(reading time: 8 mins)
I took up tennis last summer, taking lessons and joining a club, finally shifting from being an armchair expert during Wimbledon fortnight to becoming another learner mis-hitting balls at the local courts. Wimbledon on TV is one of the great markers of an English summer, and the televised sunshine on the courts of SW19 can be more inviting than actual sunshine on the garden outside. Television seems to access those day-dreamy brain waves just as fire did for our hunter-gatherer ancestors, as if our brains are preprogrammed to be hypnotised by a pool of flickering lights close by. Is TV the technological world’s camp fire, or was the Stone Age camp fire just television at the concept stage?
But as I struggled with my topspin forehand under unforgiving floodlights one blustery Winter evening, I wondered if my physiological response to the incoming ball wasn’t something else I had inherited from my hunter-gatherer ancestors?
As a beginner, get on a tennis court against even a slightly better player and you’ll likely be doing most of the running around, while your opponent plays the entire match from an apparently much smaller court, moving at most a couple of steps to wallop your best shots back with added speed and bounce. Because we lack the experience to recognize the path and pace of the incoming ball, beginners prepare too late and do too much in response when the ball arrives. Muscular tension, meeting a challenge with willpower rather than well timed technique, is a problem for many performers. As a result actors, musicians and athletes often turn to the mind/body awareness Alexander Technique (AT) to improve their game.
Alexander Technique in tennis
Alexander Technique is concerned with recognizing and inhibiting our small unnecessary muscular efforts, which can snowball into poor posture and muscle tensions. These not only waste energy, but people frequently tense muscles which work directly against the movement they are striving for, even creating a “this is really hard. I can’t do it!” self-fulfilling prophecy. In the tennis class (tennislessonstoday.com) I recognized my teacher was using similar principles to improve our game – for example having us serve using a racket without strings to get a feel for literally swinging through the ball, instead of tensing in anticipation of the moment the racket makes contact.
Working on the forehand on that wintry evening, when the teacher asked us to largely forget the outcome of the shot, and instead focus on the ends of the Clavicle bones below the neck, to observe the temptation to close the chest and surround the incoming ball, I wondered if that surrounding and enclosing intention wasn’t one of several basic reactions humans have to the physical world? Reactions either directly inherited as instinctive behaviour, or as cultural habits copied subconsciously and passed down through the generations. On the outside the movement is so slight, they go unnoticed because they are so common they are regarded as natural. i.e everybody does it.
Often in an Alexander technique class, when the teacher makes the student aware of their redundant muscular tensions, it’s news to the student even when it requires significant effort. The student will often say “Why am I doing that?!” and the teacher answers “I have no idea”. Unnecessary muscular tensions could be a by-product of modern living. But I think it’s possible some movements are not entirely the product of a more sedentary lifestyle, but are in part distortions of natural inbuilt ways of moving and reacting to the physical world – movements which once served a purpose for our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
Hunter Gatherers are 90% of our make-up
For 90% of human evolution we lived as hunter-gatherers. Our physical bodies carry a number of evolutionary left-overs; the appendix, the tailbone, wisdom teeth, which Darwin described as Vestigal organs. Some of these wouldn’t even have been that useful to our ancestors. So wouldn’t some of our behavioural patterns be evolutionary left-overs too? The ‘Fight or Flight’ response is an obvious example, often not the best way to respond to 21st Century stresses – if I’m on an aircraft in difficulty I’d rather the captain makes decisions based on training, experience and the best information available from the whole flight crew; rather than based on adrenaline, sweaty palms and a dry mouth.
Modern life is best lived being aware of but in control of these instinctive behavioural patterns. It got me thinking – perhaps we could identify three broad intentions in our reactions to the physical world, less noticeable because they are far more subtle than ‘Fight or Flight’ – what I’m going to call Surrounding, Bracing and Avoidance. And a fourth product of the human as social animal, Reaching.
Surrounding – Imagine yourself as a hunter-gatherer, chasing your dinner 50,000 years ago. If you’re trying to catch some prey getting your whole body around your dinner quickly means it’s less likely to escape. Our ancestors needed this for hunting and later farming. Then fast forward to a tennis court. In the class the Surrounding instinct was definitely there as I moved towards the ball. As this was the first time I’d observed it, I was probably reacting this way from day one of my lessons. And it’s actually fairly easy to resist once it’s been observed and logged.
Bracing – On a potential collision course with an object, isn’t there a natural tendency to tense up and brace for impact, whether or not it’s helpful? Your experience and intellect might tell you a tennis ball won’t do much damage on impact, but your more primitive brain is seeing an object speeding towards it, which could be as hard as a rock and potentially fatal. Your brain’s ‘prime directive’ (to borrow from Star Trek) is to preserve the life of the body it depends on. Your reason and experience can overrule that instinct, but to do so you first need to observe the different situations in which it occurs.
