The Sport Science Program Home Page

By Dr. Sarah Gairdner

Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympian of all time, winning 28 Olympic medals across four Olympic Games, from Athens to Rio. While it is hard to imagine a time when Michael Phelps wasn’t dominating the pool, interviews with his coach Bob Bowman reveal that young Michael needed work to fine tune his ability to control his thoughts and emotions.

Bowman explained that when he first met Michael at age seven, though he had the “perfect swimmer’s body” he struggled with stress and emotion and was struggling to calm down before races. Bowman realized that if Michael was going to live up to his physical potential and talent, that he was going to need to fine tune his mental and emotional skills.

Bowman recalls buying a relaxation book for Michael and his mother to use on a nightly basis to improve his ability to cope with stress. The book contained a script – “Tighten your right hand into a fist and release it. Imagine the tension melting away” – that tensed and released each part of his body before he fell asleep.

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Flash forward fifteen years, during the 2008 Olympics, Michael described watching the calming documentary, “Planet Earth,” on repeat and performed a meditative relaxation exercise in the competitors ready room. Michael went on to win eight gold medals at that Games and was famously quoted saying “Swimming is normal for me. I’m relaxed. I’m comfortable, and I know my surroundings. It’s my home.”  Michael creates an internal environment of calm for himself and is able to succeed in the pool as a result. 

Relaxation refers to a release of tension in the body and mind. Michael Phelps’ story exemplifies how world class athletes use relaxation to optimize their performances, using it as a way to attain a state of calm and return their body and mind to an equilibrium, even in stressful and high energy environments. 

Today's POWER-UP: Tension Release

Practice tension release to stop yourself from bracing – a habit of lifting your shoulders and clenching your muscles. This can lead to relaxation and improved mental performance by increasing your circulation and energy.

To accomplish this, begin by becoming aware of muscle tightness and body position. Do so by asking yourself several questions:

1. Can I drop my shoulders?
2. Can I relax my hands? Stomach? Legs? Forehead?
3. Can I sit in a more comfortable position?
4. Can I relax my core and deepen my breathing?

Then, when you find an area of tension, use the focus breathing we have worked on already to release the tension and free your body and mind of limitations.

The key to executing this technique is awareness of your body. You have to recognize when you're tense then stop - and then take 10-15 seconds to practice the tension release technique. Once you get good at this it can happen faster and faster and it will be come automatic. 

Dive Deeper: Try Meditating :-)

More and more athletes are incorporating meditation into their usual training. Kobe Bryant reports meditating every day, one time during a game! Other athletes are starting to use meditation on a regular basis, making it as high a priority as getting proper nutrition, rest, and recovery. Check out the article How Meditation Gives Pro Athletes The Edge on how meditation improves mental and physical performance. 

I suggest the headspace app. Download it at