by Roy Palmer

Why do we perform at the height of our ability one day and yet on others nothing goes right? Sometimes everything just seems to ‘click’; it’s easy and takes little perceived effort. But what happens in the opposite situation? Completely miss judging shots, unable to maintain composure at crucial moments or getting injured; it’s just not happening. If we are capable of achieving feats of brilliance one moment, why do we fail so comprehensively the next?

We may look at our preparation to determine what makes the difference. Many athletes have routines before and during events often bordering on the bizarre as desperation gives rise to superstition. Other factors affecting performance such as fitness, technique and attitude can be worked upon, but still that vital element may escape our attention, even top athletes have this problem. Consider the following.

“I couldn’t have felt better coming into this match and I couldn’t have played much worse. I am staggered, it was appalling.”

Tim Henman after his 1st round defeat at the Hamburg Masters 2001 ranked in the top ten beaten by German outsider Lars Burgsmueller ranked 96th in the world. Compare this with the experience of Sebastion Coe running in Oslo 1979.

“I thought I might get somewhere near the European record of 1:43.70, I had no particular sensation of speed, and I think I could have run even faster. I wasn’t exhausted at all in the end."

He set a new 800m world record of 1:42.33 beating the previous record by a huge margin of 1.1 seconds which stood for 16 years! In each case the athlete’s perception gave no indication to the actual level of performance achieved. Henman felt great but played well below his ability whilst Coe ran the race of his life as if it was a jog in the park.

So what factor escaped the attention of Henman and Coe? I believe the answer could lie deep inside and, ironically, one of our most useful functions may also be the villain as it contrives to conceal the nature of the problem – habit. Habit is essential for development and progression; if we had to continually think about how to walk and perform other repetitive tasks, we would not be able to attend to more complex acts. Yet for numerous reasons we develop bad habits that interfere with the mechanisms controlling balance and movement, however, due to their nature we cannot see them for ourselves. The simple act of taking one step involves every muscle in the body as they either move the appropriate part, release to allow movement or stabilise the rest of the structure. It’s a complex business; well beyond our conscious capabilities. To coordinate this activity the nervous system monitors signals coming from the inner ear, eyes, muscles and joints and responds with the appropriate commands. All this activity happens below the level of consciousness. We are the captain making the decisions and therefore should not be interfering with the operations in the engine room! Unfortunately I believe as soon as we try harder to perform we do exactly this!

Whether it is to run faster or to sink a putt to win a game, how do we apply ourselves to the task differently than when the result does not matter? The common response is to put more effort into the action in the belief it makes something happen. Yet, in my opinion this is the ‘wrong kind of effort’ that serves only to reduce efficiency. Observe anyone ‘trying harder’ and invariably you will see the outer neck and shoulder muscles working overtime pulling the head back. The ‘wrong kind of effort’ can be seen at most athletic meetings. On the last lap the leader may look over their shoulder and see the second placed runner closing the gap. The leader will then do what they think is necessary to run faster and apply more effort. The feedback from their muscles will convince them they are running faster because they can feel it. In reality, the additional effort has applied the handbrake and is preventing the limbs from moving quicker; they have stiffened up, pulled back their head and now need more effort just to maintain current speed. The second runner is in a better position to judge the required speed and moves more freely. As the runners draw level the original leader applies even more effort and appears to run on the spot in comparison with the eventual winner. It is no coincidence that commentators often describe the winner of a race as ‘relaxed’ or ‘making it look so easy’.

Feedback about any activity is vitally important for the quality of movement, messages from the brain that activate muscle have their actions monitored in order to reduce errors. Put simply, an outgoing signal ‘pings’ back a reply about the outcome. When we try harder, the conscious decision to put in more effort causes the motor cortex (part of the brain that controls muscle) to send additional signals to recruit more fibres of the required muscle. The increase in signals sent from the cortex adds to the traffic in the feedback loop, thus increasing our sense of effort. What we cannot be sure of is whether those additional signals have resulted in an efficient movement. We may feel we are working harder but will not know whether we are necessarily working smarter.

I believe the solution is to do less. The idea that it is possible to enhance performance without trying harder may at first sound implausible because it contradicts the accepted belief that to improve we need to do more.

This is where the method devised by F.M. Alexander can be invaluable for sports people. I see The Alexander Technique as a pre-technique giving us an additional and vital resource to manage and monitor what is really happening in our body. With practice we can develop an increased state of awareness allowing us to be immediately aware of unnecessary effort and how we can prevent interference with our innate, natural control systems.

In the two examples above, could Henman, anticipating the first game of the tournament, have mistook the resulting muscular tension for being ready or ‘fired up’? Perhaps unnecessary tension in his neck and shoulders destroyed his coordination and judgment. Whereas Coe felt in command of his race at the front, relaxed and free of tension. He had ‘no particular sensation of speed’ because there was no need to try harder. It was all happening at the appropriate levels – the captain was in the control room allowing the workers in the engine room to just get on with it.


Roy Palmer is a teacher of The Alexander Technique living in Bedford, UK. He came to the technique after years of experiencing discomfort and sports related injuries. Since qualifying in 1998, he has devised ways to help sports people benefit from learning the technique. In 2001 he wrote a book, The Performance Paradox, looking at how popular exercise routines may actually restrict performance and increase the risk of injury.

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