Alexander Technique Education UK




Providing a trusted resource of information 
on the Alexander Technique

Alexander Technique and Sport by Ken Thompson

28 Nov 2013 12:35 PM | Anonymous

For the Alexander Technique doesn’t teach you something new to do. It teaches you how to bring more practical intelligence into what you are already doing; how to eliminate stereotyped responses; how to deal with habit and change. It leaves you free to choose your own goal but gives you a better use of yourself while you work towards it. – Frank Pierce Jones

If we look at the word ‘Sport’ in the dictionary (OED) we see that it refers to some of the following: - amusement, diversion, fun, pastime, game, hunting, fishing, racing, running, jumping, putting weight, etc. A Meeting of athletes to compete in these.

 So we can see that there are many different activities that can be classified under the word ‘sport’. Most people who become involved in a sport or a game may not believe that they are a competitive sports person, but rather that they are just participating in some activity. However if we look at the following definition for competitive athletes, taken from an American publication: “Competitive Athletics has three main connotations; first is that man struggles personally against another person or persons: second that his struggle is impersonally against an objective, external standard, and third: that he struggles to better himself, i.e., that he competes with himself. All three of these designations function within the context of Games and Sport. This is consistent with Starr’s (1961) definition of competitive athletics as being “a wide range of games and sports, which involve a rivalry or a match with oneself or others”.

Competitive athletics, thus, become only a small part of the totality of man’s movement. Physical movement is engaged in by man for many reasons other than competition and it is here that the main distinction can be made between the athlete and the participant in physical activity. If the performer is competing in the above sense of the word, then he must perforce be regarded as participating in an athletic context; if he is simply engaging in physical movement for reasons that do not emanate from his competitive needs or desires, then he can be classified as a participant. Football players, mountain climbers, golfers, joggers, and even dancers, are all athletes, regardless of their ability levels, if their movement are primarily directed towards the pursuit of excellence or success.

Our operational definition of the athlete had now become: “Any person who executes and completes an identifiable, short-term, skilled motor performance while competing against an objective, external standard, against another person or persons, or against oneself.”

So there are a great many people who believe they are just participating in an activity, but who are really competing athletes! For example most yoga students in a class are trying to get the posture right according to a certain book or teacher, or improve their performance against themselves. How many times have I heard yoga students exclaim, “Oh, I am getting better at my lotus”, or, “I can now do the headstand”, etc. This is very much the ‘end-gaining’ attitude so common in competitive sport. To be a participating yoga student, however, is not to be striving to improve performances but to adopt a ‘means whereby’ approach, which is not trying to get the posture ’right’, whatever that means, but to keep looking at what you are doing, and endeavoring to see where you may be going wrong! This means that you are shifting the emphasis from the end result to what you have been doing to bring the end result into being. In this process of developing motor skills the main concern must always be to try and maintain your own working integrity. By working integrity we mean all those important functions that are keeping us alive from moment to moment, like breathing, circulation, flow of nervous energy, digestion, etc.

The Alexander Technique, of course, offers a safe and careful ‘means whereby’ approach, which helps to maintain the working integrity of oneself when you are in the process of participating in any activity. The Technique is a method of mental and physical re-education taught individually, which has the affect of reducing unnecessary tension in all human activities. It teaches those who practise it how to use the body to its best advantage and is widely recognised as an effective means of alleviating and preventing injuries. Because it is concerned with poise and ease of movement, the value of the Technique has long been appreciated by performing artists and those taking part in sports, but there are many other areas where the relevance of the Technique in improving health and reducing stress needs to be carefully assessed.

