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The Alexander Technique has helped all kinds of sportsmen and women, both at amateur levels and in training for high-pressure competitions. Since the way you use your body can dramatically affect the efficiency of your performance, the more aware you are of your actions, the greater the control you will have over your body. The Alexander Technique has been used effectively in a wide variety of sports from golf to running, but perhaps the sport that the Technique has been most commonly associated with is horse-riding. While on a horse the rider's posture clearly affects performance.
Sport places great demands on your body and can lead to injury in the form of twisted ankles, torn ligaments and sometimes even broken bones: using less tension in demanding activities can dramatically reduce the risk of injury to yourself. The increased freedom and flexibility that the Technique imparts can not only help to bring about improvements in performance, but many people begin to experience renewed pleasure in their sport. Most of the early training invites the sports-person to try harder and harder which can result in excessive muscle tension. This only puts the body under enormous pressure and, if such habits are allowed to persist, can cause interfere with its natural mechanisms. Sometimes, as a result, the person eventually has to give up their favourite sport altogether. It is often hard, at first, for people to give up their old habitual way of straining, but when they do they are amazed to find that an easier, more flowing style can produce the same, or even better, results with less effort.
People from 'less civilised' societies seem to have the ability to perform demanding physical tasks with ease because they are not 'end-gaining' during their activities in the same way as we do in Western society. In her book The Continuum Concept, psychotherapist Jean Liedloff who lived with Stone Age Indians from South America describes her insights into the way they go about their everyday actions:
The first few steps were weighed down with the thought of the strain I always experienced on treks through jungles, especially uphill and when carrying anything that did not leave my hands free. But quite suddenly, all the added weight fell away. Anchu (her Indian companion) gave not the slightest sign that I ought to walk faster, that my prestige would suffer if I kept a comfortable pace, that I was being judged for my performance or that my time on the path was in any way less desirable than the time after arrival. Hurry had always been a factor in similar exercises with my white partners. Gone was any sense of competition, and the physical strain turned from an imposition upon my body to a satisfying proof of strength, while my teeth gritting martyrdom no longer applied.
She was astonished at the speed and ease with which she was walking and caught a glimpse of the Indians' secret of outdoing our well-nourished strongmen despite their generally inferior muscle power. She realised that they were economising their energy by using the minimum required to accomplish the job, wasting none on associated tensions which is exactly what the Alexander Technique sets out to achieve.
To many people involved in sport the idea of not being goal-orientated is difficult to grasp because it goes against everything they have been taught in practically every aspect of their lives. To have the wish to achieve your end, yet at the same time to remain detached from it, is the secret of success and happiness and this is one of the fundamental principle behind the Alexander Technique.
This 'standing back' or pausing before action can also be seen in Aikido, Judo, T'ai Chi and other martial arts that have been practised in the East for thousands of years. The true masters of their arts perform all actions with grace and beauty, yet at the same time with great power. The secret is to remain composed at all times and to give yourself time to perform the activity with ease. This principle is just as applicable in the middle of a football match, on the tennis court, on the ski slopes or with any of our western sports.
Another major problem stems from our faulty sensory perception which gives us false information about where our body is in space, and this can obviously have a significant effect on any sporting activity: if we think we are in one position when we are actually in another then our co-ordination and balance will obviously be affected. This can be the reason that even the greatest athletes sometimes make silly mistakes, especially under pressure when there is bound to be more tension in their muscles, generating stress throughout the body. In fact it is common to see both amateur and professional sports-people with teeth clenched, lips pursed and forehead frowning in the effort to win, but as a consequence of over-tightened muscles movements become awkward, therefore diminishing the chances of performing well. By applying the principles of the Alexander Technique we can start correcting our old habitual movements that produce these tensions, and replace them with more poised and fluid ways of moving. By becoming more aware of ourselves and our surroundings we can gain a greater conscious control over our bodies, thus increasing the chances of performing well.
As any sports-person will tell you, there is also a very important psychological aspect, which can make the difference between winning or losing the game or race. Even the best of players can play well one day and badly the next for no obvious reason, and the calmer and more detached you are the greater your chances of success will be. By practising inhibition and direction you will find that your mind is in a better state to cope with the pressure of the game, whatever level you are playing at. It will also help you to remain calm once you have made a mistake, rather than escalating it into a series of disasters that can often cost you the game.
Very often, the harder you try the worse things get. The secret is to let your body move with the natural ease and agility that lies beneath the postural habits and conditioned ways of performing activities. Most important of all is to enjoy the sensation of every action, because when you are happy with your body's performance you will attain an excellence that is not only rewarding for you, but is also a pleasure to watch. If you observe the great athletes, whether their sport is ice-skating, running, snooker or football, you will see that they perform their actions with incredible ease; comments like 'they make it look so easy' can often be heard whenever they perform.
Success comes when the mind is at peace and your inner critic is not telling you to do better or giving you retribution for the mistake you made five minutes ago. The moments when any sport feels the most rewarding is when little effort is required for even the most demanding actions, and the person just feels a flow that helps them to excel past their usual performance, which in turn gives them more confidence to perform the next movement effortlessly. This spontaneous state is hard to achieve, yet it is possible to cultivate the feeling if only we can stop trying so hard and 'let it happen'. In the forward to Eugen Herrigel's book Zen in the Art of Archery, D.T. Suzuki describes the effects of a busy mind on archery:
As soon as we reflect, deliberate, and conceptualise, the original unconscious is lost and a thought interferes. We no longer eat while eating, we no longer sleep while sleeping. The arrow is off the string but does not fly straight to the target, nor does the target stand where it is. Calculation which is miscalculation sets in. The whole business of archery goes the wrong way. The archer's confused mind betrays itself in every direction and every field of activity. Man is a thinking reed but his great works are done when he is not calculating and thinking.
Many people are involved in sport to achieve a heightened state of awareness as well as win trophies. No matter what your sport, there can be a point during the activity when you reach a stillness, your over-active mind becomes calm and the only place is 'here' and the time is 'now' - nothing exists outside that present moment. You reach a point where an indescribable feeling of oneness takes place - the runner becomes merged with the elements, the tennis player feels that his racket is merely an extension of his (or her) own arm, the rider and the horse become so interconnected that they move as one entity, the surfer maintains the correct poise and delicate balance to negotiate the power of the waves, and the skier is taken down the slope at incredible speeds and performs the perfect action at precisely the right moment without thought or effort. In this state of mind your inner critic is silenced and you no longer care whether you are winning or losing - you are simply experiencing a feeling of joy and total connection with the present moment. The Alexander Technique can help you to be aware of the habits that stop this perfect flow from taking place, and through gradual non-interference, we can allow that feeling to manifest.
The same principles apply to the less physically active games, such as scrabble, chess or the ancient Japanese game of Go, where the true triumph over obstacles takes place in the player's minds rather than on the board. In all games, success is achieved when inhibition is exercised and panic and 'end-gaining' are eliminated; it is only then that inner peace prevails and the true excellence of the player can be revealed.
Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans. The moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.
— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe