“Just relax!” How often have you heard that said, or maybe someone has said it to you before a big competition? Why is it that something that sounds so simple can be so difficult to actually do?
It’s a bit like when someone says, “don’t look down!” If you’re a bit scared of heights you know you don’t want to or shouldn’t look down. But what happens…? You ‘look down’!
“Just relax!” You know you should relax and you want to, but hearing it at times, can make us tense up even more! The questions is, should we actually be relaxed before competition or should we be ‘psyching’ ourselves up? In this blog, we’ll explore and discuss all of this before in our next blog we look at some practical always to help those that want to relax to actually ‘relax’ rather than us just telling you that you should.
Relaxed or Psyched Up?
The most important point to note on this, in my opinion, is that every athlete and person is different (and there’s not many people that would argue with that statement) so there’s no black or white answer. You also need to throw into the mix, the fact that different sports will require different levels of relaxation and arousal.
So, it’s very important that not only do you understand yourself and what you are like as a person, but also the demands of your sport. A golfer for instance will need to be much more relaxed than an Olympic weight lifter. Two extreme examples but hopefully you the point…
Alongside understanding your sport and the demands of it, it’s important that you understand yourself, your personality traits and what motivates you.
We spend time with our athletes, as part of our mindset support, helping them understand themselves better, so that at competition they can aim to be the best version of themselves. Too often we see athletes trying to act or behave in a certain way (maybe how their heroes act and behave at competitions) trying to be something they aren’t, which can be counterproductive. You’re going to compete best when you feel comfortable, hence why football teams home records are usually far better than their away records, comfortable and familiar surroundings allow us to relax and perform at our best.
You’ll be most comfortable when you’re being yourself. The challenge at competitions when the pressure’s on is being the best version of yourself – that’s what you spend hour after hour doing during training. Maybe you’ve not thought of training that way before?
So understanding yourself and your sport plays a huge part in the level of relaxation you’re going to adopt at competition. The opposite of being relaxed would be creating tension or another term for this is arousal.
Arousal in sporting terms has been defined as your level of excitement and readiness to perform  or generalised as physical and psychological activity . Way back in 1908 psychologist Robert Yerkes and John Dodson developed a relationship between arousal and performance (Yerkes-Dodson Law) now commonly known as the ‘Arousal Curve’. The relationship is most commonly seen as a ‘bell-shaped’ or inverted ‘U” graph or curve (see image below).
The arousal curve shows us that there’s an optimum amount of arousal and therefore relaxation. Remember that everyone is an individual and each sport is different so your arousal curve might be slightly different or you need to be at a different point on the curve to others but that’s fine, its unique to you. This thought is backed up by research, which has shown, that different tasks require different levels of arousal for optimal performance. For example, difficult or intellectually demanding tasks may require a lower level of arousal (to facilitate concentration), whereas tasks demanding stamina or persistence may be performed better with higher levels of arousal (to increase motivation).
The job at competitions is being able to control where on your arousal curve you lie. Under the pressure of competition and expectations, can you “just relax” when you feel yourself moving too far along the arousal curve? It’s important at this point to note that the first step is you being aware of where on the curve you are at different times. Only when you are aware can you do something about changing it.
With this in mind, we can see a relationship between levels of arousal and relaxation with performance.
For you to be able to use this to your advantage there are three key points you need to understand:
- What does your ‘arousal curve’ look like? Everyone is different and will respond in different ways. You need to understand yourself first and foremost.
- What state of arousal / relaxation does your sport or performance require? And importantly, how does this affect your personal arousal curve. By this I mean, what’s optimal for you but also optimal for you in your sport.
- Can you identify where you are on your arousal curve at different times during competition as well as knowing what things affect your level of arousal and relaxation?
Once you’ve understood and explored these three key points, only then can we effectively look at ways to control your level or arousal and relaxation.
Spend some time thinking about those 3 key points and then keep an eye out for our next blog where we delve deep into the practical ways you can actually affect your levels of arousal and relaxation.