I once worked with a student who came to see me because he had back pain and pain in his arms from long hours of sitting at the computer for his job. I’ll call him Peter. After Peter had had some lessons, he had much less pain. He continued taking lessons, though, because he hoped that the Alexander Technique might help him in another way. He told me that he’d never been good at sports – a source of pain and embarrassment for him. For example, he’d played Little League baseball but he’d been, in his words, a “terrible hitter.” He’d ultimately quit because the other kids had teased him about his hitting.
He asked me if I thought that the Alexander Technique could possibly help him become a better athlete. I told him that that might be possible and I talked to him about the concept of use.
“When you’re playing a sport, or doing any other activity,” I explained, “there are three factors that affect your functioning. As everyone knows, there’s your genetic makeup and there’s the environment. Nature and nurture. For example, some people are born with more athletic ability, and better hand-eye coordination, than others. Meanwhile others grow up in an athletic family and are exposed to sports from an early age. Still others have supportive parents who instill in them the belief that they can accomplish anything they set their mind to.
“All of that is pretty obvious,” I continued, “but F.M. Alexander added a wrinkle. He said that if you really want to understand how you function, you have to add a third factor: the way you use yourself. I like that addition because it’s extremely empowering. Unlike your genetic makeup and the environment, you have a lot of control over the way you use yourself. It’s something you can change – which of course is where the Alexander Technique comes in.”
I told Peter that the Alexander lessons wouldn’t change his athletic ability but that, if he wanted to, we could take a look at the way he uses himself – his approach – when he plays sports. Since he’d mentioned baseball and hitting, I told him that I’d once attended a workshop called “Hitting for the Spherologically Impaired,” taught by an Alexander teacher named Missy Vineyard.
“I watched Missy work with someone who said she couldn’t hit a baseball. Missy taught the person a series of steps using the Alexander Technique and then the person was able to hit the ball. I’d be happy to show you those same steps.”
“I know I brought this up,” Peter said, “but when you mention it like that, I have to say I’m kind of hesitant. The bottom line is, I don’t know if I can do it. Hitting was so difficult for me the last time I tried it.”
“It’s entirely up to you,” I said. “You don’t have to do it if you’d rather not. But if we break the activity down into steps, the way Missy did, then maybe you’ll have a different outcome. We can also try the exercise with a tennis ball rather than a baseball. That’ll make it easier.”
Finally, after thinking it over, he said he’d give it a try. So during his next lesson, I brought a bat and a tennis ball and we went outside to a grassy area near my office. When I first pitched the ball to him, Peter swung and missed.
“Once again, we’re going to break this down into small steps,” I said. “The first step involves becoming aware of what you do when you swing the bat. That time, did you notice anything about your approach?”
“No, not really,” he said.
“Try it a couple of more times,” I said. “Don’t try to do it right yet. I want you to simply observe what you’re doing. For example, notice where you look when you swing – but also notice if any of your muscles get tense.”
Peter took a few more swings – and with my help he began to realize what was happening. Each time he swung at the ball, he was subtly tightening the muscles behind his ears (his sub-occipital muscles). As a result, he was pulling his head back and down and raising his face. He was also closing his eyes. Finally, he was arching his back. I even demonstrated those tendencies and exaggerated them so that he could see what they looked like.
Here’s the main point. Peter began to realize that he had an overall pattern of behavior that was throwing off his alignment when he swung the bat. Until now he hadn’t been aware of the pattern or the various tendencies that were part of it. Of course the most important thing about the misalignment was that it was causing him to look away from the ball and close his eyes.
“Now that you’re beginning to be aware of the pattern,” I said, “would you be willing to try something a little different?”
“This time, when I pitch the ball, you’re not going to swing the bat. Instead you’re going to keep it on your shoulder. Your only job is to see if you can watch the ball as it goes by you.”
So Peter tried that and found that he was in fact able to keep his eye on the ball as it went by him. On the other hand he noticed that his muscle tension had still increased, and a part of him had gotten ready, even though he hadn’t swung the bat. In other words, he realized something crucial about habits. We don’t have to actually carry out an activity in order to trigger our habits. Sometimes just the thought of the activity is enough.
“You did well that time,” I told him. “For one thing, you successfully watched the ball. In addition, you’re becoming much more aware of your various tendencies related to hitting. So all of that is great! When it comes to addressing habits, awareness is the first and most important step.
“Of course you don’t have to stop there,” I continued. “By giving your directions, you can subtract your extra tension and realign your head, neck and spine. Allow your neck to be free so that your head can go forward and up. Then you can allow your back to lengthen and widen so that it becomes less arched.”
I also did some hands-on work with Peter in order to help him as he gave his directions. Then I pitched the ball to him again while he continued to keep the bat on his shoulder. This time he found that he didn’t get as tense as he had before – although he still did have a small increase in tension. I also noticed that his head, neck and spine stayed more aligned: another success.
“We’re not going for perfection here,” I told him. “All you have to do is take a few small steps in the right direction. You’re already way ahead of the game.”
After that, I pitched the ball to Peter a few more times. Each time he kept the bat on his shoulder and watched the ball as it went by him. In between, I did hands-on work with him. With that practice, he continued to improve. He got better and better at maintaining the alignment of his head, neck and spine and keeping his eye on the ball.
Given those successes, I suggested to Peter that this time when I pitched the ball, he could bring the bat out to meet it.
“Don’t try to swing through the ball,” I said. “Just meet the ball with the bat.”
He tried that – and once again he pulled his head back and down, looked up and closed his eyes. As a result, he missed the ball. He was very upset with himself – but I explained to him that this was an understandable part of the process.
“F. M. Alexander said that the hardest thing of all is making a decision not to do something and then sticking to it,” I explained to him. “He meant that it’s difficult to address our habits – and then continue to do that when we go back to the activity that triggered them in the first place. That’s true for everyone.
“In fact F.M. Alexander himself had that problem in the beginning,” I continued. “He was an actor who lost his voice as a result of his work onstage. Observing himself in the mirror, he discovered that he had a habitual pattern of tension that was causing his voice problems. But here’s the thing. Even after he’d figured out how to address that pattern, it still came back when he tried to do a recitation.”
So I suggested to Peter that he could temporarily return to the first step and keep the bat on his shoulder when I pitched the ball. After a few more pitches, with hands-on work in between, he was able to reassert his more natural alignment. As a result, he was able to keep his eyes open and watch the ball again. And last but not least, he became calmer and more balanced.
Then I told him to once again bring the bat out to meet the ball, when I pitched it. This time, at long last, he was able to keep his eye on the ball and make contact with it.
“I don’t believe it,” he said. “I think that’s the first time I’ve ever actually hit a ball!”
“That’s excellent!” I said.
“I really wasn’t sure if I’d ever be able to do it.”
“And not only have you had this success, you’ve also demonstrated something extremely important. Your use of yourself is just as important as your athletic ability. It might even be more important.”
“I guess I always thought that I was just bad at sports – but maybe that’s not completely true.”
“Food for thought!” I said.
“Can we try that again,” he asked.
“Definitely,” I said – but I suggested that, at first, he alternate between keeping the bat on his shoulder and bringing it out to meet the ball, each time I pitched the ball. That way, he could continue to focus on his use – and more particularly on his alignment. After that, there were still times when he missed the ball but, with practice, he was able to make contact with the ball much more often.
Over the course of the next several weeks, Mike and I continued to work on his hitting. Eventually he was able to swing through the ball and hit it with a fair amount of consistency. Of course there were ups and downs in his learning process – as there are for everyone – and there were still times when he would swing and miss. But if he took one step back in the process and reestablished his most natural alignment, that invariably got him back on track.