Avoidance – Apart from shielding yourself with your arms*, another way of dealing with a potential collision is avoidance, to pull back enough to avoid or at least reduce any impact, especially if the head might be in collision. This happens more frequently than we imagine I believe. My first experience of Alexander technique was an afternoon workshop for musicians at the excellent Jackdaws music trust near Frome. The workshop started with a partner exercise. An object was placed on the ground, a cup or a car key, something light requiring minimal effort to lift. From standing one person reaches down to pick up the object, while the partner keeps their palm on back of the first person’s head, behind the ears where the skull joins the neck. Reporting back, most found their partner pulled the neck back starting towards the object, and usually again as they closed in on it. And here’s a spoiler alert if you’re about to attend your first Alexander technique class – this unnecessary pulling at the junction of skull and first neck vertebra is probably the single most important observation in AT. The junction of head and neck has the greatest degree of mobility of any vertebra, so the Alexander technique theory is inhibiting this can negatively effect the entire alignment of the spine and the functioning the nervous system passing through it.
None of those three reactions are especially difficult to inhibit once you’re aware of them – although they can easily return in a match situation where the tendency is to get caught up in trying to win the point. And in other sports i.e on a cricket or baseball field where the ball is effectively a rock capable of serious injury, these evolutionary intentions still make some sense.
The interesting thing about tennis is that it is a physical game where the extra tensions and movements are largely unnecessary due to the low mass of the ball. Yet even the slightest additional tension can have a huge impact on the outcome of the shot. Being a fraction of a second late or early as you swing your racket could change the angle of the racket face by a degree, and by the time the ball reaches your opponent’s side, that one degree translates to say a foot wide of the tram line, instead of 6 inches inside it. A tennis court full of beginners could almost be a lab for identifying redundant movements and tensions, which almost rise to the surface with the very physical, but relatively safe nature of the game.
Reaching – The idea of a fourth intention was observed in that same musicians’ workshop. For the second part of the session each of us performed a piece and talked about any difficulties we had with it. The performance of one lady in her seventies really stuck in my mind. She chose part of a Mozart Aria and did a decent job singing cold in front of a group of strangers. There was a little strain in places but hardly surprising given the demands of the piece. Afterwards the teacher’s main observation was that she was compressing her neck down while pushing her chin forwards to the rest of the group, reaching towards her audience especially on the difficult passages. It was a slight movement, maybe bringing the face forward an inch at most, something you wouldn’t notice unless you were expecting to find it. To correct, the teacher made a couple of slight adjustments to her head, neck and upper back. Then he placed another member of the class behind the singer and gave the simple instruction; “Forget about us. Just sing to her. Behind you.”
The singer repeated the passage and the transformation was so startling, even she looked surprised. The improved quality of tone was obvious from the outset, staying clear all through the previously difficult phrases. It was almost a different voice.
The technical explanation is that in resisting moving the head forwards she was keeping her airspace open, allowing the complex muscles of throat and mouth to produce sound without any inhibitions. From an artistic point of view, that extra poise and clarity drew us into her space, into her performance, rather than her trying to reach towards the audience and convince us she had something to say. And that’s hardly surprising. In general those who reach forwards too much can be off-putting, whereas those who know when to hold back, those who appear comfortable within themselves draw people to them.
Does posture matter?
So does it matter if I do pull back my neck or collapse my chest? It’s still a small movement even if it is mildly detrimental to my health? The Alexander Technique answer would be yes, because those small tensions are compounding into poor habits, negatively impacting your performance and potentially creating chronic and preventable health problems.
The question though is not does it matter absolutely, but does it matter to you? Before my Alexander technique teacher will work with someone, she asks them “Is it okay if you change?”. If the answer is no, she leaves them alone, even when there are obvious postural improvements to be made. If however there’s something you want to change about how you carry yourself in the physical world, perhaps it’s worth considering if your inner hunter-gatherer is always leading you down the right path.
Note above I’ve not mentioned shielding yourself from potential impact, i.e. throwing up an arm or leg quickly to protect yourself. This is apparent enough in any physical activity, and like ‘Fight or Flight’ something most of us are aware of. The three intentions, Surrounding, Bracing and Avoidance I’ve described above are worth considering as naturally inherited behaviours which go largely unobserved. They aren’t noticeable because they don’t become fully fledged movements, like raising a limb in protection. They are small and subtle but can still have a great impact on posture and performance.