Unreliable Sensory Appreciation

By expanding ones awareness to take in kinesthetic sensory appreciation with an observation of yourself in action, it is possible to begin to bring about a change in your response pattern at that moment of time.                                                                      We all tend to trust our feelings, and at a basic level this is OK. That is, we know when we are standing up, or sitting down, whether we are hot or cold, etc. But if we start to go a little deeper into our make up, then things tend to be less clear. For example, if you normally write with your right hand, put the pen into your other hand and write something; notice how much energy and effort you put into the task. Now put the pen back into your right hand, and write; do you notice that less energy and effort is required than before? Also, have you noticed that when you go to climb a flight of stairs, you always tend to step off with the same foot?  If you try with the other foot it feels wrong! You can try this reversing process with folding your arms, or clasping your hands together, and many other actions. Changing the normal way we do things gives us a great opportunity to find out how we are using ourselves, particularly in the amount of energy and effort we tend to put into any task. This is because our habitual ‘use’ tends to be overdoing, producing excessive use of muscles; some muscles may not even be related to the task, particularly of course in the neck! This is described as getting into ‘postural sets’. (1) 

When I first became involved in Alexander Technique, I began looking at my habitual patterns of movement in some common activities, mainly to discover how, and if it was possible to change, but also to have a greater understanding of how we learn in the first place.

One of things I looked at was riding a bike. I noticed that my right leg was dominating the speed of the bike, when I tried to make my left leg govern the speed, I nearly fell off, and my right leg quickly took over! If you ride a bike try it yourself, see how difficult it is to change your habitual use.  

Another thing to consider is that most sporting activities do not produce symmetrical development, for example racket sports tend to develop more one side of the body, female dancers tend to over develop their legs at the expense of their upper body and arms, and so on. There are of course exceptions; swimming provides more all round development, and because it is non-weight bearing, it is less accident-prone. However, if you are looking for something that combines all of the following; Strength, Stamina, Flexibility, Balance, Co-ordination, Speed, and Courage, then you will find all these in very few activities; the one that quickly comes to mind would be Olympic Gymnastics.

If you observe the world’s top gymnasts in action, you will see that their manner of ‘use’ is superb, and that they have an extremely good understanding of where they are in space and how they move from one position to another. What F.M. Alexander would have called ‘reliable sensory appreciation’. F.M. Alexander also noticed that circus acrobats (2), tended to have a high standard of health and generally long life, which suggests that they had a good use of themselves; I have personally worked with a number of stage contortionists who have not only possessed exceptional movement capabilities, but have a highly sensitive nervous system, and this helps to brings about a quality of control, and fluidity, into their movements. From an Alexander Technique teaching point of view, this makes them a joy to work with, and not something that is found in the general public at large!

Another noticeable thing with gymnasts is that although they may not be aware of Alexander Technique, or have had lessons, they demonstrate very clearly basic Alexander Technique Directions (3) during their performances. For example, a gymnast during floor work, when they are about to perform a tumbling run, will stand at the corner of the mat, consciously releasing themselves, allowing their spine to lengthen and back to widen. They instinctively understand that to get the best use of themselves they need to be perfectly poised and balanced. Similarly you will see the same attitude adopted when they are about to do a series of acrobatic activities on the balance beam.

Body Types and Natural Ability  

The individual’s ability to achieve success at any activity is most often determined by their body type and somatotype rating, (4) their age, and physical condition at the time they start, and of course by their ambition and determination.

In the course of teaching yoga over some 40 years, I have made certain observation. The well co-ordinated people I call ‘Genetic Gems’, and the poorly co-ordinated, I call ‘Neuromuscular Nightmares’! Now of course everyone is capable of improving their ability and skill, but it’s not too difficult if you have been watching people attempting to learn a new skill/activities over a lengthy period of time, that you will be able to pick out the ‘Naturals’.

 I’m talking about the ‘natural runner’, ‘natural swimmer’ ‘natural dancer’, etc. The people who pick up the skill without too much effort and they seem to have a natural gift - even if they do not know why they can perform so well and easily! If you look up the word ‘natural’ in the dictionary you find the following; “Normal, conforming to the ordinary course of nature, not exceptional or miraculous or irregular. Existing in or by nature, not artificial, innate, inherent, self-sown, uncultivated, lifelike; unaffected, easy mannered not disfigured or disguised. Not surprising, to be expected, destined to be such by nature”. I have underlined what I consider the important part of this dictionary definition.

