Relax and Win by Bud Winter
Why is a successful, but mostly forgotten track and field coach from the 1960s having a resurgence?
Bud Winter (1909–1986) was one of the best sprint coaches ever. Across 30 years at San Jose State University, he produced 27 track and field Olympians and three Olympic gold medallists. At one time, his runners held every world record for sprinting events. Usain Bolt’s coach is said to claim that much of Bolt’s (and Jamaica’s success) is due to Bud Winter’s influence.
Winter’s recent fame is due to something he discovered during World War II. Something that had nothing to do with athletics.
As a young coach before the war, he experimented with sports psychology — in particular relaxation. After Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in Naval Aviation and was assigned to the Del Monte Pre-Flight school in California.
Early in the war, the Navy had a big problem. America was losing. Despite recruiting the best and brightest, and despite spending a fortune on training and technology, their new pilots were cracking under combat conditions. They suffered from fatigue. They froze under pressure. They shot at the wrong airplanes. On top of that, training was too slow — they needed new pilots sooner.
The Navy tasked Winter with using sports psychology to improve results at the school. He created two equal groups of cadets: a control group and an experimental group. He then took the experimental group and trained them in progressive relaxation techniques.
One technique enabled airmen to teach themselves to fall asleep within two minutes. Sitting in a chair. With the crashing of simulated bomb sounds around them.
This technique resurfaced with the publication of a new edition of Winter’s 1981 book Relax and Win. It captured the imagination of the sleepless everywhere, leading to hundreds of articles.
Here’s a brief summary to help you decide whether to read the book.
Fall Asleep in 2 Minutes
Here’s the technique in a nutshell.
- Sit on a chair, right back in the seat, legs uncrossed, feet flat, and hands inside thighs.
- Eyes closed, breathe slowly, exhaling tensions
- Relax the forehead, relax the eyes
- Relax the jaw, let the mouth hang open, relax the tongue and lips
- Drop the shoulders, relax each arm, one segment at a time
- Relax the chest and rib cage, let the midriff out
- Feel the state of relaxation and associate it with the word ‘calm’
- Check face and upper body for tensions that have reformed
- Relax each leg, one segment at a time
- To sleep take 3 deep breaths and try one of the following for 5 minutes
- Imagine you are lying in the bottom of a still canoe, on a still pond, looking up at a beautiful sky
- Imagine you are in a large black velvet hammock in complete darkness
- Say the words “don’t think” for 10 seconds
If you can successfully clear your mind of active thoughts for 10 seconds you will be asleep. Winters found that any thought of movement prevented sleep — so imagine you are still. If you practice this a few times per day, in 5 weeks you should be able to fall asleep at will. You should also try it in bed at night (Winter recommends lying on back with pillows under head, knees, and each arm.)
But the sleeping technique, while useful, is not the core message of the book.
Yes, the technique helped cadets reduce fatigue, and to sleep better at night.
But Winters discovered something else. The relaxation technique, when combined with positive self-suggestion, made the cadets better at everything.
The relaxation group beat the control group in nearly every regular cadet activity, often by a huge margin. They did better at sports. They could identify Japanese vs. US planes much faster and more accurately. They got higher marks in examinations (Military History was an exception). They were also happier and less stressed.
Unfortunately, despite early success, the program was scrapped, Winter claims, for political reasons, but he brought the learning back to the track.
Key Relax and Win Tactics
Winter studied champions in many sports and noticed something interesting — they never looked like they were putting in the effort.
In the old days, coaches thought that the beetled brow, the clenched fist, and the set jaw characterized a champion in action. Then came World War II and coaches found that it was the fellows with the brook trout look on their faces — the sleepy-looking guys with the loose jaws and limp hands — who were not only turning in the best athletic performances, but were also shooting down the most planes.”
Winter’s theory was that tension in antagonistic muscles slowed a runner down. The trick was to relax those muscles using fewer muscles to do the same tasks. Winter’s coaching revolved around tactics to keep his athletes relaxed at all times, and in any situation. Here are four of the most important.
Loose Hands, Loose Jaw
Shouting “RELAX!” from the sidelines tended to be counterproductive. Winter found that tension, particularly in the forehead, jaw, and hands seemed to be the most damaging. He would constantly cue his athletes with “Loose hands, loose jaw.” This specific cue helped the whole of the athlete relax.
Other common cues:
- “Run fast, stay loose”
- “Get the wrinkles out of your forehead”
- “Get that brook trout look”
- “Drop those shoulders”
- “Let the meat hang from the bones”
Another curious thing that he and his coaching team discovered was that sprinting at 90% effort was faster than at all-out effort. It took a lot to convince athletes of this, and it had to be demonstrated. Athletes wanted to leave everything out on the track for the team, but pulling back effort 10% was faster. Trying too hard did not work — it caused unnecessary muscles to fire.
Let Nothing Bother You
Winter found that his athletes were prone to psyching themselves out. He felt that it was a way for them to give themselves an excuse if things didn’t go well, and it caused things not to go well. He wouldn’t accept negative talk from the team. If it was hot, the team would say they loved to run in the heat. When the team traveled to Idaho to compete, the home team thought the Californians would be disadvantaged by the cold weather. Instead, the team ran outside in shorts and rolled around and played in the snow. They won the meet.
Don’t give yourself an excuse to fail.
Along with the relaxation routine, Winter encouraged his athletes to ‘imprint’ positive messages regarding attitude while in a relaxed state. If they were running a race — they would repeat “I am going to run fast and loose”. If they were asking someone on a date they would say “I am going to be happy, interesting, poised, and thoughtful.” He lay great stock in these auto-suggestions, for his athletes and for other parts of life too.
Winter felt that the best attitude for any type of competition was “cool confidence” not indifference. This is a balancing act.
You must want to win. you must be determined, but must be loose — relaxed. Your adrenaline is up, but you must be in control. This presented a paradox. We had to teach cadets to be pepped up and relaxed at the same time.
The rest of the book contains interviews with famous coaches and athletes mostly backing up the idea that relaxation is helpful in creating a champion. Mostly of interest, if you are a fan of 70s and 80s sports (John Wooden, coaches of Muhammad Ali, Boris Becker, Mark Spitz, Katarina Witt.)
The meat of the book is contained in the first 100 pages, but there are some tricks and ideas here that could prove useful for sport, and other pursuits such as accelerated learning.
We studied such great champions of those days as Joe Louis, the great boxer, Joe DiMaggio, the great baseball player, Dutch Warmerdam, the great pole vaulter; and noted they all had sleepy, relaxed looks on their faces. Their arms kind of dangled. What was more important, THEY LET NOTHING BOTHER THEM! Whether it was hot or cold, whether the stadium was full or empty, whether the competition proved vicious or gentle, whether they were performing in practice or competing in Madison Square Garden, the seldom, if ever, lost their cool confidence and relaxed efficiency.”
*Featured image cropped.