It happens to almost every tennis player. It’s match point and the pressure is high. Your muscles tense and tighten in anticipation. Your opponent unleashes a blistering serve, but when you go to return it you feel like the tin man, all clumsy and stiff, and you hit the ball into the net. Game over.
Whether we’re playing tennis or just doing something as simple as walking down the street, our muscles need to relax and contract to move. But like in the example above, we often create far more tension than necessary.
If you’re playing a sport and you’re nervous, the tension in your body can hinder your performance, not to mention lead to imbalances down the road. So what do you do when you’re mid-match and you find yourself clenching your muscles as the pressure mounts? Start by noticing. How does it feel? What muscles are tense? Then, try and let go. Tensing our muscles is usually an involuntary process, but if we notice we can let go and release the tension. You can also use your breath. If I’m playing tennis, I like to breathe in as I take my racquet back then breathe out as I swing. If you try it yourself, you’ll notice that it’s very hard to tense up as you’re breathing out—and that’s a good thing.
This breathing technique is also easy to adapt. Playing football? Breathe in as you cock your arm back; breathe out as you throw. Doing pullups? Breathe in as you lower your body; breathe out as you pull yourself up. You can also adjust your breathing to match the speed of your movement, using short breaths for quick movements and longer breaths for slower ones.
Your breath is an anchor, and when you align it with your movement, you can let go of tension and relax your body.