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Combatting Nerves with Jesse Engelbrecht

This article, in which High-Performance Coach Jesse Engelbrecht explores physical coping techniques for dealing with stress, first appeared in the WSF-endorsed Squash Player Magazine

You may have seen in 2022 Issue 1 my discussion of mental techniques to help with nerves. It’s now time to look at physical interventions that may also prove helpful.

There are a lot of great breathing techniques that you can experiment with to find what may work for you. You can use this one before competing or whenever you feel particularly tense. Inhale slowly, deeply and evenly through your nose and exhale gently through your mouth as though flickering but not extinguishing a candle flame.

Breath 1: allow your face and neck to relax as you breathe out

Breath 2: allow your shoulders and back to relax as you breathe out

Breath 3: allow your chest, stomach and back to relax as you breathe out

Breath 4: allow your legs and feet to relax as you breathe out

Breath 5: allow your whole body to relax as you breathe out. Continue to breathe as deeply for as long as you need to, saying the word ‘relax’ each time you breathe out. Use each exhalation to let nervous and anxious thoughts and feelings leave your mind and body.

Another useful tool is centering. Focus attention on the centre of your body just behind your navel. It has a calming and controlling effect and can counteract the negative effects of anxiety.

Stand normally and comfortably.

Close your eyes, breathe evenly and feel the air move in and out your lungs. Progress to
diaphragm breathing (fully engage the stomach and abdominal muscles and actively pull the diaphragm down on each in breath) and feel any areas of tension in the body.

As you exhale, let the tension fall away and focus on the feeling of heaviness in your stomach. Continue and focus on the area immediately behind your navel. Maintain attention on that spot, breathing normally, feeling controlled, heavy and calm. On each out breath, use a word that encapsulates feelings and mental focus such as loose, calm, focused, sharp, strong and confident. You can also develop your own miniature version of this centering technique between points during a match.

Another way to rid your body of tension is to get the blood circulating through movement. When you are anxious blood does not flow to your extremities, so moving, dancing, shuffling, flowing and quick-stepping allow the blood to get to your feet and hands.

You can make this a fun and enjoyable experience and even make it a bit ludicrous so you can laugh at yourself a little and not take things so seriously. See what crazy dance moves you can employ!

Bouncing on the spot, working on a little footwork pattern or rhythm or copying a dance move you saw on TV all gets you up and about and active whilst having a little fun in the process.

One technique I am a huge advocate of is meditation. Making it a daily habit can start with just three to five minutes every morning for two weeks. Meditation helps you to pay attention to thoughts and feelings. We can train the parts of our brain that help awareness through a daily meditation habit. Awareness is your first step to being able to deal with nerves and anxiety. Headspace and Waking Up are two well-known apps to help start you off on a mediation journey. I use Waking Up each morning and evening and find it one of my most powerful tools. Meditation and journaling set me up wonderfully for the day ahead as well as calming me down and helping to cage my restless ‘monkey mind’ for the evening so I can get a good night’s sleep.

Talking of sleep, a final useful physical technique for de-stressing when you’re in bed is ‘letting go’. As you lie undisturbed, allow your mind to wander over each part of your body, starting from the tips of your toes and working up to the top of your head. As you focus on each body part, tense the associated muscles for a count of five and then ‘let go’. Repeat this process more if you need to. Once you have done this over the individual parts of your entire body, then tense the entire body, hold for five, and ‘let go’. You will feel tranquil and deeply relaxed.

In 2022 Issue 3, the final part of my Combating Nerves series will look at environmental interventions to help alleviate anxiety and stress. For more ways to improve your psychological skills for squash and life, download the SquashMind app.

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