A Guest Post by Corwin Duncan

Why you need to relax

I was never the fastest. In fact, I was often the slowest fencer among my peers; I would move slowly, prepare slowly, and attack slowly. All my fencing was slow – except for one thing: my reactions. I could react quickly and correctly even to a very fast attack from my opponent, and when my attack was parried, I could often disengage or remise in time to get the touch.

Why were my reactions fast when nothing else was? Because I was relaxed.

In this article I am going to outline the what happens when your muscles are tight, the way it affects your mental state (hint: it’s not great) and some of the reasons you may be getting too tense. I’m also going to go over some tips to help you learn how to relax.

But why is it so important to be relaxed? What difference does it make?

Generally we seem to think being relaxed is a good thing for athletes – but why? What happens when you get too tense? There are a couple things that change when your muscles are tight – both in your body and in your mind.

The most obvious thing that happens when you’re tense is your movements get jerky and less controlled – more like a beginner’s. The reason for this is that when you signal your body to perform and action, like, say, extending your arm, your body activates, or recruits muscles to do that. When you are tense, your body over-recruits, or in other words activates muscles that it doesn’t need to. It also tends to ‘lock up’ some muscles, meaning they don’t release and let the body move the way it should.

The result of this extra muscle recruitment and the locking up is that your movements are slower, stiffer, and not as controlled. In the example of making a simple extension – if you are tense, your body might recruit muscles in your back and legs and lock up your wrist, slowing you down and making it hard to hit the target. Of course you can correct that if you’re practicing against the wall, but during a bout there’s no time to stop and correct, and you will just miss.

Another consequence of being tense is that you get tired more quickly. Of course, if your muscles are staying tight when they don’t need to, that takes energy, and you’re going to wear them out (and this may even lead to cramping). Some fencers I have spoken with say they hold their weapon so tightly that their hand and arm gets too tired to parry – the last thing you want at a competition!

One more problem with being tense is that it makes it harder to think clearly. That’s right – if your body is tense, if affects how well you can think. Your mind, like your body, can get locked up. When that happens you are more reactive, less creative, and have trouble adapting to new information. So if you are getting behind and need to change your plan, that’s gonna be hard if you’re not relaxed.

In summary – when you relax, you can move more smoothly, use less energy, and think more clearly.

When you need to relax – and how

There are a few common circumstances that interfere with being relaxed. In this section I will talk about each of these situations, and what you can do when they come up.

Learning a skill

The first situation I want to mention is learning a new skill. Anytime you are learning something new, your body doesn’t know the right muscles to use yet, and so it does two things: It over-recruits some muscles, and it locks up others – like I mention above. (This is why it’s so easy to spot new fencers: they haven’t adapted to all the weird movements we do in fencing, and their body is still trying to figure it out.)

The reason your body does this is to simplify the movement so you don’t have to think about so many different steps. Instead of selecting the right muscles to use, it just says ‘I’m gonna use them all!’ Instead of thinking through every part of the extension, your body locks up certain joints to make the movements simpler, with fewer moving parts.

What to do about it

When you’re learning a new skill, one way to help yourself stay relaxed is to take it slow, and break it down into small steps. This can make it easier on your brain as it tries to process all this new information at once. That gives it more room to pick which muscles to use, and makes each step simpler so there is less locking up. There will still be some of that, but taking it slow will help.

You can also pause from time to time and remind yourself to relax key muscle groups – your jaw, your shoulders, your back, or wherever else you find you hold tension.

When you’re nervous

Many people get tense when they’re nervous, anxious, or even excited. Anytime the mind is preoccupied with one thing, it can be easy to forget about relaxing. If you notice that you are getting worried about your next bout – or the bout you’re in the middle of – you might be getting tense too.

What to do about it

The first thing is stop and check in with your body – do you notice tension anywhere? If you do, try to relax those places first. Then, take a few deep breaths and spend a moment consciously relaxing anywhere you usually get tense.

If you’re not sure where you are holding tension in your body, I recommend doing a body-based mindfulness exercise. My favorite is one I call Three-Minute Mindfulness – you can find a video guide to it on the SharperMind Training blog, under the entry of the same name.

When you’re angry or upset

Another time it’s common to get tense is when you’re upset or angry about something – for example if the referee just made a bad call, or you lost your last pool bout 5-4 and you’re still thinking about it. In those situations you might find yourself getting getting caught up in your frustration and losing focus. When that happens it’s more important than ever to find a way to relax.

What to do about it

Pause for a moment – tie your shoe, straighten your blade, or whatever else you need to do to get a quick break to calm down and refocus. (make sure to ask the ref first!)

Once you have your moment, take a few deep breaths and choose one or two muscle groups to relax – your hand and arm, your shoulders, or your jaw are helpful for most people.

Practice relaxing

There’s one more thing that’s important to understand about this topic. Relaxing is not just something you decide to do and it’s done – it’s a skill that you can develop and practice over time.

Focus on being relaxed when you’re fencing at practice, or when you’re learning a new skill. Have regular check-ins with yourself throughout the day and remember to relax each time. Most important, practice the skill of relaxing.

If you’re not sure how to practice relaxing, or you’d like some more guidance – check out the ‘How to Relax’ post in the SharperMind Training blog for step by step instructions.

Thanks for reading – now get out there and stay loose!

About Corwin Duncan

SharperMindTraining offers mental skills training clinics, online classes, and one-on-one coaching. It was founded by Corwin Duncan, (2x Junior National Champion and Junior World Team member) and Jason Pryor (National Champion and 2016 Olympian). Go to sharpermindtraining.com to learn more, sign up for our mailing list, or email direction at corwin@sharpermindtraining.com to inquire about mental skills coaching.

This is a second post in a series of posts about mental preparation and readiness. The first post can be found here.