Well Being Program 4: Playing Better
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Deepak: Well being is something we all desire. But staying healthy and feeling good can be quite a challenge especially with the stresses that pervade every aspect of our lives today. Everyone's aware that regular exercise and eating healthfully are two essential steps to well being. In this series, you'll learn about a third step -- Relaxation.
Not just sitting around but some specific activities that trigger your body's relaxation response. You'll learn about the importance of deep relaxation for reducing the harmful effects of stress along with a series of easy to do relaxation skills. And through our weekly questionnaire, you'll gain an awareness of how stress may be affecting you. So get a paper and pencil ready and join us as we take the next step to well being.
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Deepak: Physical exercise is often pointed to as an antidote to stress but even here it can get awfully competitive. Could the pressure to win increase our level of stress? And what about stress from the workplace? Can it reduce our enjoyment of the game and perhaps even impair our performance?
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In this week's program, we'll see what part stress plays in physical activity and this week's questionnaire will help you recognize the role of stress in your game and we'll give you some ideas of what you can do about it.
Eli Bay, director of the Relaxation Response Institute in Toronto is a pioneer in the teaching of relaxation skills for stress management.
Eli: For many of us, life is becoming not only more stressful but more sedentary all the time. Our jobs are physically inactive or repetitive. We sit at computers, in our cars, at home watching television, none of which is properly relaxing. We know that getting out for some physical enjoyment is essential for well being but often just the thought of exercise is not enjoyable. Sometimes our bodies feel great, we feel light, we feel energetic. But other times, we feel heavy and lethargic and even when you're active you tend to have those moments when you're at your best and other moments when you seem to make all the wrong moves.
Now, most of us bring a lot of stress into our games. The stress from work is added to the physical stress of the game as well as the emotional stress of wanting to do well. We can really learn a lot from the way athletes train. Part of the way peak performing athletes train these days involves learning how to manage stress through relaxation. The techniques that they use are a little more sophisticated than what we will be using but the principles are just the same.
Dr. Bird: I think relaxation is absolutely essential to an athlete's performance They have to have optimal muscle tension, optimal concentration, optimal emotional control and relaxation techniques teach you that self regulation
Dr. Wilson: The cornerstone of self regulation is breathing. And you can take it from the Oriental art, 2000 BC talked about breathing, the techniques of learning breathing, it's the basis of meditation, yoga, a lot of those types of things. We now have North American proof in terms of the research medically, psychologically and in sport performance there's a tremendous impact on performance from breathing. From either holding your breath or more importantly, hyperventilation.
And that can not only mess up your body but it can mess up your mind. One of the key skills that I require the athletes to learn is to breathe. It sounds simple you can breathe with doing nothing but to learn to do it under stress and to do it properly for a lot of people is a problem. And they're not aware of it unless you monitor them, train them and then they can also learn to enhance it in terms of for energy, using breathing to energize as well as to relax. It's the fastest, quickest way to self control.
Dr. Jensen: There's no question that stress has an impact on our athlete's performance. We only have to look at the difference between practice behaviour and competition behaviour. A figure skater, for example, lands 2 triple jumps in a competition and they can do 5 or 6 in a practice. The morning of the competition, clearly we're dealing with a psychological problem. We're dealing with something that has to do with the way they perceive the competition as compared to the practice.
Anne: When I go into a race and there's pressure to win a medal for us or there's always the pressure to win the nationals. Because I've always won them and I am a has-been if I don't and get no credit if I do sort of thing. That kind of pressure, that's very difficult to cope with.
Dr. Wilson: You've got to know yourself. The more you know yourself in thinking sports not all sports. The ideal for us in a lot of sports, if you can be automatic just go on automatic pilot and react in a lot of sports and having worked with sprinters, the ideal thing is leave your brains in the locker room or in the library and just react. That's ideal. But most of the time it doesn't work. In sports like sailing or wrestling where you have to think on your feet, you've got to know what it is you're likely to miss because of who you are.
Robert: I feel the stress management work that we've accomplished has basically kept the 3 of us sailing together I think that our light air performances were such that without that, we would have broken up as a group because it was becoming very hard to deal with each other in the boat.
John: One of the biggest things I used to have, before competition I used to get really nervous. Very nervous, almost to the point of being sick. And Bob was getting tighter thinking that I was going to screw up every turn of the boar. So what happened is Sue basically was able to relax me and I was making less mistakes and Bob was happier with the way my learning curve was going along. So that probably kept us together as a crew. Otherwise I don't know if all would have been able to put up with me very much longer in the boat.
Robert: Well, a happy boat performs well That's exactly it. We've all got the skill sets A happy boat really translates those into results.
John: We have to interact between each other and if there's a personality conflict that we can't put aside because and stress really brings out personality conflicts the boat just won't go.
Dr. Wilson: And the more they can start to understand who they are, what they do under certain situations in a particular under stressful situation, the more likely they are gonna pick up cues as to when they're off target.
Dr. Jensen: The high level performance mind set is very different than even the national level mindset. This creates some serious problems. Because what happens is, people get to a certain level of performance by just busting their backside, by working hard, by winning isn't the only thing, it's everything, by you gotta give 110%, you gotta be focused, you gotta be strong. And that may even get them on the national team. But to move to a world class level you gotta move to a whole different mindset. We're moving to much higher levels. The difference between number 1 and number 50 on the money winning circuit on the professional golf tour is I think 1.21 strokes per round. It's phenomenal. It's a very hard game now. So more and more elite athletes have to learn to acquire these skills.
Dr. Bird: I have been working with Mark Klepp who is an international rifle shooter and it is a precision sport. So we have to concentrate on a great deal of very precise physical control over the situation. Also important for emotional control and mental control. You can have your worst performance if your stress is not under control. You need to fire that gun in between heart beats for optimal control. The beat of the heart will influence how precise you can be with that shot and of course with the respiration. So you hold your breath and then fire in between each breath.
So that's the kind of high precision control that you need if you're doing something like shooting. One method of monitoring the body's response to stress is to use physiological equipment in order to feed back the stress responses to the individual so their awareness is heightened. For example, if they're a shooter, there needs to be a great deal of precision in the muscles that hold that gun And so I relate the amount of tension that it says on the bio-feedback equipment to how the particular muscles feel in my hand that's holding the gun. And with Mark, he was very very aware of his muscle control then we helped him to become very aware of the breathing because this is very important skill in shooting. Also we need to monitor heart rate and then the optimal control comes in brain wave control and until an athlete becomes that aware and has that much self regulation I don't think they'll ever be world caliber.
Mart: When I was in Munich in 1988, I shot a world record in one phase of the competition and at that time, what I was actually going through and setting a world record I realized getting towards the end of the course of fire that I was actually going to do it. And suddenly my heart rate went through the roof. I thought what am I going to do? The rifle started bouncing all over the place Shooting is such a precision sport like if you move the end of the barrel the thickness of a human hair, you actually move from the 10 ring out to the 9 ring.
So what I saw was this rifle moving, it felt like almost an inch at a time which would put me right off the target. It was like, this is it. I have to do this and execute a shot. It went off really funny, I didn't believe I had shot a world record and I looked through the scope immediately after and it was a dead center 10 All those skills of doing muscle relaxation, doing the mental rehearsal mental visualization and having a routine to follow all came to play at that particular time in my shooting career and I executed everything as I wanted to and hence I got a world record.
Deepak: So, what can ordinary people like me learn from all this to help me enjoy physical activity more and maybe even improve performance?
Dr. Bird: These skills don't spoil one's fun. I know you're out there primarily to have a good time and that's important and get some exercise and be outdoors and that's excellent. But if at the time you want to concentrate, for example, you're going to drive or you're going to do a putt, then have that skill, that ability to for instance, take a deep breath, relax, let the shoulders drop, see yourself as calm, in control See yourself as being successful in this particular shot. Then you can focus on what you have to do for those few minutes. And then you go back to walking down the golf course and enjoying yourself.
Dr. Wilson: My objective in sport in terms of I don't believe necessarily in excellence being this thing of winning. I'm in there in the scenes and I'm concerned with people getting the best out of themselves. And to do that, generally you have to have a balanced life. If their social life, their school life, their employment life is somewhat in balance they're going to be able to be more aware of themselves and so my objective in most cases, we end up talking about the total person. Because the same mistakes they make sailing are gonna be the same mistakes they make in the office and the more places they get to practice these skills then, the better they're going to be.
Dr. Jensen: One of the things that athletes learn to do very well that we can all learn to do is learn to act like you have time because then at the body level and by breathing properly and at the mind level and at the feeling level, we put in the same message. It's a very congruent message Ben Hogan said on the days when he played best, he walked slow, he talked slow and he chewed slow.
Deepak: I don't get a lot of physical exercise but I do some fitness walking and I race a sailboat. I also like to play squash for fun but I like to win too. I know some practice will improve my performance in all of these areas. I wonder if stress is an issue at my level also?
