Keys To Superior Performance

Robert Rickover talks with Roy Palmer, an Alexander Technique teacher in Bedford, England about ways the Alexander Technique can help with sports performance.

Roy has specialized in working with athletes and writing books about athletics.

Roy: “Alexander Technique is a whole new angle to training. Athletes will take things like nutrition and training seriously but neglect how they move, how they apply themselves to the techniques of their sport.

“I tend to see athletes when they’ve injured themselves. It would be better if we could get them to the Alexander Technique earlier before they have these injuries.

“Alexander lessons are an eye-opener for them. They’ve never considered whether they run efficiently or use themselves efficiently. They’ve usually picked up the sport at an early age and assumed that what they do is the best way they can do it.”

“I always work with them away from their sport to start with. Basic body movements. Your hips articulate from this point. This is where you can move and turn your head. Give them an experience with a different way of moving without the effort they associate with their everyday activities like getting in and out of a chair, standing, bending, walking. You then see them take it into their sports activities and start to notice things they’ve been doing that have not helped such as stiffening the neck and tightening their backs.”

“Often, the golf coach, for instance, won’t see the things we see such as whether the athlete is tightening his jaw, whether he’s lifting his shoulder. They’ll say, ‘My coach told me to relax’, but often people will look at someone collapsing as relaxing.”

Robert: “A golf coach is likely to say something like, ‘Relax your shoulders’, but that instruction is not likely to be useful. If the golfer were able to relax his shoulders at will, he’d be doing it. Telling someone to relax his shoulders is not a useful strategy. They’re likely to interpret that as collapse or to pull the other way. A big advantage of the Alexander Technique is this prevention strategy of seeing a particular pattern and teaching that it is not helping the movement and working out a way the student can say no to this pattern.”

Roy: “However active your sport, you can still think as you perform. Martial artists found they developed extra speed by taking out the unnecessary actions they were bringing. I was doing karate when I discovered the Alexander Technique and I discovered so much more speed. I realized I had been tying myself up in knots before I delivered a punch. It’s the getting set thing. If you can stay free and poised, you don’t have to release that unnecessary tension before you move. My kicks gained power and height as I took the brake off [of unnecessary tension].”

Robert: “Roger Federer, the tennis player, exhibits grace and efficiency. Mohammed Ali, the boxer, in his early days was famous for being agile on his feet. He was often fighting people with more bulk. He could not have been so quick if he had the interfering habits we’ve been talking about.”

Roy: “Federer rarely looks like he’s panicking.”

“I wonder if some of the training methods people use cause them to lose their natural [agility]. Compared to most other male tennis players, Federer is lighter. He doesn’t have the bulk in the arms muscles. Some of that weight training may knock out our natural freedom of movement.

“When you look at these people being interviewed, the top people in every sport seem poised in every way. Such as Michael Johnson, the sprinter. They have this air about them.”

Robert: “How would you work with someone to get them to identify what they’re doing that is getting in their way and how to release that?”

Roy: “I start them in chair work, getting in and out of a chair.”

“Most of us found in our first Alexander session that when we were asked to get out of a chair, we found we did all manner of things. We put our hands on our legs. We pulled our heads back. We pushed forward with our chests. We tightened the lower back. We did all of these things that were completely unnecessary to get out of the chair.

“Working with a sports person who maybe very skilled in a particular sport and bringing them back to something as basic as getting out of a chair to let them see where they are making things harder than they need to be. You can see most of them racing ahead in their minds — what do I do when I’m serving? What do I do when I’m running?”

“If you can get them to stop doing unnecessary things and to give them the experience of almost floating out of a chair, then they start to see the benefits.”

Robert: “One of the telltale signs [of performance limiting habits] is a tendency to tighten the neck as they go into the performance. I know from watching ice skating competitions, from watching the skater’s head-neck-back relationships, and see how that compares to the ratings the skater gets. I find almost universally that the skaters who get marked off, you see excess tension leaking into their neck. There’s a little bit of pulling their head back on their neck. There’s a relationship between that and the quality of the performance. An Alexander Technique teacher can give you a strategy for not doing that.”

Roy: “Or tightening the jaw. You’re interfering with your head-righting mechanism.”

“Alexander Technique is a good way of getting into the here and now, the first stage to getting into the zone where everything is so much easier.”

“All athletes know that state of mind is key to peak performance. Watch people who are best at their sport and see what they are not doing. See how free and easy they appear to be in their movement. Ask yourself, do I look like that? Or am I trying to hard? Bruce Lee said that if you’re trying, you’re wasting effort.”

“What do you do when you say you’re going to try harder? Most people will grit their teeth, tighten their necks and furrow their brows.”

“I like to ask most sports people, what was your best performance? Was that difficult or easy? And they all say it was easy. If your best performances feel easy, that’s because you’re not doing half as much as you think you need to.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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