ISSA Street Soccer Training – The Alexander Technique
The Alexander Technique is a method that has a lot to offer sports people. The focus is on preventing habitual muscular actions that cause inefficient movement patterns that can lead to injury and limit performance. For example, it’s common for people to stiffen their neck in preparation to move and yet they’ll be completely unaware that they’re doing so. I have seen this is sports people of all abilities including top athletes. The act of stiffening the neck impedes the body’s reflex activity and has a detrimental effect on coordination. Unfortunately once it has become a habit it is difficult to stop until it is brought to a conscious level and the individual given instruction on how to move without the habitual preparations, or in other words, to use less effort.
An Alexander Technique lesson involves taking the pupil through a series of movements whilst focusing on their habitual actions that may be interfering with movement. A teacher of AT will use their hands to promote freer, lighter movement whilst giving verbal instruction. The combination of gentle guidance, instruction and immediate feedback of the improvements help with the learning process. This invariably involves a sense of lightness and less effort whilst performing an everyday movement the pupil usually associates with using more effort. The techniques used encourage the pupil to focus on the moment between the stimulus and their response to it and can be applied to other habitual behavioural patterns.
A coach with an appreciation of the basic concepts of the technique will be able to help a player overcome specific difficulties by seeing the problem from a different viewpoint. The trained eye with experience of Alexander’s principles will have a better understanding of some of the vital mechanics that underpin all movement; the neck muscles mentioned above being just one. For example, a player struggling with their speed and acceleration may actually be trying too hard and using the ‘wrong kind of effort’ preventing the right muscles from driving the movement. Rather than getting this player to try harder and add to the inappropriate effort, a coach seeing the build up of tension in the neck and shoulders could encourage the player to ‘let go’, ‘relax’ or ‘use the ground’ to develop their speed. A coach who has had a number of lessons in the technique will be able to see past what may seem to be the obvious problem – the symptom, and go deeper to find the actual root cause.
The Alexander Technique can help a player in a number of ways. From a physical point of view a player will often run faster, jump higher and change direction quicker once inappropriate effort and excessive preparatory actions are removed. A poised player is also at less risk of injury as better coordination reduces conflicting muscular actions such as a hamstring contracting when kicking the ball. From a tactical aspect the techniques to break reliance on habits can bring a vital freedom to the actions of a player. This leads to more creative play making them less predictable and hence a greater danger to the opposition. The techniques used also help players get into what sports people call ‘The Zone’ (explained previously). This is the main benefit in my view as it speeds up thought processes enabling players to see more, read the game better and react quicker whilst making better decisions as to the right course of action. Players describing their experiences of The Zone often use terms like ‘I seemed to have so much more time to think’, ‘I knew what was going to happen before it did’ or ‘it was effortless and felt so easy’.
There are a number of things a player and coach can do for themselves to appreciate where habits may be limiting performance. Bringing your attention to relevant sensations or events will bring you into the moment and open up the way to The Zone mentioned early. Thinking of your toes in your socks, the ground under your feet, the movement of your ribs as your breath or even softening your face will change what’s happening in your mind and hence your body. I admit these do sound bizarre but I’ve seen it work again and again for many sports people. Being focused on the present helps to buy you more thinking time and enables you to notice the reactions that cause excessive muscle activity. Try asking yourself when you’re playing whether you really need to use as much effort as you’re using to run fast or control the ball. Are you tightening your jaw and neck or lifting your shoulders? Do you need to do these actions?
Top players make it look easy as they appear one step ahead of the game or effortlessly and calmly stroke the ball with power into the back of an unsuspecting goalkeeper’s net. They can do this because they’re focused, in the moment and therefore able to step up to The Zone.