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Massage Today
February, 2008, Vol. 08, Issue 02

High Anxiety

By John G. Louis, CMT

Pre-game jitters, the yips, competition anxiety - all names for a very real phenomenon experienced by competitive athletes at every level and age, just prior to competing. Think about it for a minute and put yourself in their shoes. In one hour all eyes will be on you - all 80,000 of them. The newspaper reporters are waiting in the press box, wondering how you'll perform and eager to tell their readers exactly what they think, good or bad. Not to mention the fact that millions more people will be watching you on television as well. What's going through your mind? All kinds of intense thoughts, right?

As we can all imagine, performing at this level can be extremely stressful, causing all kinds of negative physiological effects. When we're anxious, our body's so-called "fight or flight" respond is activated, which is caused by the release of the stress hormone adrenaline. The symptoms can include:

  • abdominal discomfort
  • diarrhea
  • dry mouth
  • rapid heartbeat or palpitations
  • tightness or pain in the chest
  • shortness of breath
  • dizziness
  • frequent urination
  • difficulty swallowing
  • shaking
  • nausea

Naturally, all of these side effects can dramatically limit the athlete's effectiveness on the field, leaving them more susceptible to poor play and worse, a potentially career-threatening injury.

Massage therapy offers hope for those who suffer from this phenomenon. While working with professional athletes over the past 27 years, I've performed thousands of pre-game treatments. My goals have always been twofold: warm the tissue and reduce competition anxiety. I have lots of great success treating with trigger-point therapy. I begin the treatment with the athlete supine, positioning myself seated above their head; I reach underneath and treat the upper trap, mid-trap and sub-occipitals especially. I also might treat the face and scalp as well, holding the points for the classic eight to 12 seconds dictated by trigger-point research. In a 15-minute treatment, you can relax a stressed athlete enough that they could fall asleep on your table. I believe the direct pressure work is largely responsible for the very important and powerful endorphin release, which can give a powerful sedating and pain-killing effect.

Trigger-point therapy, or what I like to call the "direct pressure therapies," are so incredibly effective, in fact, I believe it's some of the most important work we can do as therapists. It's also some of the least used, in my view. When I personally receive treatment, I respond very well to this work. I always ask therapists to perform it whenever I have a massage. However, I'm usually disappointed because either the therapist is not well-versed in direct pressure or they perform an incorrect interpretation of it. Direct pressure has to be deep enough to be felt by the recipient. Shiatsu dictates 7 pounds of pressure; other techniques are not that specific, although it's necessary to penetrate the tissue enough to make a real therapeutic change. The pressure also has to be constant and completely still.

I'll talk more about this in future articles. For more advanced training in this area, seek out a neuromuscular educator. There are several excellent educators in this industry who teach nationally. The next time you work with an athlete before a competition, please try these techniques for yourself. I believe you'll find, as I have, that it will make a huge difference.

Click here for previous articles by John G. Louis, CMT.


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