The Alexander Technique in sports
Movement efficiency, coordination and injury prevention through lessons in the Alexander Technique
The benefits of the Alexander Technique to athletes can be profound and far-reaching, both in the prevention of injury and in improving strength and coordination. There are many reasons that athletes suffer injury or have difficulty improving performance. There are, of course injuries that result from accidents or over-training. And, in order to improve, athletes need proper coaching and direction. On the other hand, there are problems that can be said to result from habits that interfere with coordination, leading to injury and limiting performance. It is in changing such habits that the Alexander Technique has an important place.
There are habits that may be directly changed, such as a golf grip. There are others which are so deeply embedded that they are not felt, but have simply become a part of resting muscle tone. And, while it may take some time to effectively change a golf grip, it is nearly impossible to stop doing something that you do not feel yourself doing. The Alexander Technique works on bringing awareness to movement so that change becomes possible.
Posture is the system that adapts the body to distribute effort reflexively.
When considering all movement, we first must consider posture, which is often misunderstood. Indeed, most dictionary definitions of posture do not accord with the true physiology of posture. Simply put, the postural system is the system which adapts constantly to support our intentions and responses to the world around us. Good posture is not right positioning, but is actually movement, constant adjustment of balance and the relationships between all muscles. Without the movement of liquid in the inner ear, we would not be able to balance. Without constant movement, our brains can make little sense of visual or tactile input, as the brain needs to compare adjoining elements in the environment in order to construct mental images of things; thus a finger moves to feel texture, and the eyes move (saccades) so that light moves across the retina. Therefore, a healthy condition of a resting body can be described as one in which there is constant micro-adjustment. It is possible, indeed, for best performance, necessary, for this adjustment to continue even in the maximum effort of sport. A cheetah running at 100km an hour flows like water, every joint in flux, its entire thorax moving to permit maximum respiration. When posture works unimpeded, effort is distributed reflexively throughout the muscular matrix, and we needn’t think about what muscle is doing what.
Small children usually have excellent posture, demonstrating its innate nature. As the tasks required of children multiply, we begin to see deformations in posture, which can be said have four basic causes: imitation of poor models; unsuccessful trial and error; protective response after injury; and learning under stress.
When confronted with postural faults, traditional pedagogy fails. While in most situations we learn by doing increasingly more complex and difficult tasks, in working on posture, we must undo the unnecessary actions that are interfering with reflexes. We must simplify. For example, the instruction to correct rounded shoulders by strengthening the muscles which pull the shoulders back is no solution at all (nor is the attempt to correct inactive abdominals by exercising and engaging them consciously). Such an action is change in position, accomplished by increasing rigidity. I once saw a physiotherapist demonstrate a vest that was designed to hold a violinist’s shoulder in place. Since the shoulder of a violinist must constantly adapt (as indeed the whole body of the violinist must), this is a cruel, Medieval “solution” to a lifted or contracted shoulder, and will surely cause more severe problems for the violinist later on. (As F.M. Alexander wisely stated, “Sometimes, when you are getting better, you are getting worse”, meaning short-term solutions can lead to long-term problems.)
Here is where the Alexander Technique comes in. If the problem is postural, that is, ever-present, then it will not be solved in the action in which it becomes most apparent. It is a part of the global posture of the person, and is thus the foundation upon which all movements are constructed, thus, I believe that one cannot truly improve posture while it is engaged in supporting an action — one must work on it outside of habitual movement. This is because a habit for movement – hitting a tennis ball, for example – is stored in the motor cortex in such a way that it is inextricably linked to the individual’s global postural condition. Hitting the tennis ball necessarily engages the global posture. Even as one works in somatics (I don`t believe there are methods which are not somatic that have much, if any, success in actually improving posture) to make changes in posture, the habit established for hitting a tennis ball will strongly stimulate the return of the old habitual posture. So there are steps to be made between the awareness of misplaced postural tone – the ability to inhibit the actions which interfere with good posture – and the ability to inhibit the old postural habit while engaging in a complex sports action.
The Alexander Technique uses guidance to bring awareness to movement.
The first problem we encounter when attempting to improve posture is that it is very difficult to stop doing something if one does not feel that one is doing that thing. Yes, one may be aware of the feeling of having a tight neck, for example, but if one can learn to sense the action of tightening the neck muscles that results in the discomfort, one will be halfway to not tightening them. So, it is not sufficient to see the result of the unwanted action. To inhibit an action, one must learn to sense the beginning of the action, and long-held postural tone is not sensed as an action – it is a state, a constant, something that, for us, seems indivisible into components. In order to begin to experience the acquired postural fault, one must work very quietly, and, here, one is greatly assisted by outside guidance. By following the guidance of a teacher of the A.T., whether that guidance be simply verbal, or manual, or a combination of the two, one can allow oneself to move outside of habit; giving up trying to do something right allows one to give up the muscular action that feels necessary to control movement, and to enter into an experimental, exploratory mode that allows one to better sense how one is moving.
The goal of the A.T. teacher is to help the student to develop the awareness required to change him/herself. Working with the student in a neutral condition, often sitting, standing or lying down, the A.T. teacher uses verbal and manual guidance to help the student to release contractive patterns. He will then guide the student through simple movements, teaching him to initiate movement from a dynamic postural condition, i.e., without returning to the habitual posture to initiate movement. The movements used in beginning lessons are not goal oriented, in that they are not about doing something “right”, but more about observing movement patterns and their initiation. In hands on work, the practitioner uses subtle guidance, and may give immediate feedback to the student about unnecessary effort or rigidity.
For the most part, important change in movement is accomplished through the Alexander Technique not by learning how to do a movement “right”, but by becoming aware of already learned elements of movement that are interfering with coordination, and learning to inhibit them. When something is not working well, when there is pain or injury, rather than seeking an active solution, it is best to first analyze what one may be doing to cause the problem, and learn not to do it. While this may seem obvious in the case of a business that is not functioning well, it goes against the traditional pedagogies that most of us have followed in school, sport and art.