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Relaxation and Mental Performance - Charlie Unwin - Performance Psychology - Episode 13

Watch Episode 13 here 👇


If you would prefer to read a text version of Charlie's latest vlog - check out the video transcript below

Amy Williams:

Hello, and welcome to the U Perform channel, where we have Charlie, our mental performance expert. Now we've been going over these last weeks talking about anxiety and stress within sport. Last week, we chatted about breathing and how we can take control of that to help our performance. And this week we're covering relaxation. So what are we going to be talking about?

Charlie Unwin:

We're going to be talking about relaxation Amy and how we layer it into the other stuff that we've done so far. Last week we were talking about breathing and it's funny how you noted when you were up on the cycling machine and make sure you go back and watch that episode if you haven't already. But when you're up there on the cycling machine; something so simple, is so difficult to do well when we've got lots of other things going on.

So hence we kind of layer these things in and relaxation for me is the next layer because we've got our breathing right, but now we need to be more mindful of how we actively relax our muscles. I'm guessing for you, Amy, that relaxation was something that you were probably quite aware of as an athlete. I'm interested in that, how much time did you use spends actively practicing relaxation as a part of your performance or training?

Amy Williams:

I think maybe not as much as you think back then. I think we weren't quite so consciously aware of it. However, I guess within our day as an athlete, you had your specific training sessions, this that, blocks of eating time, and you knew you might've had an hour or two of doing nothing before the next session. So we might not have labeled it as active relaxation, but it literally could have been flunked on the sofa feet up. You've done your stretching and now you are just trying to zone out and do nothing, you know, not even walking through town because that was active. So I think we probably didn't label it. And it probably, maybe wasn't quite as specific as what you might be telling us now.

Charlie Unwin:

Yeah. So that's interesting. So you are talking much more about the type of relaxation we associate with, right? You've done your hard work now, rest. And we're going to go a little bit beyond just resting here because I think for me the whole point of active relaxation and active muscular relaxation is that it's about actively channeling relaxation into the very core of our muscles. Which is something that even sat on the sofa, watching Netflix, we might not be doing. And we find it so easy to have this kind of creeping tension that moves into our world and into our psyche. That's what I mean by active relaxation.

Amy Williams:

I think I could probably do with that in my life. And I think I always come back to, you know, that kind of busy working, juggling everything kind of life that we all have now that even when you are relaxed, you might still find those shoulders up. Even when you're watching TV or something, you're not completely zoned out relaxed. You still hold a level of tension in your body that you might not be aware of.

Charlie Unwin:

Yeah, we do. And we'll definitely learn how to attend to that in the spaces of what we do or in the kind of recovery periods of what we do. However, I think it's also really important to be aware of the quality of relaxation during physical performance itself. You know, you think about a hundred meter sprinter, right? You think that job is, is to run as fast as they can for what, what you know is quite a small distance.

And we often consider, we might not consider that that relaxation is a part of that performance more it's about just that burst, that intensity of energy. But actually the athletes who do best are the ones who are able to incorporate relaxation in the muscles that they're not using, and then they have a much more efficient body posture, which then improves their coordination, stuff like that. So yeah, relaxation can start to affect us in more ways than we realise when it comes to especially quite technical sports and sports where we've got to be quite coordinated.

Amy Williams:

What many people might not know if you haven't watched the very first episode when we introduced you, is that you used to compete as a modern pentathlete and I want to know, did you use all these techniques yourself when you were a competing athlete or is it only now since retiring and becoming trained as a sports psychologist that you're learning about it? How does that work with you?

Charlie Unwin:

I didn't want to be one of those people who kind of looks back and said, Oh, I wish I'd known that back then when I could have done this. I wasn't talented enough as an athlete to not apply this stuff. I'll be completely honest. My natural kind of gift wasn't what it was for a lot of the athletes that surrounded me at the time. So I did very much learn about this stuff and apply it.

And relaxation was one of those things. I was quite a nervous athlete and I could easily get very tense very easily. It really dawned on me actually one day. And I remember it so well to this day where I was in a bus. So I was at a World Cup competition and I think it was somewhere like Budapest and we were being driven in this bus from the hotel to the venue.

And we'd always start the day with the shooting element. And there was road traffic jam. It was taking ages to get there. I remember thinking, Oh, I'm going to do some of those exercises that my psychologist gave me. And I said, I'm going to start just breathing and practicing, just, you know, relaxing. And as I started to attend to my breath and started to just scan my body and notice where any points of tension, were, it absolutely dawned on me that I had so much tension in my legs, they were like blocks of concrete. And I had no idea. I was sat there thinking about the competition, you know, thinking about what I was going to be doing when I get there, stuff like that. Without any idea that through that process, I was picking this tension up. And that's what I now call creeping tension because that happens unconsciously. And the scary thing is we just don't know it's happening.