Learning Plateaus, Time scale, and Progress 

 Now the degree of development and advancement in physical skills is most noticeable in the early stages of training. In the many years of observation of my yoga students, I noticed that during the first year of involvement, say attending a class or two a week, and regular daily practice, their range of movement increased, but then they reached a learning plateau. This is not unusual; in fact, it is to be expected.

Progress will always be limited by an individual’s physical make up, and in yoga practice this is very much governed by so called ‘loose ligaments’.

In stretching the human body, the maximum range of movement (RoM) of a joint, is generally when bone meets bone, and then comes the effect of ligaments, tendons, muscles, connective tissue, and skin. The break down of RoM is that ligaments contribute 47% of human flexibility, muscles 41%, tendons 10%, skin 2%, so you can see that being born with loose and stretchy ligaments, offers a distinct and tremendous advantage in how far you are able to bend.

There are a number of methods available to increase an individual’s flexibility, but not sufficient space here to go into lengthy explanations. However, a number can be found in my book ‘Are you a Natural Hatha Yogi?’ (5) Learning plateaus also occur for just about everyone as they develop new skills. After a period of time, everyone’s progress begins to level off; these plateaus may be of a temporary nature, but can also become permanent, resulting in no further advancement for that individual. The reason for this lack of progress could be many and various, for example

  1. Loss of interest.
  2. The effort needed to progress is too much for the individual.
  3. It is taking up too much of their time.  
  4. They sense that they have reached their full potential, and that’s it!

In learning a new skill or activity, even with the advantage of natural talent, there remains the all-important consideration of the amount of time you have available for the skill. As we all know, world-class performers in sporting activities spend years of dedication and practice before reaching the top. The same applies to musicians, singers, dancers, etc. They all put in many hours of practice every day and most, if not all of them, begin very early in their life. This is certainly true with activities that demand peak physical performance, for example Olympic sport stars who devote themselves completely to their sport, and also those sports people who only have a short period of time at the top level before retirement. They may also have to give up through injury, possible due to the intensity of their training, and performances.

Psychological Effects

It is well understood that exercise will produce chemical changes in the brain and that these changes can have an uplifting effect on the person. So much so, that some people can become addicted to exercise systems. They find they have to work out on a regular basis otherwise they feel low and depressed!

It is also worth remembering that health and fitness are separate issues. A person can be healthy but not fit, we all know of people who live long lives, stay healthy, but are not sportingly fit, and in fact they may even hate playing active games! Then there are very fit people who are extremely active, and yet have died through an organ failure, heart attack, stroke, etc., sometimes when they are actually playing in a team game!

However, in general it’s better to take part in some form of physical activities during your life, not only because it will most likely make you feel better, but that it could also help to prolong your life span.

The Importance of Accurate Coaching

So many people learn to play a sport without good coaching, and this can present a number of problems. The most obvious problem is learning badly because once you keep doing something wrong, it becomes habitual! Now, we have all heard of the saying ‘practice makes perfect’, but the only sure thing you can say about practice, is that ‘practice makes permanent’, so it’s very important to start off right. A good coach will make sure that you continue to do it right, until it becomes more or less an automatic action, and thereby embedded in muscle memory. Good coaching will also help, because it avoids wasting energy on incorrect movements, and this will go along way towards reducing the chance of injury. Another advantage of good coaching is that it will help to develop good form and style, which generally means operating with the minimum amount of energy and effort.

Here again, this is where having a course of Alexander Technique lessons can produce a tremendous advantage, by being able to maintain the working integrity of yourself in the course of playing a sport, or just taking part in any physical activity. However, I do feel the need to emphasise, and most strongly, that a sufficient number of Alexander Technique lessons is required, so that each individual, if they wish, can bring about the necessary changes in their manner of use, which would enable them to inhibit their old ways of performing, and subsequently to incorporate F.M. Alexander’s ‘conscious guidance and control’ into their activities. Unfortunately too many people have criticized the Alexander Technique after only having a limited number of lessons, and subsequently failing to grasp the basic principles behind the Technique.