Eli: Oh, most definitely. But first of all, let me just say a couple of things about your playing squash competitively or any sport competitively. Research has determined that if you're a really aggressive, competitive player, if you're a Type A personality we talked about that last week, if you play your game with that same need to win that you have in other areas of your life, people can literally step off the squash court or the hockey rink with more stress hormones in their bloodstream after a good workout than before they went on.
So it seems really important that you appreciate the attitude that you have can determine your overall stress levels. And stress affects our attitude. If you have a lot of stress, if affects your anxiety levels, muscle tensions, ability to focus, negative expectations and of course, you do need a certain amount of stress. We all need a certain amount of stress to be at our best. But when you go beyond that right amount of stress for you, then it starts having a negative effect and it really does indeed impair our overall performance.
One sports psychologist, Doctor James Luhr did an exploration with a group of athletes, interviewed dozens of athletes and wanted to explore and see what they were experiencing, what was their inner climate, what was their emotional, physical, mental state? When they were performing at their very best? And it was out of his research that we've devised a questionnaire that will give you some idea. So you can compare your inner climate when you perform against these ideal state.
Deepak: So, I'm gonna compare my performance with some ideal performance?
Eli: No. You're not comparing performance you're comparing your own internal climate, your own internal condition, your physical, mental, emotional state against that which was experienced by top athletes when they were in their ideal performance state. In reality, that's not a common state for most athletes but it's a state that they work towards and train to achieve. Just look at the first question. You generally feel relaxed and loose when performing. You answer this with a yes or a no. Just evaluate your own personal performance against this ideal.
Researchers have generally shown that as muscle tension increases, performance tends to be reduced. Next question. You usually feel a sense of calmness and quiet inside. You answer this with a yes or a no. Doctor Luhr's research suggests that for many sports activities the greater internal calm you can experience the better you'll perform. The better will be your reactions. So answer yes or no. Next question. You don't feel anxious or nervous very often. Again, research has shown that as nervousness goes up, performance tends to go down. Fourth question. You feel charged with positive energy most of the time.
Deepak: There's something peculiar here in this question. Doesn't high energy relate to stress?
Eli: We're not talking about being pumped up. We're talking about a positive energizing love of the game enjoying it, it's fun. That's the kind of positive energy that we're talking about here. You mostly feel optimistic and positive about your performance. The more positive your expectations, the better will be your performance. The more negative your expectations, the worse your performance. High performing athletes are aware of any negative thoughts that they have and they quickly put them aside. For some people this is natural. For others it's really a question of training. Next question. You feel a genuine sense of fun and enjoyment in your play. Yes or no?
Dr. Luhr's studies revealed that enjoyment played an important role when these athletes performed at their best. The ability to play with a sense of fun is something we should aim for in our recreational activities. Next question. You feel mentally alert when you perform. Mental alertness is one of the keys to better performance. The top athletes are alert. They have often an extraordinary sense of alertness. They're aware of what's happening all around them, they're able to respond quickly and effectively. Next question. You don't have difficulty focusing mentally and tuning in. Yes or no.
In the ideal performance state, athletes are concentrating very effectively on what they have to do. They are able to ignore the crowd and other distractions that come from both outside and inside. Even from the competing thoughts within their own mind. This is a skill that can be learned so look and see if this is true for you or not. Next question. You feel that you are really in control of yourself. Yes or no. It seems the top athletes maintain an inner control especially an emotional control. And that seems to be absolutely crucial to top performance. You generally find performing to be effortless. When you tend to try hard, your muscles tend to tighten up.
And tight muscles tend to block effectiveness. If anything, rather than trying harder, you should maybe be trying a bit softer. Next question. Your performance tends to be automatic and spontaneous. Yes or no. It seems that the ideal athlete's find that they're at their very best when they don't have to think, when it's just an automatic reaction, when the golf swing is just an automatic reaction. There is no paralysis by analysis. You don't worry about whether your elbow is straight or you're coming through. It's just a natural automatic flow.
Deepak: Now that's very interesting Eli. I have a good example of the 2 extremes of what you're talking about from my own life. I race a sailboat and I play squash. My sailing experience would get a lot of yeses on this questionnaire. But squash, on the other hand, wouldn't get very many yeses at all. In fact, I can see a big difference in the way I perform in those 2 activities. On the sailboat, there have been 3 of us racing together for the last 5 years and we don't allow any shouting or that kind of Type A behaviour.
We have a good sense of fun, we're there to play. And our performance over the last few years has come together and we're winning a lot of races. Now squash on the other hand, I don't feel relaxed I'm usually playing competitors far better than I am and they control the ball better than me and so I have to race to get at the ball and my performance is not automatic or spontaneous.
