Repeat again
  15. Tense the muscles in your right foot by pointing your toes or curling them tightly, do not tense so hard you cramp them though. You should feel it in the ball of your foot and the arch as well. Hold and then relax and repeat again
  16. Now go through the same sequence with your left leg, start with the thigh, move down to the ankle and calf and finally through the foot and toes.
  17. Now relax all the muscles in your body. You should feel completely limp, be breathing deeply and slowly. Mentally scan your body for any tension point, if you feel any, do an additional tense and relax at those areas. Hopefully, you are feeling warmth and a deep heaviness in the whole of the body as though you are sinking into the floor. Or you may feel you are as light a feather and ready to drift away. Embrace the feelings of release and relaxation.
  18. Before you open your eyes, take several deep breaths, feel the energy and alertness in your body, stretch your arms and legs out and when you are ready open your eyes. Practice this yourself, this will be especially useful to aid you getting off to sleep, especially if you have had a stressful day.

You can vary the above exercise by doing the repeat hold for each muscle group as just a half tension hold. This teaches you to control your muscles and allows you to identify the tension in your muscles which will aid you to relax.

A further variation is to do the muscle groups in pairs. Ie, tensing the fists in both hands, then tensing the biceps and so on. This needs to be done after you have mastered the first exercise though so you manage to correctly apply the tension and not just tense parts of the body out of sequence.

A final variation is to undertake the above exercise but try to relax the muscle group without first tensing them. There is a slow progression from one part of the body to another, but instead of instigating tension, you are relaxing the tension you have built up during the day. You can use the above exercises to also perform localised tension removal. Scan your body for areas of tension. Where you feel it, go through the process of either holding and releasing the tension in those areas. Or, simply release the tension from the affected body parts in sequence. The most common area that is under tension is likely to be your head and neck. So, use the above exercise to locally remove the tension to those areas.

Practice, enjoy and I look forward to seeing you back at training soon