Mental Toughness Toolbox: Getting to "Good Nervous", Staying Calm the Night Before that Big Meet

Mental Toughness Toolbox: Getting to "Good Nervous", Staying Calm the Night Before that Big Meet

By Alan Goldberg//Contributor  | Monday, February 11, 2019

The skill of relaxation is a cornerstone of mental toughness training. Having the ability to consciously relax your body helps you handle the pressure of competition so that you can stay in “good nervous” leading up to your events. It also cools your body down in between races and after meets, enables you to maintain the right focus of concentration before and during your race and it properly prepares you for the use of mental rehearsal. Without the ability to relax, you can never reach your true potential as a swimmer.

A key relaxation strategy that you want to add to your mental toughness toolbox is called  PROGRESSIVE MUSCLE RELAXATION (PMR). It teaches you not only HOW to relax, but also how to RECOGNIZE exactly where you put physical tension in your body. It’s an easy skill to learn, and with a little practice, you can master it to the point where you are able to calm yourself relatively quickly when you're behind the blocks pre-race.

Keep in mind though that like any skill, mastery of PMR can only come with regular practice. If you've never worked on this relaxation technique and then you try to use it when you're really nervous, I can guarantee you that it won't work for you! 

Progressive muscle relaxation is a great technique for you to use the nights leading up to those big meets! A great time for you to practice PMR is right before bedtime. After a two to three-week practice regimen, you will find that you're able to streamline the 15 – 20 minute exercise and relax yourself within a minute or two!

In PMR, you work your way through the muscle groupings of your body from your head to your toes or vice versa, alternating tightening your muscles with relaxing them. You should always try to hold the tension in each muscle group for 10 seconds and be sure that contraction is to no more than 90% of your strength. Also, it is important to keep your focus on the physical sensations in the muscle grouping that you're tightening. Remember to maintain relaxation in all other muscles except the ones being tightened. When you release the tension, be sure to focus on the feeling of that muscle group relaxing, so that you're continuously comparing the sensations of muscle tension with relaxation.



In the beginning, you want to allow approximately 20 minutes for each PMR session in an environment that is free from distractions. You may want to take the following directions and make your own relaxation recording. Slowly read them into a recording app, allowing 10 seconds for each contraction and 10 seconds for each release. You can even dub in relaxing music in the background. Lie comfortably on your back, feet spread about 18” apart, hands by your sides, palms up. Close your eyes.



1. Begin to tighten all the muscles up and down your right leg until you reach 90% tension. Pointing the toes either toward or away from your head will help you increase tension. Raising the leg one half inch off the ground also helps to tighten your leg muscles. Hold the leg tension for 10 seconds. Study the tension. Feel it.....

Repeat to yourself the words, “let go” as you allow the leg to slowly relax, letting the tension flow out onto the surface you're lying on. Feel the difference in your leg now... inhale slowly and deeply, filling your abdomen, pause..., and then exhale.....

2. Repeat the entire procedure for your right leg again, noting the difference between being tight in that area and loose. End by inhaling deeply and exhaling.

3. Tighten all the muscles up and down your left leg and hold the tension for 10 seconds. Study the tension as you hold it. Repeat to yourself, “let go” and let the tension slowly drain from the left leg. Note the sensations that accompany relaxation...the heaviness, warmth, tingling, lightness or other feelings that are associated with looseness and relaxation. Inhale...pause...and exhale....

4. Repeat the entire procedure for your left leg again...then inhale... pause...and exhale.

5. Tighten your buttocks muscles to 90% tension and hold it. Become aware of the feelings. Repeat the “let go” after 10 seconds as you let the tension drain from this area. Feel the looseness here. Inhale...pause... exhale.

6. Repeat procedure for the buttocks muscles. Inhale...exhale.

7. Tighten abdominal muscles noting the sensations of tension here. Hold it...then “let go” and allow the tension to flow from this area. Feel the difference. Study it closely...inhale...then exhale.

8. Repeat procedure for the abdominal muscles. Inhale....exhale....

9. Tighten all the muscles of the chest and across the back of the shoulders by pushing your shoulder blades back and into the floor. Feel the tension, study it, now “let go” and feel the relaxation as it flows into this part of your body. Inhale pause...exhale.

10. Repeat entire procedure for chest and shoulders. Inhale....pause... exhale.

11. Tense the muscles of both arms by slowly making a fist and increasing tension to 90%. Notice the feelings of tension up and down the arms. “Let go” and allow the tension to drain down your arms from your shoulders to your fingertips. Inhale...pause....exhale.

12. Repeat entire procedure for both arms, becoming aware of the sensations that accompany tension and relaxation. Inhale...pause exhale.

13. Tense the muscles in your neck by pressing down with your head into the surface that you are resting on. Notice the tension in this area. Feel it, then “let go” and allow the tightness to slowly drain from your neck. Study the difference here. Inhale...pause...exhale.

14. Repeat procedure for the neck. Inhale...pause...exhale.

15. Tighten your jaw muscles by clenching your teeth together. Note the feelings of tightness in this area. Feel it, then “let go” and allow the tension to drain from your jaws. Inhale...pause...exhale.

16. Repeat entire procedure for jaw muscles. Inhale...pause...exhale.

17. Tense the muscles in your face...grimace, frown, clench your teeth. Hold the tension. Feel what that is like. “Let go” and allow all the facial muscles to relax and soften. Feel the difference. Inhale...pause...exhale.

18. Repeat procedure for face. Inhale...pause...exhale.

19. Tighten all the muscles in your body to 90% tension—Your arms, legs, buttocks, abdomen, chest, shoulders, neck, face and feel the tension. Hold it for 10 seconds and then “let go” and slowly allow your body to become totally loose and limp. Inhale, pause...exhale.

20. Repeat procedure for entire body. Inhale...pause...exhale.

21. If any areas of your body remain tense, focus on them by tightening, holding the tension, then letting go.


Let me remind you that you must first learn the skill of relaxation in a non-stressful environment before you can depend upon it working for you when you’re feeling the stress of a high level, competitive meet. Once you have gotten proficient at PMR, you will then have the ability to quickly relax yourself within a minute or two, just by directing your attention to a muscle grouping and repeating to yourself that phrase, “let go.” This streamlined tool is a powerful technique to have available when you're behind the blocks waiting for your big race and you suddenly notice your system is starting to get too amped up!



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