And I remember actually panicking slightly at that point and thinking, Oh my word, you know, I can't, I can barely move, let alone perform as an athlete. And I started really working on breathing and relaxing. And the thing, what I noticed was that I could do it. I could actively relax. I mean, bearing in mind, I was like penned into the seats. I couldn't move because of course our natural way of getting rid of tension is moving the major muscle groups. Right. And if you move around, that's our natural release and that's how we're wired as human beings fight or flight.

But either way we need our muscles. You're sat down there on a bus seat, penned in. That tension is just going to get worse and worse. So I remember actively relaxing and noticing that maybe two minutes later muscles were like concrete again. And I knew that it had to be something that became hardwired ingrained into me. You know, that ability to relax. Those people that just seem just so relaxed and chilled out, you know, the Usain Bolt's of this world. It's so annoying, isn't it?

Amy Williams:

So I remember pre competition. The worst thing was obviously you never really slept. Soon as you woke up, the knots in the tummy, really nervous, straight away eating breakfast, you could hardly eat anything. Exactly, that traveling for me, traveling in the car to get to the track. But I always knew as soon as I had started warming up, moving, relaxing, all those, not all of them, 50%, 60% of those nerves would go away and I would have to always remind myself, okay, as soon as you get to the track, as soon as you start warming up, you've placed your bag in the warm up area. Actually a lot of that will disappear because, you know, as soon as you start moving those big muscle groups, like you say, so it was almost the anticipation before. And those few hours from waking up to physically being at the track in your competition environment, was always the worst. And then it would start to ease off.

Charlie Unwin:

I think in anticipation. I mean, that's what I get all the time with, with my clients is; it is the anticipation that has the worst impact on breathing and on relaxation. And I really liked that strategy of being really clear what is the point at which I will be okay. I will be able to deal with this because in a weird way, if you're okay with that, it allows you to just to relax or just focus on whatever's going on for you in the presence. So yeah, really good technique in itself.

So yeah, maybe it'd be good to sort of talk a little bit more about relaxation and how to do it and maybe we can sort of practice it.

Amy Williams:

Is there something now that we could do and everyone at home watching, so like last time, make sure that you you're doing this at home and do it as well?

Charlie Unwin:

This is what we're doing now with just the core skills. What we'll try and do a bit like we did last time. But for you, we'll try to look at how we incorporate them, integrate them into your day to day training. Because that is the challenge, right?

Feet flat on the ground. It always starts in a confident position. I never wanted to do anything. Whether it's breathing relaxation, visualisation, the posture always has to mimic the mindset that we want to be in. So, confidence, symmetrical, upright. Now remember last time our breathing. So we're going to start with that. Breathing is always the most important starting point for relaxation. And now Amy's been practicing this now for a week or so you're an expert, but just nice deep breaths.

And if you remember last time, when we looked at breathing, we spoke about the sympathetic response when we breathe in and our heart rate goes up and then the relaxation response is when we breathe out. So as we get into our breathing rhythm, we use it to actively relax on the out-breath. So just start doing that now and you might be thinking, okay, so what am I trying to relax? Where am I trying to relax?

The reality of it is we've got so many different muscle groups that tense up to different cues. The best way of doing this is just systematically going through our body. I like to start with the forehead or the little muscles around the eyes, your jaw, your cheeks. So on every out-breath just see if you can just really relax all those little muscles. It's funny because it's almost impossible to maintain too much tension in the rest of your body when your foreheads and your corners of your eyes are really relaxed.

It's a weird thing, you get that right and almost you have no choice, but to relax the rest of your body. So it's a good starting point. Again, keep coming back to the breathing. As we saw last week the breathing probably isn't habitual yet. So we're trying to chunk these two elements together. In other words, whenever we focus on deep breathing, our body automatically starts to relax. That's really the Holy Grail to all of this. And with each breath. Now I want you to just to move maybe down to the neck and shoulders.

And again, that's probably where people pick up the most tension is the neck and shoulders. So again, on every, out-breath just soften the muscles around the neck and the shoulders. It should be quite dynamic. So if you, if you want to just imagine the tension just disappearing down your shoulders, out through your arms and out through the tips of your fingers, that's what we mean by releasing the tension.

And then you can work through your torso. That's always interesting because when we're in a sat upright position, I work a lot with horse riders as well. So they're always having to keep their torso in their core, you know, relatively firm. But at the same time, it's about just kind of working with that, understanding, you know, how to maintain your posture whilst being able to have relaxation at a core level through that posture. And that's very much a kind of yoga way of thinking, you know, and that's why I love yoga so much because we could start to do this in lots of different, sometimes quite stressful positions.

