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Peak performance under pressure? Relax

Updated: Apr 25, 2021

Can relaxation training really make a difference in extremely stressful situations such as combat and is it possible to stay relaxed when adrenaline is at its highest?

I recently came across the book "Relax & Win" by acclaimed coach Lloyd "Bud" Winter in which he recounts his incredible success using applied relaxation training and addresses these questions well.

More than just a tale of sporting prowess, Bud's experience training athletes and combat pilots during WW2 raises interesting questions around our beliefs about performance under pressure, our relationship with stress and how relaxation training can provide an edge in almost any pursuit.

Just prior to WW2 Bud and his colleague at San Jose State University, the renowned boxing coach DeWitt Portal, attended a course by Dr. Dorothy Yates looking at how the relatively new field of psychology might be applied to boost performance.

Based on this experience Bud and Portal developed a relaxation program they taught to the university boxing team, leading them to win every bout that season and often in spectacular fashion.

The key appeared to be reducing mental and physical tension by practicing a form of applied relaxation. In addition to finding this relaxation program gratifying in its own right, even novice students began showing what Bud called the “confidence of champions”. This cool confidence also came with less fatigue, a greater receptiveness to instruction and quicker reaction times which in those days was believed to be an innate skill that couldn’t be improved.

As Bud was preparing to implement this program in his university athletics department, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and Bud suddenly found himself a Naval officer tasked with improving the performance of combat pilots at the pre-flight school in California.

The cadets in his care were already the cream of the crop (much like today, getting into flight school was no mean feat) however they still found themselves overwhelmed by the task at hand. Many understandably struggled with the huge pressures of the job and the exhausting training regime necessary to prepare them for an even more grueling deployment.

Bud was given the challenge of addressing the following needs;

  • To speed up training and learning

  • To teach combat aviators to fall asleep under any conditions (sleep deprivation was a deadly issue in both training and war)

  • To alleviate or postpone fatigue

  • To speed up reaction time

  • To improve concentration

  • To reduce the fierce tension and pressure of war

  • To learn physical skills quickly

  • To maximize the coordination between muscles

  • To get aviators in top physical condition so that they could fly frequent missions, survive in the wilderness or hostile territory and fight for their lives

  • To be proficient in hand-to-hand combat

Their research suggested that in all sports or highly specialized skills (such as flying a plane), the greatest enemy to peak performance was too much tension. They believed the most common causes of “choking” - or in the case of flying “freezing to the flight stick” - were fear, anger, a lack of confidence, inexperience or trying too hard. In other words; ignorance and insecurity. Not only did the resulting tension decrease physical performance, it also inhibited clear thinking – a deadly handicap in battle.

In collaboration with the base psychologist they devised a six week relaxation program to be taught to half of the 200 cadets*. The other half would act as the control with all other variables such as their training regime, meals, schedule etc. remaining identical.

*(Bud details the techniques involved over a few chapters in the book and specifies that initially participants need to be guided through the process, hence why the techniques are not included in this article. In essence they involve a form of progressive relaxation very similar in practice to the standing meditation we practice in Wing Chun).

Within three weeks they began to see results and by the end of the six weeks the differences were clear.

Somewhat counterintuitively they found that relaxation training produced the greatest improvements in activities or situations where the pressure was the greatest. Concentration, obstacle course times, swimming, football, boxing and general reaction time all showed significant improvements over the control group. For some cadets the improvement in performance represented a complete metamorphosis - going from the bottom of the class to the top.

They also discovered that “learning to relax can be an important factor in how you feel, think and perform in all areas of our life”. The trainers also experienced this boost, with not only their abilities improving but also their home lives (their wives would joke that they arrived home so much less fatigued that they must be sleeping on the job!)

When it came to the cadet’s academic performance, the same was true. A key requirement at the time was being able to quickly and correctly identify if an aircraft was friend or foe. To test this ability, cadets were required to identify an aircraft that was flashed on a screen for 1/50th of a second, which most struggled to do at all. By teaching the cadets to relax their eye muscles students greatly improved. Interestingly, when the trainers held a surprise test for all 200 cadets conducted while the WW1 documentary “Desert Victory” was played in reverse as loudly as possible, none of the control group were able to finish the test, with most throwing their pens down and saying “the hell with it”. Every cadet in the relaxation group finished the test.

One of the most critical issues the cadets faced was getting enough quality rest, an issue that would only worsen once deployed. To establish a baseline the officers observed the cadets sleeping patterns and were horrified with what they found; the typical cadet was sleepless for 150 minutes through the night, with most exhibiting strange behavior like sitting up at regular intervals and sleep talking or climbing around the room believing they were on the obstacle course, none of which they remembered come morning.

As part of the relaxation training, the cadets were taught a technique to get to sleep in 2 mins sitting upright in broad daylight, eventually being able to do so with simulated cannon fire in the same room. After the six week program another sleep audit was conducted and the relaxation group were shown to have reduced their average body movements from 153 per night to 39, body turnovers from 48 to 13 and were sleepless less than 30 mins per night (compared to baseline of 150 mins).

According to Bud Winter, due to their overwhelming success this information and the techniques involved apparently remained classified until he published “Relax & Win” in 1981. By this stage he’d had an exceptionally successful post-war career as a track and field coach; using this relaxation approach athletes he coached broke 37 world records, including many Olympians.

His takeaways from teaching this relaxation method for 30+ years were;

  1. With proper direction anyone can learn to relax

  2. You can’t just tell yourself to relax - it is a skill you must practice and work at making a habit

  3. Relaxation did indeed solve many of the “too tense” problems of combat flight

  4. Relaxation applied to sports proved extraordinarily successful

  5. Many of the traditional coaching methods were shown to be counter productive

  6. Champions let nothing bother them (they don’t let external variables affect their mindset)

  7. Fatigue is largely in the mind

  8. In performing a physical skill – trying too hard or putting out 100% effort will penalize performance

  9. The best attitude going into a tense situation seems to be cool confidence (absence of insecurity)

  10. During the war a thorough, objective testing program proved beyond doubt that relaxation could help virtually everyone

Interestingly, this appears very similar to the conclusions Grandmaster Chu Shong Tin (CST) arrived at independently from his 50+ years teaching and practicing internal Wing Chun. The standing meditation he focused on towards the end of his life is remarkably similar to the relaxation process used by Bud Winter, just with a higher degree of difficulty as we stand and attempt to complete the forms in this state, where Bud had participants seated throughout the process. It would appear that CST was doing a version of this at an extremely high level and combining this with the unique mechanics of Wing Chun that allowed him to generate and neutralise huge amounts of force.

Most intriguingly, both CST and Bud Winter describe this relaxed state as being very pleasant (in CST’s words “like someone has just paid you a lovely compliment”).

Bud describes this relaxed state very similarly “if you have achieved even a modicum of relaxation a warm pleasant feeling will come over you. You have a very comfortable feeling of wellbeing. This is the relaxed state, it feels great. We want you to capture this feeling and make a habit out of it.”

He then goes on to describes the benefits of this flow state like so “when you are relaxed to this degree you will achieve an almost subliminal state of mind somewhat below full consciousness with which you can do many things much better. You can learn faster, concentrate better and what you learn in this state you will retain much longer”.

If you're curious about the benefits of relaxation training and Wing Chun or want to generally improve your performance get in touch here. You can also find Bud Winters book "Relax & Win" here.


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