Although tennis and other physical activities are usually considered
excellent forms of stress relief, the serious competitive athlete often
experiences stress similar to an ambitious corporate executive or overworked
waitress. Too much stress can wreak havok on your mind and body. The
bottom line is a less pleasant experience, impaired performance, or even
potential health problems. This month, the spotlight is on learning to cope
with stress through relaxation.
Players who shine in practice often crumble in tournaments because they
manage stress poorly. Although an optimal arousal level must be maintained
for peak performance (See my September 1995 article on Optimizing Arousal in Tennis),
prolonged and excessive arousal is rarely positive. Failing to prepare for
stress is as unacceptable as forgetting to bring spare rackets to the match!
Still, many players never invest in stress busting tools.
There are as many relaxation programs on the market as there are diets.
Most involve some combination of deep breathing, pleasant imagery, and
muscular movements. I'll touch briefly on Progressive Muscle Relaxation
(PMR), the "gold standard" of relaxation techniques, developed in the 1930's
and aptly used to defeat a variety of physical and psychological ailments.
PMR, and its many varients, is used to help athletes prepare for competition
as well as to relax during play.
PMR trains the individual to identify the relative contrast between muscular
tension and the opposite sensation of complete calmness. By progressively
tensing various muscles and muscle groups for several seconds and completely
releasing and relaxing, the individual gradually learns to induce relaxation
on demand in periods of high stress. Recognition of the contrast between
tension and calmness is fundamental to the success of PMR.
There are two basic spinoffs of PMR that I'll recommend for tennis players.
The first involves a pre-match relaxation routine whereas the second helps
in coping with stress in the heat of battle. A warning ... these methods
will only work if regularly practiced and perfected. I'll outline them
briefly, but remember there is no substitute for the guidance of a qualified
sport psychologist in helping meet your individual needs.
10 Minute Pre-Match Routine
O.K., the big match is upon you. Before the warm-up, find a quiet place
and comfortable sitting position. Relax totally with eyes slightly closed.
Inhale for about 6 seconds deeply and slowly, then exhale for about 10
seconds. Continue this breathing pattern throughout the routine.
While inhaling, tense a muscle group and hold it tight for the duration of
the inhalation. Totally relase all tension upon exhalation. Study,
interpret, and examine the contrast between these two sensations (tension
and relaxation). Spend about two minutes for muscle groups in each major
region of the body (upper, middle, and lower). Vary the exact muscles used
as you see fit ... but focus on the difference between unpleasant and tight
tension, and its opposite, total calmness.
Now that your awareness of relaxing sensations is heightened, visualize
yourself performing to perfection (For help with this, see my August 1995 article on The Essence of Imagery in Tennis). After you are finished, stretch out and fire
yourself up for a great perfomance.
On Court Routine
Now you are deep in the heat of a match and feel that stress is intruding:
- Accept that you are "stressed" but re-interpret the sensations as normal
and exciting consequences of caring.
- In between points, breath deeply and slowly while tensing those muscles
that have been most affected by the stress (often shoulder muscles).
As before, release the tension immediately upon slow exhalation.
- Recall your pre-match routine (the pleasant sensations elicited by the
procedure) and image your next point to perfection.
Now your mental equipment includes two very simple means of coping with
stress in tennis (and other situations as well). Remember to practice these
techniques often for them to work. There are countless programs for
managing stress ... are you using only one?
Keep me informed of your favorite ways of overcoming stress and I'll see you
next month ...