A ‘Means Whereby’ Approach

I personally have given a number of workshops to tennis, and badminton players, and explained to them where it’s possible for them to find time during a game to bring their attention back to their individual manner of use. The two obvious ones are when they are about to serve, and when they are about to receive service. This is where they have the time to pause, and to give Alexander’s ‘directions’ to themselves, so enhancing their physical ‘good use’. This can be of equal, or maybe even more importance because they can use this time to adopt a more effective mental strategy for the play in progress. This principle can of course be incorporated into so many other activities in life.

During F.M. Alexander’s life, he was able to influence a number of sporting people, and this is fully described in his books, particularly in ‘Use of the Self’, in chapter 3 on ‘the golfer who cannot keep his eyes on the ball’. (6). Here he explains the problems that confront someone in a sporting activity, and during the course of this chapter he covers all the important principles of his Technique. I would recommend reading this chapter several times over, because it contains the essence of his discoveries.

One of the most important things he discovered was that in the process between stimulus and response, you have the ability to make space between the two. Now, the one thing that anyone participating in any sport will come across, sooner or later, is a stimulus that can upset their tranquility, equilibrium, and poise.

This can be caused by a variety of circumstances such as an action, or comment from your opponent, a wrong umpiring decision, a bad shot, or your reaction to pressure, etc. So your ability to inhibit your first reaction to any given stimulus will help you make sufficient space, before any response is made, and this will give you the opportunity to avoid unsuitable, habitual responses, and to make a different response, or if necessary, to make no response at all!

This ability to change your response to a stimulus gives you a tremendous advantage in a competitive game, (also in the game of life!). For example in tennis, when confronted with the obvious return, say a cross court shot, you can instead go down the line, wrong footing your opponent! Being able to change the direction of your return, also keeps your mind active, and that means you are staying fully in the game. Most games are more mental than physical, and staying on top mentally for hours on end, is very demanding and nervously exhausting. The thing that overcomes this is of course, winning!

It is quite easy to pick out the winner after a competitive contest. The classic one I always think of is the University boat race each year. Here are two crews who have rowed the same distance, expanded the equivalent amount of energy, yet the winners are easy to spot - they are the ones sitting up in the boat waving to the crowd, while the losers are draped over the oars, absolutely shattered. Winning makes all the difference because you just don’t feel so tired! Anyone who has played a sport will tell you that that is true!     

“Movement is what our lives are all about, You’ve got to mobilise weight and control it and regulate it, and you do that by and through energy. So, learning to use yourself properly is learning to regulate direction and control the flow of energy.” – Walter Carrington

Page 150 - Freedom to Change by Frank P. Jones - Mouritz 1997

Page 171 – VII Notes and Instances, Man’s Supreme Inheritance by F. Matthias Alexander – Mouritz 1996

Pages 174/175 – VII Notes and Instances, Man’s Supreme Inheritance by F. Matthias Alexander – Mouritz 1996

The Atlas of Man and Varieties in Human Physique, by W. H. Sheldon – Harper - New York 1940

Are you a Natural Hatha Yogi?, by Ken Thompson - Wide Eyed Frog Pub. – 2002

Chapter 3 The Golfer Who Cannot Keep His Eyes on the Ball - The Use of the Self (It’s Conscious Direction in Relation to Diagnosis Functioning and the Control of Reaction) by F. M. Alexander - Victor Gollancz – London 1985

The quote at the start of this article is from ‘Freedom to Change’ by Frank P. Jones, Page 2 Mouritz 1997.

The quote at the end is from ‘Thinking Aloud’ by Walter Carrington, Page 24 Mornum Time Press 1994

Sport Mind Map

Company name change, by general meeting special resolution June 7, 2013, from UKATE LIMITED to ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE EDUCATION LTD

A Co-operative Company Limited by Guarantee Registered Office: Moulsham Mill, Parkway, Chelmsford, CM2 7PX

Registered in England, Company Registration Number 8474170

Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software