Chapter 12 Relaxation- Best-Kept Secret in Sports, Business and Life
This is a sample chapter from The Athlete within You. I have been teaching people to relax for over 35 years. What started out as a ten-page paper in an undergraduate Motor Learning class turned out to direct my professional life. I consider this most of the time to be a really good thing. Relaxation training has taught me so much about people and how to help them succeed. It has taught me more and been at the foundation of everything that is most significant in my being able to help people get to the next level.
The first time I read about relaxation techniques I thought at the time it was very “old school.” Though a book called The Relaxation Response by Herbert Benson, M.D. was a current best seller in 1975, what really turned me on was a 1934 first edition of You Must Relax by Dr. Edmund Jacobsen. Jacobsen linked relaxation to most everything, saying that even the muscles were part of the MIND. Now even for me this was a little farfetched. What wasn’t farfetched was the effect I saw that it had on my friends who were willing to be my first guinea pigs as the senior in college studying Physical Education.
I learned that I could help someone relax very deeply and that when they “woke up” they really felt good. I soon discovered that it had other positive effects. Mental rehearsal, another concept I had read about, worked much better. I even noticed that there was a sort of carry-over effect with some of my first volunteers. They would tell me that they felt better when they went for a run, or when they shot baskets, which was very much an after-effect I had not considered. I viewed it back then as just an after-effect.
I was at the time also teaching swimming at the brand new indoor pool. It had recently opened and I was one of the first instructors. I was teaching little kids to swim. This was a lot of fun until I started to burn out from all of the hours standing in water that was too cold. My manager at some point decided I needed a little break. He didn’t want to negatively impact me financially, as I got paid more for teaching than I did for being a life guard. So he assigned me to teach the senior swim class. Now by senior, I do mean senior. I think my youngest student was close to 70. They had lived all of their lives as non- swimmers. Learning to swim was what we would now say was on most of “their bucket lists.”
In simple terms this meant that they were afraid of the water, or more importantly, afraid of drowning. I did what I could but after my second week (4 or 6 lessons) the furthest anyone would venture away from the pool edge was about 6 feet. Give them a float of some kind and they were okay. Without a flotation device, they were unwilling to venture to the center of the pool. They were not like my young students that I could play games with and trick into losing their fear. These folks were deeply afraid of dying. They pointed this out to me.
We of course started in the shallow end and they could sort of swim, but they would cheat and touch bottom all that they could. A few of them had enough body fat that it would have taken an anchor to drown them, but it didn’t matter. They were convinced they would drown.
We had a good time and they were happy but I was used to success. I needed a plan.
I thought what have I got to lose, let’s try a little relaxation. I took them in the conference room and taught them to relax. We then did a short swim session. I asked them to practice and come back next week. Next week rolled around and things were slightly better until we went to the deep end.
So I got the idea to break out life jackets. We had used these before, but they would struggle in them, but at least they would float. We drifted out into the pool just out of reach of the edge. I had them close their eyes and I took them through relaxation training. As they moved deeper and deeper into a state of relaxation we began floating into the middle of the pool.
When they opened their eyes they looked around and only one of the 14 got a scared look. They sort of got their feet wet, as it were, by paddling around. This even with the jackets was real progress.
After that it was like teaching young kids. They were not headed to the Olympics, but they had lost their fear. No one drowned in the process and I learned something that really made me see the potential. I could affect how people learned with a simple technique.