When tense makes sense
Tension is not your enemy – it’s a prerequisite for the optimal functioning of your mind and body. Making tension your friend means you have to learn to appreciate it, gauge it, and regulate it as required!
More than water
First, a little fun fact. Did you know our bodies are about 60% water? In fact, our brain, heart, and lungs are composed of as much as 80% water! Water by itself has no shape, so we need some tissue that gives all that water form and function – say hi to your bones and muscles!
Although our bones are static and give structure at all times, our muscles need a certain tension to provide function and the optimal tension depends on the physical and mental challenges we are facing. The basic tension of our muscles is called muscle tone.
Muscle tone and base tension
A good, general way to think of muscle tone is to see it as a tension that is present without movement or intent to movement. Muscle tone is caused by semi-constant partial contraction of muscle fibers. That’s a mouthful, so in 2Mynds we call it base tension. Base tension is a combination of muscle tone and mental alertness and together they are the key factors that regulate reflexes, posture, balance, and accuracy of movements. Too little as well as too much base tension can be detrimental to your performance.
Appreciate your stress
When your mental or physical status quo is challenged beyond what your base tension can cope with, the perceived potential discomfort sets an acute stress reaction in motion. This initial reaction is coordinated by the amygdala (your emotional command center) and the hypothalamus (your hormonal command center) and both parts work together to create a very fast and crude response. It involves a rush of epinephrine/adrenaline levels and the resulting reaction can be so fast that the body may react before our cerebral cortex becomes consciously aware of the actual situation. This initial stress reaction is a great thing to have and you should cherish it – without it you would not be ready for action.
All extra tension in your body is there because your body is listening to your mind. That’s a good thing: it means your body is working the way it’s supposed to work.
The increased muscle tone under stress is often called tight or tense and is usually perceived as negative. This negative labeling is based on the initial discomfort that increased stress and tension may cause. However, even though it may feel uncomfortable at first, you are likely still within physiological and close-to-optimal levels of tension. The stress reaction itself is your body doing its job and it is neither negative or positive – it’s simply your nervous system trying to get your body ready to deal with what’s coming.
Key issues for many people is that (1) they do not gauge their stress levels timely and accurately and (2) they do not interpret their stress levels correctly. An example of the first issue is that someone starts noticing his or her stress only after it builds up extensively. Conversely, someone may think it’s high whereas it really isn’t. The second issue is true for a lot of people, for example when one interprets a functional level of stress as negative. This negative mental reaction (distress) in its turn takes the tension from functional to too high for the task at hand – causing more distress and initiating a viscious cycle.
During sports, extra tension is normal and desirable. Don’t interpret it as inappropriate as that will increase the mental stress and increase your overall stress levels beyond what’s functional. Instead, welcome it and learn to adjust it or use it to your advantage.
Know your gauge
Our brain is super smart and the prior explanation of the stress reaction is quite oversimplified. In fact, the release of chemicals that is coordinated by our brain is so diverse and sensitive to the types of stressors (causes of stress) that not one stress reaction is the same.
Our brain is the command center. It monitors (or gauges) all of our activities and our reactions to the various stressors we experience. It is important to bring this gauge into our conscious awareness now and then. This is the only way we can learn to recognize which levels of stress are functional and which levels become dysfunctional. The only way to learn the difference between functional and dysfunctional stress levels is to expose yourself to progressive stress in training – work at various levels of discomfort.
In 2Mynds we use an approach we like to call ‘progress to stress’, which means we help you train your mental skills, for example tension regulation skills’ under levels of stress that are built up step by step. We do this typically via a physical stimulus – hence mind-body training. This means you not only learn to relax when your heart rate is 55, you also learn to do it when your heart rate is 140. This is an approach that comes from martial arts – in training situations the potential to get hurt is regulated and increases step by step until an exercise can be done under stress levels that are similar to a real fight.
How much stress is optimal depends on the activity. If you need more strength than coordination, a fairly high amount of stress (and the adrenaline that comes with it) can help you. If your task requires a substantial amount of coordination, your optimal stress levels are much lower.
Practice makes perfect
Once you have a good handle on monitoring your base tension, you have to work on regulating it – up and down. Tension regulation, as we like to call it in 2Mynds, is a skill that involves a variety of techniques. Some with a focus on the mind and some with a focus on the body, with one always influencing the other. For example, you can use mindfulness techniques to calm your mind, like attention awareness, breath awareness, or body awareness. Subsequently, your body will follow. But you can also use breathing techniques that impact your blood gases and nervous system – impacting your mind from your body.
Once you are familiar with the techniques that work best for you personally (which is what we teach you the 2Mynds e-learning programs), you must train them in progressively challenging conditions (which is what we do in the 2Mynds mind-body workouts). Eventually, you’ll have to make that knowledge and those skills work when it matters – in real-life situations. As an athlete that is ultimately in competition.
Let us help you work smarter
Many coaches and athletes still work with the assumption that mental skills (like tension regulation) will develop simply by exposure to a lot of challenging situations. “Just compete and get tough!” Interestingly, nobody believes that that is how it works with technique, strategy, or physical fitness, but somehow this is a common attitude when it comes to mental fitness.
Fortunately, knowledge development and self-assessments are common in sports psychology and many mental coaches support practical exercises. Still, only very rarely do you see athletes and coaches work as systematically and as meticulously on mental skills as they work on physical skills. This is where 2Mynds can help and we help everyone: sports psychologists, mental coaches, sport-specific coaches, parents, and of course athletes!