Sport Psychology: Localized Relaxation Technique for Pre-Competition Anxiety

Sport Psychology: Localized Relaxation Technique for Pre-Competition Anxiety

Dick Moss, Editor, PE

Some athletes get so nervous before competitions that they find it difficult to concentrate and even become nauseous. In some cases, the anticipation of these feelings may cause an athlete to avoid competing, or even quit their sport.

These nervous sensations often locate themselves in specific areas of the body. Most common is muscle tension in the shoulders and neck, or the sensation of “butterflies in the stomach.”

In cases where your athletes suffer more than usual from pre-competition jitters, you can use the following “localized relaxation” technique to reduce their nervous symptoms.

Localized Relaxation Technique
This procedure is similar to “progressive muscle relaxation,” in which the muscle groups throughout the body are sequentially tensed,  then relaxed. However, in the localized technique, only the trouble spots are tensed and relaxed.

As a result, the technique can be applied very quickly, while the athlete is sitting, standing or even walking. Since closing the eyes and lying down isn't required, it's appropriate for the nervous minutes before competition or even during warm-up.

The technique should be combined with positive mental imagery. If your athletes are watching mental images of themselves performing successfully, negative worry-producing thoughts can be reduced.

Reducing Stomach Butterflies
Here's how to apply the localized relaxation technique to an athlete with butterflies in her stomach.

  1. Tell her to contact her stomach muscles as hard as she can for five seconds. If she wants, she can simultaneously take a deep breath and hold it.
  2. After five seconds, instruct her to relax her stomach muscles and exhale. Tell her to concentrate on the sensations of the stomach area expanding, relaxing, and becoming warm as the blood flows back into the muscles.
  3. Repeat the contraction/relaxation steps 4-6 times. On each successive repetition, have her increase the amount of time she spends experiencing the feeling of relaxation.
  4. After the fourth or fifth repetition, instruct her to imagine herself successfully performing some aspect of her sport: for example sinking a jump shot, spiking the volleyball, finishing fast in a race, etc.
  5. Continue until the athlete says that her butterflies feel better.

You can use this technique in any of the areas that traditionally become tense during periods of stress: the stomach, shoulders, hands (trembling), back of the neck, etc.

1. Damon Burton, Thomas Raedeke, Sport Psychology for Coaches, Human Kinetics, 2008.
2. Brent Rushall, “On-Site Psychological Preparation for Athletes.” Mental Training for Coaches and Athletes, by Terry Orlick, John Partington and John Salmela, Ottawa: The Coaching Association of Canada, 1983.

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