But then within that position, we can find what yoga instructors called space, you know, find your space within that position. I really like that. But for here, we're just sat down for now and then you can just move that relaxation down through the major muscles of your legs. And again, just use each breath just to focus on one area down through your calves, through your feet and out through the tips of your toes. And what I'm going to get you to do now is what I call one breath, relaxation, which is a wave, goes from the top of your heads all the way down those muscle groups that we've worked on all the way out to the soles of your feet. How are you feeling?

Amy Williams:

Pretty chilled. I feel like I've not really participating and you're just chatting away, but actually I am taking it on board and I'm trying to see it as that wave. I think that's a really nice word. To feel that wave coming out and through. And when you say about each body part, I'm really trying to relax, but actually just see it as the breath go into that body part and sort of waving out and through. So I'm trying to get a really nice mental kind of imagery of it coming through and out.

Charlie Unwin:

Yeah, yeah. That imagery becomes really important. Isn't it? As athletes, we have to know our bodies so intimately. We have to know whether that's a normal level of tension, whether that's just the hard, you know, gym session that I did yesterday, or actually whether that's, you know, that's more psychological, I'm picking that up, you know, through maybe an unhealthy source of tension.

Amy Williams:

Well, when you said about the horse ride is always, you know, being core and switched on, I think you're always aware of that. You're always switching on those core, you know, we always say switch on your core, switch on those abs, pull that belly button into your back. You know, I say it a thousand times with my clients. But actually I am, I'm always sort of switched on tension that actually do I ever really relax. You ever just let it all flop and go and like almost not slouch, but yeah, just completely let it, let it go. No is probably the answer. I don't probably allow myself just to completely relax.

Charlie Unwin:

Yeah. I mean, for me before I got into relaxation as a discreet skill and activity, probably where I felt I've got it the most, it was stretching sessions. So when we were in the gym in Bath. It's very difficult to stretch and have tension at the same time. I mean, you would do yourself so much damage if you did, but just the act and the intent of stretching forces relaxation. So you don't have to think of this as extra time in your day or extra things to do.

What I would say is, look for the moments for relaxation can become an integrated part of whatever you're doing and stretching is definitely, definitely one of those things. You mentioned there, Amy about making a part of everything we do in our actual physical training as well which is, I guess the last I really want to make on this because you know what, it's all very well being able to do this. And we deliberately haven't done anything overly complicated today because it is just about getting the fundamentals. Do we know what we're trying to do and why we're trying to do it.

But we start, you know, moving around and doing complex exercises and our capacity to sort of maintain a general level of relaxation through everything that we do is really important as a pentathlete, I went from seven o'clock in the morning to seven o'clock at night, doing five different sports. If there was creeping tension that stayed with me, I would be probably 50% more exhausted by the end of the day. And it was at the end of the day when I was doing my running, when I needed that energy. So some sports kind of need you to maintain and keep hold of your energy.

Amy Williams:

And I guess a lot of people I'm thinking practically now, maybe the next time you go into the gym, maybe the next time you go and do a workout; in-between those sets and reps that you're doing maybe is when you have that one minute off before your next set of 10 squats, can you stand there in the corner of the gym, do that little flow, do that little relaxation, set yourself up and then lift the weight again. Maybe that's a good practical way of testing it out.

Charlie Unwin:

In fact, I'm going to go step a further than that. So definitely we're going to do that. I'm going to challenge you to find the session that suits you and your sport, whatever you do, but that involves interval training. So it could be on the bicycle. It could be on a treadmill, a cross trainer, whatever it is whereby you can get your heart rate really high. And then, and it may be, you know, one minute on, one minute off, maybe even two minutes on. So you're really working hard. Use the recovery to actively now focus on this process. Now you're going to be stood up. You may even be moving very gently on the cycling machine, but I want you to focus on the quality of recovery rather than looking around the room and just waiting for time to tick down before your next efforts.

And I'm going to challenge you to see how low you can get your heart rate in that time, purely through breathing, watch the last episode and relaxation as we've done here. And I reckon you will find another level of understanding for your body just by chiming in to its capacity, to relax during those moments of recovery when you've just pushed those muscles to the nth degree.

And now you're asking to do exactly the opposite; total relaxation. So that's my challenge to you. And if you do measure your heart rate, take a note, not just at the physical efforts themselves and how high your heart rate goes. I want you to notice over time, how low your heart rate can go during, during those recoveries and before you start your next sets. And as you make it harder, whether you go for longer or you make the efforts harder, I want you to be able to come back to those low rates of recovery as much as you can.

Amy Williams:

All right. So we have our homework I'm really looking forward to next week when Charlie is going to take us through the visualisation, just to link in the breathing from last episode, today's relaxation. So thanks for tuning in to the U Perform channel, hit that buzzer and the bell, get subscribing and we will see you next week.


Make sure to tune in next week for Episode 14

See you then!

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