Eli: You've just used the test really quite well because you've seen the difference in your performance states when you're playing squash and when you're sailing. What I would like to do is to illustrate a very simple method that you can use in your sport, certainly on the squash court or before you play squash that can help you to get into this ideal state so you can really bring that carryover from your successful activity into one that really isn't quite as successful.
Deepak: That's great. I'd like to try it.
Eli: Why don't you put what you have down and sit comfortably And for those of you at home, you get much more out of this program by actually doing the exercise with us rather just watching. So follow along with us. [music]
Close your eyes and put your concentration onto your forehead and just let your forehead relax. Let your forehead become loose and smooth and just let go of any tightness any tension that you can detect. The word to relax in Latin literally means to let go. In ancient Rome they used to relax prisoners from jail.
So when I say to relax, just let go, let it go, let it become smooth and loose and relax. Now, put your concentration into your eye lids and let all the muscles in your eyelids relax. Of all the muscles in your body, your eyelids are the easiest to relax. So just allow the muscles in your eyelids to completely relax. Let that relaxation now move down into your cheeks. And down into your jaw. Many of us carry a lot of tightness in the jaw -- A lot of tension in the jaw. We don't even notice it. What I'm asking you to do now is just notice, notice if you're holding onto tension that you don't need. Let your jaw relax. Let it go. Now relax your lips. All the muscles in your lips relax. Let your lips part slightly. And allow your tongue to relax. Let your tongue just become loose and heavy
So you just let go of all the tightness in your facial muscles. On your own now, quickly scan your facial muscles in your mind's eye. Your forehead, your eyelids, your cheeks, your jaw. Your lips your tongue. Let go of any tightness that you can detect. Now let that loose relaxed comfortable feeling move down into neck and shoulders. Just scan for your neck and shoulders. If you can catch any tension let it go. Let your neck relax. Let your shoulders drop. Let that loose relaxed feeling move down into your upper arms. Down into your forearms. [music]
Down into your hands. Right to the tips of your fingers. It's just a letting go. So quickly, on your own, just scan your neck and shoulders, arms and hands and just let go of any tension that you can notice, that you detect Let it go. Give yourself the permission to relax and to enjoy it.
Now put your concentration onto your throat and allow your throat to relax. Let the relaxation move down into your chest down to your solar plexus. Let go of any tightness that you can detect in your upper torso. Let your solar plexus relax and allow the relaxation to move down into your stomach Into belly. Again, many of us carry a lot of tightness in the stomach. Let it go. Let your stomach relax.
Now just quickly, on your own, scan your throat, chest, solar plexus and stomach, letting go of any tightness that you don't need. Now direct your awareness to your upper back, between your shoulder blades. Let go of any tightness. Look for where you're holding it Let it unwind. Let it loose. Let your upper back relax. Let the relaxation move down your back, down into your lower back. Let go of all the tightness in your lower back muscles. Just quickly scan your upper back, mid back, lower back, letting go of any tightness that you can detect. Let it go That tightness doesn't serve you.
Now put your awareness into your buttocks and let go of any tightness that you can detect in your buttocks. Let it go. And allow the relaxation to move down into your thighs and to your knees -- Just letting go. Give yourself the permission to let go of the tightness. Let the relaxation now move down into your calves and down into your ankles and feet and just quickly scan your buttocks, thighs, knees, calves and feet and just let go of any tightness in your lower body. Just really truly let go [music] Now take a deep breath hold it, let it go exhale and just slowly open your eyes. [music] [music] [music]
Deepak: It's a very interesting exercise You know what really surprised me? Is that just thinking about relaxing the muscles actually did it. It really worked.
Eli: Yes. There's a connection between mind and body and what you just experienced was that connection. That you can relax the muscles you can relax your emotions and calm your mind.
Deepak: So, it's doing quite a bit for me?
Eli: Oh yes. And this is just a taste of it. As you work with the other exercises that are contained in the home study package that take you through 25 minutes or 20 minutes of deep relaxation, as you develop a body awareness of relaxation you will find that you'll be able to access that relaxation just about anywhere, anytime by just quickly scanning your body.
And you can use this so that you're aware that you're not holding the squash racket too tightly or you can use it in different aspects of your life. You can use it when you're driving down the highway, you notice that you're white knuckle driving. Or that your shoulders are up around your ears or you catch yourself clenching your jaw tightly. This is an awareness that develops with practice and it's precious and it can really make such a difference in every aspect of your life including your overall athletic performance.
Deepak: Thanks very much, Eli.
Eli: A pleasure.
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Program Length: 26:50 min
About the Program:
Program 4 Playing Better, shows how relaxation can improve your enjoyment and performance in recreational sports by exploring how professional athletes cope with stress.