The Argument for "Releasing" tension – Good or Bad?

by Rob Polishook, M.A.

The Australian Open Tennis Championships 2010

I’m still recovering from my 4:30 am live viewing of Roger Federer and Nikolay Davydenko. What a match!  What mental swings!  These mental swings are really potent, and yet so many of them get swept under the carpet by commentators espousing that “players” don’t like to show emotion.  How many times did Chris Fowler say” great champions dont like to admit to nerves”?  Yet Federer, in his post match interview, started out by saying that he was feeling a “little nervous.”  The look on Roger’s face said he might have gone further, and said, “Yeah. I was scared shitless, Nicolay was playing like Agassi on steroids, creating angles and hitting heavy balls like a ton of bricks.” As I have said many times, there is nothing wrong with fear or nervousness – the problem arises when you dont accept it and try to fight it off (its gets stronger.)   I’m a proponent of “channeling it” in productive ways.  Because the “other side” of these emotions are excitement and freedom.  It seems to me that peak performance is largely a matter of understanding this broader perspective.  Unfortunately, in our society, many of todays athletes hold to the “silent stoical” posture in competition – believing that showing any kind of emotion is bad – it shows weakness.

One of the things behind this fear (especially with regard to what the media talks about) is fear of vunerability….or….not living up to expectations.  What makes Fed so amazing is that he is not afraid to show his humanity. Remember when Fed broke down in last year’s loss to Rafa.  That breakdown happened at the moment he was thanking the crowd and looking at Laver.


Here is my take on it:  Prior to this loss Federer was placed on such a high pedestal – I believe it became close to impossible for him to separate himself from it (the pedestal).  This proved to be a lesson  learned.

At the time of this loss – I believe he completely lost focus.   Clearly, he was no longer performing in the present.  Instead, he was seduced by future thinking – an essential ingredient in that recipe for disaster!  In the match, as he started losing grip, his focus seemed to center on the disparity of playing a certain way – rather than adapting and adjusting to what was presently happening.  He came up very short.  And then he broke down – thus the massive outpouring of tears, which signified a tremendous release.  These tears were not weakness, but rather strength. He was able to let go of whatever he was holding on to.  Certainly, his results in the next three Grand Slams point to this strength.

The machine like mentality that many people hold about nerves is  misdirected. Nerves are not a bad thing.  In fact, wasn’t it Bill Russell who used to throw up before big games. Russell’ vomiting is much like Feds crying, a natural instinctive release.  Not weakness – rather – proof that these icons are in touch with themselves.  Ultimately, the release serves to help them ‘let go’ and create distance from whats bugging them.  Ingenious, I think.  Think not?  How about the epic scene of Michael Jordan hugging the ball and crying at center court after winning an NBA championship. Major release…

Bottom line, the body remembers that the athlete is a person first – and – a performer second.  Therefore it is to be exected that on and off court….emotional and physical trauma like experiences will affect the athlete’s performance.  Doesn’t an argument or injury effect us if we go onto the court?  It is Easy to say “I’m ok” – but – for how many of us in that situation (consciously or unconsciously)  would that doubt creep in.  The slightest bit of hesitation is the diffence between a winner or shank.

For many athlete’s the release ‘doesn’t occur’ and is ‘not permitted’ in their belief system.  These are often athletes where the “yips” – little involuntary reflex movements can distort the athlete’s execution and contribute to ‘repetitive performance problems.  These problems are often successfully resolved through “Brainspotting” – the method developed by Dr. David Grand soon to be featured on Podium Sports Journal.

Editor’s note:  Stay tuned to Podium Sports Journal for a series of articles exploring “Brainspotting” in some detail.  You won’t be disappointed.

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