Mike Rowbottom

Relaxation techniques are now hammered into elite athletes throughout world sport. It seems oxymoronic. "Relax! Relax I say!" But of course it works.

In 2016, after she had won her third and fourth Olympic titles in Rio de Janeiro, British track cyclist Dame Laura Kenny described how the intervention of sports psychologists had enabled her to combat feelings of anxiety in order to improve her performance by introducing breathing exercises and muscle-relaxation methods.

"It sounds stupid but by thinking about your breathing it stops you thinking about anything else," she said. "It's hard to do but it makes you think about that instead of thinking about the race or whatever it is that you're going out there to do."

The idea that you do something better by thinking about anything else other than what you want to do better is strange but true.

It's like when you say: "Sleep on it." You’re struggling to work something out, to complete something. "It will all seem better in the morning." It does. The idea, the direction, becomes clear.

Following Roger Federer's retirement from tennis in last Friday's (September 23) emotion-swamped event at London’s 02 Arena many words have been written and spoken about how he managed to remain at the peak of the game until he was 41.

His own words offered the most pertinent clues.

Part of the statement announcing his imminent retirement contained the following sentence in tribute to his wife Mirka, the mother of his four children: "She has warmed me up before finals, watched countless matches even while over 8-months pregnant, and has endured my goofy side on the road with my team for over 20 years."

The term "goofy" hints at a habitually light-hearted attitude; albeit one capable of inducing fixed grins, or worse, among his loved ones.

But whether Roger's jollity has tested Mirka's patience or not, you have to say: it has clearly worked.

Another factor Federer has cited when attempting to explain how he has maintained his career at such a level for so long is a very basic one. He sleeps between 10 to 12 hours a night.

"Sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleave of care, The death of each day's life, sore labour's bath, Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course, Chief nourisher in life's feast."

Had Macbeth been a top-class tennis player rather than a tortured soul driven to secure a crown through the murderous promptings of his wife, he would surely have put this knowledge to better use.

Incidentally, something I should have known but only realised today, "sleave" is often given as "sleeve" in the text of Macbeth, but at the time he was writing the play William Shakespeare is thought to have been lodging with a French family who were engaged in making silken head-dresses for ladies and courtesans.

Weird circumstances meant that Macbeth, who so valued sleep, was unable to get the 10 to 12 hours a night that Roger Federer has so regularly enjoyed ©Getty Images
Weird circumstances meant that Macbeth, who so valued sleep, was unable to get the 10 to 12 hours a night that Roger Federer has so regularly enjoyed ©Getty Images

So rather than simply recuperating a frayed sleeve, sleep sorts out knotted and entangled threads of silk.

But I digress. And I'm going to continue to do so.

Years ago I remember Linford Christie talking to me about how being an athlete kept you in a kind of permanent state of, not childhood, but childlike-ness. Those were not his exact words, but that was I think what he was meaning. Even into your late thirties you can remain in a setting where certain drudging cares do not weigh upon you or are at least not acknowledged.

Christie, too, was always one to proclaim the paradoxical truth of sprinting - you run better when you relax. When you consider how young children run when they first race, all screwed-up eyes and pumping arms, this seems mad. But of course, it isn't.

The funster of all funsters in this area, relaxed before during and after his dazzling sequence of Olympic and world victories, was Usain Bolt.

While the mortals in other lanes look sternly ahead, thumping their chests or visualising like maniacs, Bolt would be chatting to the young girl or boy charged with holding his kit, occasionally fist-bumping them or making them laugh.

Then it would be on to the camera as it arrived to document his presence - time for some more lightheartedness, and an apparent careful arranging of his hair, getting himself perfect for another perfect run. Then he would win. And then the fun would start all over again with a Lightning Bolt pose…

That approach went wrong only once, catastrophically, when, after a particularly amusing extempore performance before the 100 metres final at the 2011 World Championships in Daegu he was disqualified for a false start. It was awful to watch. But given his CV - world records at 100 and 200m, eight Olympic golds, 11 world titles - you have to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Bertie Auld led the singing in the tunnel for Celtic that freaked out Inter Milan before the 1967 European Cup final ©Getty Images
Bertie Auld led the singing in the tunnel for Celtic that freaked out Inter Milan before the 1967 European Cup final ©Getty Images

Similar lightheartedness was brought to bear with telling effect by Celtic's players, led by that diamond chip of a midfielder Bertie Auld, when they sang their club song in the tunnel as they lined up alongside Inter Milan in Lisbon before the 1967 European Cup final - a match they went on to win in glorious style as they became the first British winners of the trophy.

According to reports at the time, it freaked the Italians out. So while, strictly speaking, it was Inter who took the lead in the match after seven minutes, they were in reality already 1-0 down.

And while we’re in the world of Sixties football, it was well documented by team-mates that George Best, one of the marvels of that age, would regularly turn up at the last minute in the Manchester United changing room before games. He was never one to arrive two hours early and fret his way through seven different rituals before making sure he was the last to put his shorts on and the last to take the pitch.

Turn up. Get changed. Play like a genius. Then out on the razz with Mike Summerbee. All so easy, auntie…

There were occasions, towards the troubled end of his career, when Best did not make it onto the pitch. But once there he was always in the right frame of mind.

You could say the same about Eliud Kipchoge. (Although not the bit about the troubled end of his career.)

Yesterday, at the age of 37, Kenya’s double Olympic champion took 30 seconds off the world record he set at the 2018 Berlin Marathon, running  2hours 1min 9sec on the same course.

The weekend before last, in an online interview from his Kenyan training camp, Kipchoge had paid tribute to Federer's feat in remaining at the top of his game for so long and gone on to say how he was "preparing his mind" for the forthcoming test in Berlin.

Eliud Kipchoge broke his own marathon record by 30 seconds in Berlin yesterday at the age of 37 - after convincing his mind to chill out ©Getty Images
Eliud Kipchoge broke his own marathon record by 30 seconds in Berlin yesterday at the age of 37 - after convincing his mind to chill out ©Getty Images

"I've been doing a lot of training in the last four months," he said. "For the three days I will be in Berlin I will just try to tell my body that something is coming, try to conserve energy, try to make it believe that the muscles are active and just doing some strides. I'm preparing the mind for Sunday.

"Preparation of the mind is very important when you are running a marathon or a very crucial race, getting the mind to accept it. A human being is his mind. When your mind is okay, then your muscles are good. And when your mind is not doing well then your muscles also are not doing well.

"So I am trying all best to… convince my mind that I have done a thorough training. Done a far enough mileage. And prepared my muscles. So it knows that all things are coming. That's what I mean."

He seems to be getting the hang of it certainly.

Back to Federer. As Chris Clarey of the New York Times pointed out last week, Federer regularly took proper breaks from the tour, and maintained a laid-back attitude on competition days.

"Many an opponent can recall a pleasant chat with Federer in the locker room shortly before a match, and that he could then don his game face in an unsettling hurry," Clarey wrote.

He then cited a 2019 interview in which the Swiss phenomenon had revealed something of the way he approached competing.

"'As much as I take things very serious, I am very laid back, so I can really let go very quickly,' Federer said. 'I truly believe this is a secret for a lot of the players and for the young guys is to be able, when you leave the site, to say: OK, I'm going to leave it behind.

"'I still know I’m a professional tennis player, but I’m relaxing. I’m doing it my way, whatever helps me decompress.'

"Federer punctuated this by clenching his left fist, before adding: 'Because if you are constantly like this, that’s when you burn out.'"

Better to burn out than to fade away? Not true.