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Make time for psychological recovery!
By: Andrea Furst (profile)
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Given that our “Healthy May” project has just finished, now is a good opportunity to reflect on a topic that is often not given enough airtime: psychological recovery.

Recovery in sport is a relatively hot topic.  Recovery is the re-establishment of the initial state – it allows the restoration of physiological and psychological processes, so that athletes can compete or train again at a similar level.  It can be passive or active and is an integral aspect of training that requires planning.  It focuses on identifying strategies that athletes can use to minimise and manage fatigue from training and competition.  Recovery strategies can be categorised as physiological, neural or psychological.  Appropriate recovery strategies will:

  • maximise gains from training and improve quality for every session;
  • improve consistency of quality performance; and
  • minimise and eliminate injuries, overtraining, illness, or burnout.

Physiological recovery has been investigated and promoted as a vital part of athletic success, and is supported by scientific research.  However, the perceived value of psychological recovery appears to lack the punch of physiological recovery, despite being a contributor to fatigue and burnout.

Psychological Recovery

Psychological recovery involves feelings of relaxation, re-establishing a sense of well-being, and positive mood.  Consider your brain as an organ that also needs time to recover from the regular everyday type of stress, but particularly from the stress in the life of a touring golf professional.

Following intense training and demanding performances, athletes may experience symptoms of low concentration, lack of motivation, and increased levels of anxiety.  Psychological strategies can play an important part in emotional recovery by assisting in recovery of concentration, lifting motivation, and decreasing anxiety levels.  Psychological strategies such as relaxation and sleep are as important as physiological strategies in completing total recovery following demanding physical activity.

Psychological recovery strategies aim to disengage the athletes from the performance.  Heart rate, breathing, and body temperature remain elevated post exercise and may take time to drop, as do anxiety levels about the performance or future performances.  Several psychological recovery strategies assist to bring these levels to normal levels.

Psychological Recovery Strategies

There are multiple psychological strategies that can be integrated into your practice and competitive schedules to enhance recovery.  This article will focus on two strategies that address what seem to be consistent issues within the touring pro golfing community – relaxation and sleep. 

Relaxation techniques

Relaxation techniques can reduce levels of tension and arousal and also increase energy levels.  Individuals relax in many different ways, with some preferring to read a book, others by listening to music or watching television.  Specialised relaxation techniques are also widely practised, including meditation, progressive muscular relaxation, imagery, or diaphragmatic breathing. 

Techniques can be categorised as muscle-to-mind or mind-to-muscle techniques (Williams, 2010).  Muscle-to-mind techniques, such as breathing and progressive muscular relaxation exercises, aim to train players to become sensitive to levels of tension in the body and then control their ability to release such levels of tension.  The brain then assesses and confirms the body as relaxed.  For example, breathing exercises can help you relax because they make your body feel like it does when you are already relaxed.  Deep breathing is one of the best ways to reduce stress in the body.  This is because when you breathe deeply it sends a message to your brain to calm down and relax. The brain then sends this message to your body. Those things that happen when you are stressed, such as increased heart rate, fast breathing, and high blood pressure, all decrease as you breathe deeply to relax (Murray & Pizzorno, 2006).

Logic follows then that mind-to-muscle techniques such as meditation and imagery, work in the opposite direction and aim to promote a calm and controlled message starting from the brain, which then affects the sensations in the rest of the body.  For example, meditation helps you relax by consciously focussing your thoughts on one thing (e.g., object, sound, image, listening to guided scripts) for a sustained period.  This occupies your mind, diverting it from the problems that are causing you stress.  It gives your body time to relax and recuperate, and to clear away stress hormones that may have built up.

Players need to practice only one or two techniques on a regular basis for these to become effective tools to use to aid recovery.  The choice of relaxation methods is quite individual and involves experimentation to establish which technique works best.

Mental Notes is currently developing some guided breathing audio tracks – email me if you are interested in getting your hands on some of these to help your breathing techniques.

Sleep

Sleep is considered the most vital recovery mechanism.  In fact, sleep is the best form of recovery an athlete can use for physiological and psychological repair and restoration.  Adequate sleep (7-9 hours) provides regeneration and restoration of the body's systems allowing adaptation to training – it helps athletes adjust to the physical, neurological, immunological and emotional stressors that high performance athletes experience during the day.  Too much sleep, however, can be detrimental, contributing to sluggishness and lethargy.  Moreover, poor sleeping patterns and insufficient rest is often associated with individuals who suffer from high levels of anxiety and depression (Griffin & Tyrell, 2004).  This means that sleep that is high in both quality and quantity is the optimal way for you to psychologically recover.

Pre-competitive sleep

A frequently reported problem for golfers is the inability to fall asleep and/or stay asleep the night before competitions.  Often this is due to internal factors such as pre-competitive anxiety, excitement, and thoughts about the competition.  These types of thoughts are emotionally-arousing however there is no physical action taken to address the thoughts as you are meant to be asleep (or at least trying to fall asleep) and thus they often turn into dreams.  This is a very simplistic explanation of what our very complex brain is capable of, but the main take-away message is that excessive worry pre-sleep can lead to excessive amounts of dreaming which keeps you in the rapid eye movement sleep (REM) phase, and thus you will not enter into the physically-rejuvenating slow wave sleep phase.

