The Alexander Technique and Sports Performance
by Adam Bailey
The Alexander Technique is a century-old educational process in which the student learns a set of skills that he or she can apply in all facets of life. One of the assumptions underlying this educational process is that most people carry more muscle tension than they need in order to carry out activities. The first skill that students learn, then, is how to lessen these areas of undue muscle tension. Second, they learn that, without the interference of the tension, they can cultivate a more natural alignment of their head, neck and spine that has associated with it qualities of balance, strength and coordination. Overall, knowledge of these skills allows students to move and carry out activities with greater ease and less effort.
In order to describe the ways in which the Alexander Technique can benefit athletes, let me start by telling my own story. Ive been a life-long athlete. As a child in grade school, I played soccer and baseball. Outside of school, I rode horses. As I got older, I also did a lot of skiing, sailing, hiking and bicycling. During my high school summers, I participated in several bicycle tours with American Youth Hostels (during one of these, we rode from New York City to Seattle coast to coast).
During high school and college, my favorite sport was rowing. At college, I rowed on the junior varsity lightweight crew. Because we won the Eastern Championships one year, I received a varsity letter (one of my most prized possessions!). I took a year off from college and lived in Crested Butte, Colorado; that winter I skied every day that I wasnt working. More recently, after a long period away from it, Ive gotten deeply involved in horseback riding again, (specifically in the discipline of dressage), and Ive continued to ski every winter
As you can tell, Ive always adored sports. And yet, for a long time, I felt that there was something missing in my relationship to them something that I couldnt quite put my finger on. One aspect of this was that I was never quite as successful at them as I wanted to be. It was only when I started taking Alexander lessons that I finally was able to figure out what that "missing piece" was.
What I learned through the Alexander Technique was that, in many cases, I was putting more effort into a given sport than I really needed to, with the result that my body had a lot of extra muscle tension tension that I wasnt even aware of! A central reason for this was that many of my coaches and instructors would say, "If at first you dont succeed, try it again only this time put more elbow grease into it," or some variation on that theme. On the other hand, the Alexander Technique taught me that, if at first I dont succeed, the best thing to do is to try a different approach. To be more specific, this means doing less subtracting effort and then trying the activity again.
I was so impressed with this learning that I decided to train to become a teacher a three- year undertaking. Ive now been teaching for almost nine years. The results of this process are tangible: at the age of 41, Im skiing and riding better than I ever have before. And best of all, I no longer have the feeling that something is missing. Or more accurately, if that feeling appears, I see it as an indication that I may be starting to overdo. Then I can catch the tendency and address it. As a result, I have much more frequent experiences of "the zone" that amazing experience of ease, control and well-being when you dont feel as if you have to make the sport happen because it almost seems to be happening on its own, and youre just going along for an intensely pleasurable ride. (Who knows, maybe if I had had the knowledge that I do now, I would have made the varsity lightweight crew in college!)
The implication of this article thus far is that the Alexander Technique is simply about learning how to lessen undue muscle tension. While that is a central theme of the technique, there is more to it than that. Its also about cultivating an alignment of ones head, neck and spine that has characteristics of ease, control and coordination. As you might imagine, its this alignment (known as the primary control) that is central to the experience of the zone.
Let me provide an example. Recently, I was skiing the moguls at Mt. Sunapee ski area in New Hampshire. Moguls are natural bumps that are created in the snow by skiers turns. They make skiing both more challenging and more interesting because they mean that you cant make your turns wherever you want to; they "predetermine" your turns.
Anyway, although the moguls I was skiing on that day were very close together, I found that I could negotiate the turns that were necessary using my knees, while my upper body stayed still. What helped in making this distinction were Alexander Technique thoughts about minimizing tension in the areas of my head, neck and spine so that I could allow my head to remain poised and so that I could allow my whole spine (or more accurately the muscles associated with it) to slightly lengthen upwards. This may seem somewhat abstract if you havent had an experience of your head, neck and spine when they are in their optimum relationship. Nonetheless, the result was that I found my balance improving, the quick turns became easier and I had more control over them. Best of all, I had a day-long experience of the zone!
Now I dont mean to imply that there was some miracle at work during that experience because what happened was the result of a lot of practice in both disciplines. Above all, it takes practice to be able to think about more than one thing at a time (as is necessary when you apply the Alexander Technique to any activity). Still, the benefits of combining the two disciplines are irrefutable and available anytime.
Id like to provide a second example of the benefits of the Alexander Technique for sports. It involves a student that Ive worked with for a period of time; Ive given her both Alexander Technique lessons and ski lessons. Shes been skiing for twelve years. Until she started taking Alexander lessons, her experience of skiing had not been altogether positive: in her words, "for years, Ive skied with fear and stiffness". In particular, she had fear about the steepness of the ski slope as well as fear of falling, and, as you might imagine, these fears interfered with her enjoyment of the skiing.
During her ski lessons, we did two things. First, we worked on her skiing skills: more specifically, I told her that I thought the most important skill for any skier to have is good "brakes". (It is interesting to note here that there is a parallel between the Alexander Technique and good skiing. The Alexander Technique teaches us to pause in the midst of any activity in order to assess our level of muscle tension and lessen it. These moments of pause, which with practice become almost instantaneous and can be carried out without interrupting the activity, nonetheless act as natural "brakes" in relation to the activity. That is, they help our approach to the activity to become more measured and balanced.)
In any case, I showed this student how she could bend her knees during her turns in order to slow down or stop. In my opinion all other skiing skills are built on this one. The second thing I did with her was Alexander Technique "hands-on" during the ski lessons. This had a number of effects. First, she became more aware of the fact that a big part of fear is the tension that it causes in our body (she had only been vaguely aware of this previously). At the same time, the hands-on gave her an experience of what skiing can be like when there is less tension in her body. Of course, the other thing that allowed her to be less tense and less fearful -- was the fact that she had begun to develop reliable brakes. Once she knew for sure that she could stop whenever she wanted to, she began to enjoy herself more. Finally, the hands-on gave her a new experience in her upper body, involving a quality of upward lengthening and lightness in her spine. Previously, the tension in her body had had the effect of pulling her down, giving her an overall feeling of heaviness that was associated with her fear of falling. Gradually, this tension and apprehension began to melt away.
Now again, I dont mean to imply that any miracles happened with this student. The results came only after she had had a course of Alexander Technique lessons away from the ski slope, and thus had had a chance to practice the skills associated with it. In addition, as I mentioned, she had a lot of experience skiing under her belt when I met her (even though not all of it was positive). Having said that, it was clearly the combination of the two sets of skills that allowed her to experience a "great breakthrough" (her words) in her skiing, and in her sense of well-being associated with it.
Adam Bailey is a teacher of the Alexander Technique. He lives and works in the Boston area. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (978)461-0946. Website: http://www.alexandertechniqueboston.com
For more information about the Alexander Technique, click here:
The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique