Prevention to Performance: Athletic Tuning


Most people believe that the road to athletic success comes from working harder.  Although there are benefits that come with keeping a disciplined regimen, the toll of stress injuries that accumulates throughout an athlete's life can be nearly incapacitating. People are becoming increasingly conscious that working harder has serious detrimental effects upon the ability to improve our physical condition, and eventually, our ability to perform at all.  Contemporary sports culture embodies a certain routine: work hard to get in shape, get an injury, work in pain or, don't work.  Recover and then start over.
 
Traditionally, athletes and active individuals have performed warm-up and flexibility exercises in a mechanically linear manner. We have treated our bodies as if we were stick figures drawn on a chart, stretching first our hip flexors, then our hamstrings, moving one side of the joint in one isolated part of the body and then the Antagonists muscle group on the other side of the joint.  Most recommended flexibility routines involve a significant number of linear stretches, which are eventually supposed to effect all of the joints and muscle groups in the body.  But how many of us, against our better judgment, have rushed through such routines simply because they are boring?  We don't see babies stretching their hamstrings and then their hip flexors as isolated groups of muscles.  The very attitude of treating ourselves like trivial machines contributes to a body image that perpetuates diminished flexibility and consequently, a dangerous propensity towards injury. 
 
Despite the armada of techniques presented by sports science, coaches, athletic trainers, and rehabilitation professionals, this "stretch your limits" tendency still occurs. Especially among older athletes, it is critically important to work smarter rather than harder.  But how can we do it?  What does working smarter actually mean? 
 
The first step involves learning again to move like a child.  As children, we learned to develop bodily movements more rapidly than at any other point in our lives.  We would never think of stretching our babies to increase flexibility nor would we think of tying weights on their limbs to improve strength.  The way a baby moves is sufficient to develop very complex movements like tumbling, rolling, falling and recovering, etc.  Imagine performing movements similar to the way a child moves as it develops control and coordination of its body.  Now imagine performing those movements with the understanding of an adult.
 
Have you ever felt envious of an infant's capacity to fall asleep comfortably in any position?  Or marveled at the ease with which a child will sit on the floor and play with its feet?  Or adroitly lift a foot to its mouth or head just for fun?  There is a certain delight in the feeling of movement, evident in infants and children that we seem to loose by the time we reach adulthood.  First, we are taught to inhibit ourselves in school and then during adolescence, we limit our bodies even further in the guise of becoming socially acceptable adults.  Life begins to take it toll on our body: through the emotional insults we must endure in adapting to stressful social situations as well as physical difficulties we experience while recovering from injuries.
 
We all have had bad days when it feels like someone has turned up the gravity and the world is raining down on us.  The sensible thing to do is to put on a raincoat.  However, what many of us fail to realize is that we are still wearing our neuro-muscular raincoats even when the storm has passed. 
 
Like the raincoat, many athletes "wear" the insults and stresses accumulated in their bodies to the field house where unfelt habits of bad use, starting with posture and breathing, manifest themselves.  The desire and innate understanding we had as children of our movement endowment is usually not available to the average adult. We reach a certain level of physical performance and then stagnate.  We tell ourselves that we can't run faster or swing a racket more powerfully without expending more energy.   This inability to improve may account for why a good number of us resign ourselves to monotonous work-out routines in the gym rather than entertaining ourselves with the pleasures of a sport. Learning how to reclaim our movement endowment is crucial to preventing injuries and improving athletic performance.
 
The Feldenkrais Method® offers a sophisticated yet pleasurable approach to improving the quality of human function and movement.  The Method seeks to reclaim the organic learning we experienced when we developed as children.  In addition to improving athletic ability, this method has been proven especially effective in the fields of massage, physical and occupational therapies, nursing, gerontology, special education, music and the performing arts.
 
For the last twenty years, I have taught the Method worldwide, often working individually and in groups with athletes.  As a result of these experiences, I have developed a program to meet the particular needs of high performance adults.  The program consists of a number of movement lessons, or "neuro-muscular tune-ups," which replace the multiplicity of stretching, warm-up, and rehabilitation exercises, while providing the means for tuning and focusing the nervous system for the athletic activities at hand.  They are intriguing and stimulating, require very little effort and most importantly, teach athletes how to pay attention to themselves with the same high level of awareness required while engaging in a sport or activity.  These lessons have proven helpful for everyone from the weekend tennis player to the race walker, to joggers, golfers and skiers or to people who just feel the need to "get loose" and more in tune with their muscles.
 
Moving like a child means a complete break with linear exercise.  This means using all of your joints at once in every flexibility and warm-up routine.  In the Change Your Age program, movement lessons are organized around the primary issues that effect every athlete's performance.
 
The awareness that a baby develops simultaneously with its movements is part of what makes us unique in the animal kingdom.  While other animals know instinctually how to walk and run, humans must learn.  Yet amazingly, this attribute of bodily awareness is rarely used, except at a very crude level of operation when we are told to twist a little more to the left or right.  Ironically athletes and dancers are most aware of their bodies through feelings of resistance, effort and finally, injury.  If most of us as babies underwent this experience while developing motor control, it is doubtful we would ever want to learn to walk!  Unlike traditional warm-up stretches, performing Feldenkrais movement lessons makes flexibility exercises an egging and sensual activity, something that athletes will want to do.  One of the program's major benefits for athletes is decreased resistance within the tissues of the body as well as an improvement in biomechanical efficiency.
 
The training of human awareness of how we move should be the goal of physical education.  The best way to improve performance is by moving in ways that prevent injury and the best way to prevent injury is to perform with greater agility.  The Change Your Age program and The Feldenkrais Method® offers a complete program for improving human awareness, flexibility, balance and coordination.  In fact, the Feldenkrais Method® may offer the only comprehensive approach to physical education in existence.