TENNIS AND THE ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE

by Joe Boland

The personal objective of tennis is to use the human organism in the most integrated and efficient manner possible in order to achieve a specific goal, be it competition, recreation, or simply exercise. The objective of the Alexander Technique is to teach people how to use the human organism in this manner be the activity something as complex and stylized as tennis or as simple as moving in and out of a chair. Whatever the activity, the principles of efficient use are the same.

The following describes one way in which the Alexander Technique can be applied to the learning and teaching of tennis.

INTEGRATED INSTRUCTIONS

I wish I had a nickel for every time I've heard an Alexander or tennis student say, “There are so many things to think about; how do you think of them all at once?”. Alexander said, “...one at a time and all at the same time”, which technically answers the question, but for a student has all the immediate practical value of a Zen koan.

In teaching a complex activity such as tennis we usually break the activity down into its component parts, feed them to the student, and trust that through the process of repetition the student will reassemble the puzzle. The problem is further exacerbated in that not only do we describe tennis movement in terms of component elements, but we describe the anatomy in like terms as well (head, shoulders, hips, etc.). The net effect is that we create a conflict between image and reality. The reality we want is integrated movement by what is by its nature an integrated organism, but the language we use in order to stimulate this reality creates an image and consequent reality of disintegration.

Let's take a typical sequence of instructions to a tennis student, remembering that the optimum result is integrated activity by an integrated organism. The instruction is, “Watch the ball, take your
racket back”.

The first thing we want to do in order to make image and reality correspond is to establish a state of integrated awareness in which the human neuromuscular system is designed to function best. In practical terms. This means that even though the eyes are the anatomical part one associates with “watching the ball” or the arm that which one associates with taking the racket back...in fact the organism is functioning as a whole whatever and however specific the activity (even thinking) seems to be anatomically and/or kinesthetically. If left solely to the forces of conditioned habit and the shortcomings of language, however, the average student will direct his/her attention to the anatomical part(s) that are perceived to be the dominant elements in the specified activity. The effect will be one of contracted awareness and discoordination. In tennis that translates as mishits and frustration. If on the other hand a student is asked to execute a specific activity, but to do so with a general awareness of the whole organism, the neuromuscular system will be more likely to respond in a coordinated fashion as it is designed to do.

Integrated instructions can be used also to help coordinate the various elements of tennis technique. For instance, take again the basic instructions, “Watch the ball, turn, and take the racket back.” Unless otherwise clarified, the brain/body will proceed to respond to these instructions as three separate acts each in its turn requiring for its execution the diversion of awareness/attention from the others. The result is again discoordination and mishits. If on the other hand a student is asked to execute the three AS ONE ACTIVITY then we eliminate the conflict and present a stimulus to which a student can respond while maintaining a unified and balanced field of awareness.

Integrated instructions are particularly useful when working with beginning students, but are also effective when helping an otherwise developed student work through a problem with a specific element of a sequence. If you can verbalize the sequence with a rhythm or even rhyme it will be all the easier to remember and execute. Two general examples would be, “Watch the ball to turn the body, racket back and follow through” (rhythm) and to help a student with a fluid service motion, “Knees to toss to step across” (rhythm and rhyme).

Just remember that it is integrated movement by an integrated organism that is our objective in tennis and the better we are able to communicate this in a practical way with our words, the easier will it be for a student to learn.

Click here to read "An "Alexandered" Tennis Lesson by Joe Boland

Copyright by Joe Boland, 1988

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Certified as an Alexander teacher in 1979, Joe Boland has since 1982 lived and taught near Yosemite National Park in California where he can be reached at (209)966-3762 or jeboland@yahoo.com.

Learning to work effectively with those engaged in athletic activities has been a primary focus for him; creating and directing a program of "Alexandered" tennis instruction for children and adults has been one result of that focus.

The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique