Mindset training: Relaxation techniques to enhance your competitive energy *H&H Plus*

  • In part three of our series on transforming mental fitness, Charlie Unwin outlines his relaxation techniques to enhance your competitive energy

    These are, for your mind, what balance, rhythm and accuracy are for your riding:
    Fundamental #1 – win the day
    Fundamental #2 – create the space
    Fundamental #3 – relax into it
    Fundamental #4 – train your feel
    Fundamental #5 – train your nerves

    Sport can be intense, there’s no getting away from it. By and large, the bigger the moment, the more intense it will feel. Different people experience this in different ways, some more in the mind (“I have to get this right”) and some more in the body (nervousness and tension). I always encourage riders to interpret these intense experiences as energy waiting to be released, which is technically what it is.

    The most primal way of releasing this energy is through “mass movement” using our biggest muscle groups, which often explains why we might over-ride when nervous. Unfortunately our skill as a rider often relies on the very opposite; sitting still and exercising subtle control of much smaller muscle groups to communicate precisely with the horse.

    To illustrate this, try sitting dead still the next time you get really excited about something – it’s near impossible. Try this with children who have never learnt how to internalise their energy, and it really is impossible! Whether it comes from excitement or fear, this excess energy manifests itself as tension in the muscles if we don’t train ourselves to manage it.

    Tension occurs when muscle fibres become shortened, leading to tightness and damage. In riding terms, tension in the muscles will interfere with your posture and reduce your strength, flexibility, coordination, endurance, feel and communication with the horse – all things that will cost you points and poles.

    The goal for any athlete is therefore to learn how to sit with this natural intensity while staying relaxed. This is the holy grail of psycho-physiological performance (the point at which mind and body meet). Therefore, muscular relaxation becomes a profound starting point for any sporting activity. Learning how to stay relaxed is also an essential tool for reducing anxiety – not just before and during competition, but also post-event as you reflect on your performance.

    Our first challenge with staying relaxed is that we are too often unaware of creeping tension, so called because it can sneak up on us over days and weeks, especially in the run-up to competition.

    This is something I have vivid memories of as an athlete at my first World Cup competition in Budapest. Stuck on a bus on the way to the venue I decided to use the time to practise the relaxation techniques given to me by my own psychologist. Only when I focused inwardly on how my body was feeling did I realise how tense I was.

    My legs in particular were as hard as rock. It took 15 minutes of focused breathing and relaxation before I could return them to any state of normality.

    It scared me how something that could affect my performance so dramatically could escape unnoticed. From that day onwards I started to take “active relaxation” practice far more seriously in my day-to-day training, much to the benefit of my results.

    As event rider Sharon Hunt, who competed in the 2008 Olympics, says: “I had no idea how tense I got until I learnt how to truly relax.”

    Active relaxation training

    Think relaxation and many people imagine kicking back on the sofa to watch Netflix. This is passive relaxation and is very different to active relaxation, which is about conscious control of relaxing your muscles. Practise the simple exercise below every day and your subconscious will start to do it for you when you need it most.

    By the time we get to the final fundamental of this series – training your nerves – I will be demonstrating some more advanced methodologies for doing this, but first we must become world-class at active relaxation as a day-to-day skill.

    The following is meant as guidance – the importance thing is to work out what works best for you and to personalise it to your own system and routines. For example, some might benefit from listening to music whereas others might prefer quiet.

    Breathing first

    • Start with deep breathing, which you have practised from fundamental #2. Take as long as you need to achieve deep, rhythmical breaths, allowing your stomach to expand as you breathe in, and your shoulders to drop and relax as you breathe out.
    • Breathe out for the same time or longer than you breathe in for.

    Progressive relaxation

    • Focusing on one area of the body at a time, your goal is to soften your muscles more and more with every exhale.
    • Starting with your head, focus on releasing any tension in your forehead, around your eyes and through your jaw. Take as many breaths as you need to, softening these muscles more and more with every exhale you make.
    • Now apply the same process to every other area of your body one at a time, including the neck and shoulders, arms and fingers, torso and glutes, legs and feet. Assuming you take five breaths per area, this should take you five to 10 minutes.

    One-breath relaxations

    • Finish off with three “one-breath relaxations”, which means that on every exhale you feel a complete wave of relaxation run from the top of your head all the way down to the soles of your feet, releasing any tension out into the floor.

    Reinforce the feeling

    • As your goal is to develop your ability to call upon this relaxation response quickly in more stressful situations, anchor the relaxed feeling you get every time you exhale by saying to yourself “relax”, “calm” or “loose”. This will reinforce the association when you say it to yourself in competition.
    • As you reflect on the impact this practice has, notice the physical response inside your own body as well as the psychological response – a calmer, softer, more positive focus. Notice the days when you find this easy and the days when you find it hard. Don’t judge yourself for either, just focus on doing it as consistently as you can.

    In addition to routine training, practise this combined breathing and relaxation technique whenever you become aware of the following early signals – tenseness in any part of the body (especially the neck, shoulders and jaw), shaky legs, butterflies in the stomach and a rapid increase in heart rate.

    Once you have started to master active relaxation, then you will be ready to incorporate it with mental preparation for training and competition – in particular linking relaxation to the mental imagery you have of riding.

    Top tip: Stretching is a great way to relax the muscles as it’s difficult to stretch and tense up at the same time. I often encourage riders to jump off their horse and stretch while concentrating on their breathing. This takes the focus off the horse and allows them to regulate themselves better – thereby helping them to stay physically and mentally relaxed.

    About Charlie: Charlie Unwin is a specialist in human performance and psychology. His clients include Olympic champions, England footballers, elite special forces and the Royal Household, as well as a number of our international equestrian teams. A former Army officer and British athlete, Charlie is passionate about applying the science of mental performance to equestrian sport, helping riders maximise their potential through training and competition

    Click here to register your place on Charlie’s next online course for riders, quoting “inspire15” on checkout to receive a 15% discount to use during the lockdown.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 23 April 2020