Category Archives: Sports

Learning how to learn

Alexander Technique helps you balanceMy first experience of sitting on a horse was when I was in my twenties and it ended with me gradually sliding off sideways on to the ground when the horse suddenly broke into a trot. My second experience was a few years’ later and was slightly different – this horse decided to throw me over its head into the mud once it realised that I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.

Fast forward a decade to near the beginning of my training to be an Alexander Technique teacher. As part of the course we were to visit the local riding school once a year. There we found gentle, sedate horses but, despite their slow pace, my previous experiences had left me somewhat apprehensive – not least because now we were to have no stirrups, nor reins to hold on to. I survived but it wasn’t a particularly enjoyable experience, particularly when we were asked to keep our eyes closed and arms raised out to the sides, even while the horse was turning around in the yard. However, when we returned a year later I realised how much progress I must have made in my Alexander training, as this time I found myself feeling much more confident and at ease. Clearly my balance had improved through the training and I was more able to just go with the experience, using my Alexander thinking skills to prevent me slipping into my old habits of panicking and tensing up.

A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate to be able to spend a morning with Alexander teacher and rider, Chrissy Pritchard at her beautiful place in Lanarkshire. Chrissy had offered her colleagues the opportunity of having a go at riding her highland pony. For me this would be the fifth time in my life when I had tried riding but my colleagues’ previous experience ranged from none at all to having ridden as a teenager. What impressed me was that, regardless of previous experience, we were all able to ride quite well after just a few words of instruction from Chrissy. This lovely morning reminded me that learning the Alexander Technique actually teaches us how to learn.

So how does the Alexander Technique help us learn? When learning a new skill the tendency is to fixate on the thing that we want to achieve, the goal, leaving little thinking space for what’s the best way of getting there. What the Alexander Technique enables us to do is to pay attention to the bigger picture, so that we can create the best conditions possible for achieving that goal (being in balance and poised, moving in a well-coordinated way etc). Here’s a glimpse of what the process was for me:

As always, there were my previous experiences in the back of my mind – not just of being on a horse but all those times I’ve been confronted with something new and ‘tried to get it right’. By acknowledging these thoughts but choosing not to react to them by ‘getting prepared’ (which usually involves tensing up and over-focusing on the outcome) I was able to stay more in the present rather than dwelling in the future or in the past. As I got onto the pony I took a moment to be aware of myself, the pony and our surroundings and then thought of the crown of my head leading the way upwards (rather than pressing down heavily on my foot in the stirrup). Then I was finding my balance on my sitting bones and continually coming back to an awareness of my sitting bones and the rest of me, as well as what was around me. Holding the reins as Chrissy showed me I aimed to notice if I started to grip at any point. Similarly, I paid attention to any tendency to grip the pony with my legs, wishing instead to let my legs hang suspended freely, with my weight dropping straight down through my sitting bones, while maintaining a good contact with the pony. At one point Chrissy suggested that I subtly shift my weight on the saddle and as I did this I noticed I came into a better balance and that the pony responded positively to this. Then setting off with a gentle nudge with my legs and a ‘walk on’.

One of the things that we get better at through the Alexander Technique is being clearer in our intention and less distracted by other stimuli. So, getting the pony to go in the direction we want is helped by looking ahead in the direction of travel and allowing our intention to come through ourselves to the pony – if I’m thinking of turning right, and as long I don’t allow my habits to interfere by tensing up, then my weight will tend to subtly shift with my intention, more onto my right sitting bone and the pony will get the message. So, applying the Alexander Technique involves self-awareness and making conscious choices over how we’d like to respond (think/move/act). Seeing to what extent we’re able to stick to those choices rather than just reverting back into habit is all part of the learning process and an interest in that process helps us not to over-focus on the particular goal in question.

Pony riding with Alexander Technique

Through our Alexander experience we just needed a few simple instructions from Chrissy, and we were all able to learn the basics of horse riding in just a few minutes. Obviously if we wanted to become expert horse riders, like anyone, we would need to practice the specific skills involved but we would have the benefit of the Technique to help us get to whatever level of riding expertise we wanted.

Thankfully, the Alexander Technique is being taught more and more in schools and colleges but people of all ages want to learn new skills during their lives – the Alexander Technique gives us the best approach to learning, and can be applied to anything.

I’ve discovered even I can enjoy running!

Alexander Technique RunningOne of my most hated aspects of school was being made to run all the way around the athletic track. As an unfit, poorly coordinated and totally non-sporty teenager, I really struggled and quickly reverted to walking – only to be shouted at by an unsympathetic teacher to ‘get running’ again. From then on I’ve never run, apart from for an occasional bus.