Poor sleep may not influence your golf performance, however it may cause bad moods the following day, increased daytime sleepiness, and it may cause lowered performance in the competition.  Disrupted sleep has been found to affect pre-competitive mood states (Lastella, Lovell, & Sargent, 2012), which means you have to work harder in your pre-round routine to get yourself into your ‘A Game’.

This is a relatively typical problem for athletes pre-competition.  In fact, it has been shown that athletes in individual sports have more sleep problems that athletes in team sports (Erlacher, Ehrelenspiel, Adegbesan, & El-din, 2011).  Given the individual nature of golf, it makes sense that this may be occurring on professional tours as well as in other competitive elite golf environments.

Here are some ideas to improve your sleep habits during the night(s) before competition.

Pre-sleep routines

A pre-sleep routine can assist with falling asleep and thus optimising your sleeping quality and quantity.  One of the simplest examples to use is to look at how parents get their young babies off to sleep.  It is through a gradual calming process, which aims to make them feel secure and comfortable.  The overall aim of your pre-sleep routine in adulthood is to slow down and reduce exposure to external stimulation.  Furthermore, consistent bed and wake-up times promote good sleep hygiene and adherence to a routine.

To promote falling asleep, it is helpful to be able to relax yourself first.  A three-step process to assist athletes that find it difficult to fall asleep includes:

1.       Relax – get your body in a relaxing position and aim to use relaxation techniques such as breathing or mediation to facilitate body and mind relaxation.

2.       Rest – once you are physically and mentally relaxed – in a state of calm – the body and brain is essentially resting.

3.       Sleep – once you are comfortable in a restful state and you keep your mind in the present, the ability to sleep will come to you more easily (as opposed to forcing sleep).

Following are some basic tips to assist with your sleep-ability:

Practice breathing techniques.  Ideally, you make time in your training schedule for breathing such that it becomes a 'training session', literally.  This is so that you become a master at using your breathing as a means to relax and focus.  Basically the breathing becomes your focal point - you aim to direct your mind to the simple act of breathing.  When you find yourself thinking about other things, gently remind yourself to refocus on your breathing.  It is a passive process - no need to judge or get frustrated when the mind wanders - it will tend to wander until you teach it to simplify things and stay in the present moment (via focusing on your breath).

Assess the order of your pre-sleep activities so that you are gradually winding down your body (e.g., eat, watch movie/surf internet, stretch, shower, bed) rather than winding up.  Think of getting your mind and body ready to rest... they need to be free of stimulation...

The order that you set up your pre-sleep routine, which promotes sleep is such that you aim to relax, then rest, then sleep ('trying' to sleep is not helpful).

Practice this pre-sleep routine at home so that you become proficient at your routine in your own home, ready for when you travel.

Rest days

Rest days are also essential and support the psychological recovery processes.  Typical recommendations are that at least one day per week should be a non-training day.  This allows time for physical and psychological recovery as well as time for other interests and activities.  Resting can include doing something that is passive physically but engages you mentally to take your mind off your golf.  The ability to focus your mind on something else is a helpful tool to then be fresh for golf when you next start training or competing.  Aim to find activities/interests that give your mind a break from golf and integrate them in your weekly schedule where appropriate.

Signs & Symptoms

There are some psychological signs and symptoms that may indicate that you are not adapting to your training and competitive schedule include (adapted from Calder, 1996):

-       Emotional and mood imbalances/swings

-       Low motivation and apathy

-       Low concentration

-       Aggressiveness/hostility/quarrelsomeness

-       Confusion

-       Increased instances of anxiety

-       Low or no self-confidence

It is worth reviewing your psychological recovery if you are experiencing any of these signs or symptoms.  Review your psychological recovery just as you do any part of your training and preparation to become the best golfer you can be!

Include time in your schedule for psychological recovery.  Plan it in your weekly training and competitive schedule.  Planning means proactively including it in your weekly schedule so that you consider it as another ‘training session’.

As always, if there are any questions please email me – andrea@mentalnotesconsulting.com.au.

References:

Jenkins, D., & Raeburn, P. (1996).  Training for endurance and speed.  In A. Calder, Recovery and overtraining.  Allen & Unwin: Australia.

Erlacher, D., Ehrelenspiel, F., Adegbesan, O. A., & El-din, H. G.  (2011).  Sleep habits in German athletes before important competitions or games.   Journal of Sports Sciences, 1-8.

Griffin, J., & Tyrell, I.  (2004).  Dreaming Reality: How dreaming keeps us sane, or can drive us mad.  HG Publishing.  Chalvington, Hailsham.

Lastella, M., Lovell, G. P., & Sargent, C. (2012).  Athletes’ precompetitive sleep behaviour and its relationship with subsequent precompetitive mood and performance.  European Journal of Sport Science, 1-8.

Murray, M. T., & Pizzorno, J. E. Jr (2006). Stress management.  In J. E. Pizzorno Jr, & M. T. Murray (Eds.), Textbook of natural medicine (3rd ed., pp. 701–708).  St. Louis: Churchill Livingstone.

Williams, J. M. (2010b). Relaxation and energizing techniques for regulation of arousal. In J. M.Williams (Ed.), Applied sport psychology: Personal growth to peak performance (6th ed., pp. 247-266). New York: McGraw Hill.

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