Since coming to the Alexander Technique my attitude to physical activity has gradually shifted, as my balance and coordination have improved. I began enjoying trying out different activities – happy that I didn’t need to ‘try and get it right’ but instead just playing with my Alexander thinking and enjoying having a go, safe in the knowledge that I now knew how to look after myself better in any activity. My latest venture is paddle boarding, which I’ve found can be harder than it looks on the sea off Portobello beach.

Despite my new-found enthusiasm for trying out ‘sporty type’ activities, my long-standing hatred of running remained…until a couple of weeks ago when I was introduced to some new ideas. Malcolm Balk, Alexander teacher, running coach and author was coming over from Canada to give a workshop in Edinburgh and I decided it was too good an opportunity to miss. So I got in touch to ask if he would consider giving a second running workshop for Alexander teachers – not least to help us better tailor our Alexander teaching for our clients who run.

On a gloriously sunny Edinburgh day, I gathered with eight of my Alexander teacher colleagues for a morning’s workshop with Malcolm. After some warm-up exercises, he filmed each of us in turn as we ran a short distance. We then decamped back to base to view the results. How enlightening being able to clearly see one’s habits all played out in slow motion! Perhaps not surprisingly, as Alexander Technique teachers we all ‘passed the first test’ being pretty good at looking after our head/neck/back relationship, so we weren’t introducing a whole load of unnecessary tension in our necks (phew). But we were all doing various extraneous things not conducive to easy running – what on earth was I doing with my arms, did I need to be moving them quite as much as I was? We all had our own individual idiosyncrasies but on top of this we shared a tendency to a greater or lesser extent to ‘run with our legs’ rather than ‘on them’. In other words, the leading leg was coming right out in front of the rest of the body, such that the centre of mass then had to be ‘heaved’ over the top of it, rather than the legs being more underneath and behind the head/torso to allow propulsion forwards with a great deal less effort.

Having seen all this we then went back outside and Malcolm invited us to have a go at running in our usual way to get a sense of the unnecessary habits that he’d (in a very kind and helpful way) pointed out to us. This gave us a great opportunity to gain a better appreciation of what we were actually doing, by matching it up with what we’d seen. Knowing what it is that we’re doing that we don’t want to do is the first step in the process of change.

We then went on to the next stage which was introducing, one-by-one, some very simple thoughts together with a few basic instructions. Most approaches in life encourage us to try and work out what we need to do and we often end up trying to micromanage ourselves. The Alexander Technique is different and recognises that we work as a whole system. We’re much more complex than a machine, so we can’t possibly consciously decide what we need to do with each ‘bit of our body’ to carry out an action. Through the Alexander Technique we learn to use our conscious thinking to prevent or reduce unhelpful habits that are interfering with our natural movement coordination, poise and balance, as well as to create the best conditions we can for ourselves – that way or inherent neuromuscular processes can take care of what needs to happen to carry out any action. As Alexander himself put it, ‘If you stop doing the wrong thing, the right thing does itself’.

So, armed with a few simple thoughts, I began to trot off across the field and was amazed at the experience of how effortless it was. I had been making a lot of totally unproductive effort in trying to run and I now knew how to let this go. After a short while I heard Malcolm call out ‘Great, that’s it, you can stop now’ but I just kept on going – I was actually enjoying it!

I’m not an Olympic athlete but…

Ski raceAs the competitors return home from the Winter Olympics, I’m pondering which ones might have been using the Alexander Technique to help them achieve their personal bests and stay free of injury. Certainly, previous Olympians have described how using it was integral to winning their medals and sustaining their careers, including 2012 British Dressage Team Gold medal winner Carl Hester who said ‘The Alexander Technique is one of the most valuable tools a rider can possess’.

You might think you’ve not much in common with an Olympic athlete but most of us would like to be able to reach our full potential. Your breathing, movement and clarity of thinking can be improved through the Alexander Technique – and that is going to be beneficial to performance in any sport or activity. Research has demonstrated how training in the Alexander Technique leads to improved movement coordination, balance and postural support. Just as important, the Alexander Technique enables one to stay present and focused.

For many of us, remaining injury free is as high a priority as achieving the best times. Again, better balance and coordination is key here but also important is the growing self-awareness that allows us to know our limitations and avoid the all-too easy slip into only focusing on the desired result (‘endgaining’) without paying attention to what we’re actually doing in that moment.

So whether you’re a serious competitor or enjoy a gentle jog round the local park, consider finding out how the Alexander Technique can help you reach your goals without compromising your long-term health.