Body Equilibrium/ Tennis & Feldenkrais - for Elite Tennis Magazine
By Melinda Glenister
As players push themselves and each other to ever increasing levels of physical abilities, they also increasingly push themselves to and beyond their limits. More and more players are breaking down under the strain. This becomes a dangerous trend particularly if we perceive the increasing level of injuries as the new norm, or just part and parcel of the game. If instead we take it as a sign to look at the problem in a different way, it could be the beginning of a different approach to training, where players train smarter not harder.
It is my belief that players can’t just push themselves continually through training. That eventually will lead to breakdown. Something is missing in the way most players are training, and that is sensory body awareness. The incredible demands that players have to face during matches require them to be faster, stronger, fitter, and to go beyond pain or discomfort. If training also pushes them beyond their limits, they start to lose touch with themselves and lose their ability to manage themselves. In other words, push hard enough for long enough and performance, ability to adapt, ability to recover, as well as enjoyment will start to go backwards. This is burnout.
Pushing players beyond their limits not only cause physical problems, but emotional and psychological ones too. It can instil a mindset where they feel they are never good enough, or, at worst, a kind of dissociation where the player and their body become disconnected, (similar to the effect of trauma). A lot of these problems can be avoided if we have a more balanced approach to training. I am advocating that as coaches we take the foot off the accelerator and increase the time spent on body awareness.
In the 15 years since I’ve been working with players with injuries, I have seen the links between how players move, and their ability to avoid injury and performance. When players start to play more efficiently, not only do they avoid injury and recover faster, they also tend to improve their performance. It’s a win win situation. Serving becomes ‘effortless’ (less stress on the body), it also becomes ‘more consistent, more accurate and more powerful’. And these results don’t come from training harder on the court or in the gym, but by improving body awareness, moving slowly and with attention, and learning new movement pathways.
Since 2008 I have been working with athletes with the Feldenkrais Method, which is a kinesthetic awareness based method of improving movement through learning. It works because it taps into the brain’s innate plasticity- i.e. it’s ability to learn, adapt and change itself over time. New neural connections are being made all the time, regardless of age, or impairment, and once we understand those principles, learning can become pleasurable and easy. Feldenkrais improves a player’s self-awareness, both by giving practical tools that the player can use to become more aware of themselves AS they move, and by increasing their sensitivity so that finer and finer distinctions can be made. In short, it improves a players ability and capacity to learn. Where there is learning, improvements can be made to technique, efficiency, even regulation of mood states. By learning to slow down and listen to themselves players can find small but successive margins of improvement in speed, agility, flexibility, recovery, and efficiency. Improvement is made faster by using awareness to improve the organisation of the body, than it is by pushing it harder by overtraining.
Although I spent many years working on court and with video analysis with players including Wimbledon Singles Champion Pat Cash & US Open Finalist Greg Rusedski, a typical session for me now is done in a studio and not on the court. I still work with Pat Cash who willingly became my case study after my Feldenkrais training as I figured out how to apply the incredible body of work of Moshe Feldenkrais in a way that fits with the extremely specific needs of the professional tennis player. The question for me was how to make the crossover so that the new movement pathways he learnt with me in the studio were accessible and possible to integrate on court. Habitual patterns come back, so when changes are made they will not stick unless the person’s nervous system knows how to adapt to the current situation.
Integration is key
This is the problem of ‘corrective’ type treatments- you may be perfectly aligned in the treatment room, but as soon as you go back to your habitual ways of moving, or playing, the problem returns. Or, the changes made are too sudden and too big, the nervous system cannot make sense of it because you cannot adjust one part without taking into account the whole system. In this case- the original problem (habit) won’t only come back, it will come back with a vengeance. The same principal applies to technical changes. You can’t make a change to one part of a shot without affecting the whole. I realised that breaking a player down into constituent parts and working specifically on each part, the angle of the elbow, the right foot etc. doesn’t work. You have to take the whole person into account. You cannot change one part without adjusting all the other parts, and if you make a change, the change has to be integrated with the whole system or it will not be used. Humans are complex systems, not mechanical objects that can be taken apart and put back together in a slightly different order. Every change will affect all the other parts- and this is something very important for coaches to realise.
What happens in a session?
What I do lies somewhere in the grey area between education and a therapy. I work with people who have been injured, and I work with people who want to improve performance. Typically a tennis player I would see would be playing with limitations (which they may or may not be aware of). There might be certain damage to joints for example, knees or hips, which is not reversible. In this case what I would do is observe how they move, look at their habitual movement patterns. Even their posture and ways of protecting themselves are contributing to any imbalances around the joint, and imbalance of workload creates stress and injuries. A session may begin with small movements lying on the back but builds to include a variety of positions, often requiring the nervous system to find balance in very unusual and unknown situations. Before you know it, what started with something very subtle has become Djokovic-esque. The secret is to enable the body to feel safe in new areas of movement- and crucially this is done without stretching so the changes can happen very quickly, and safely. It is the perfect way to warm up, or to recover as the body moves only through equilibrium. There is no strain or stress. You don’t start a tennis session with lunge volleys and high backhand smashes so why do that to your body.
If it is the hip that is the issue, I look at the way the weight is distributed on the foot during movement, the effect this has on the knee then into the pelvis, and what is happening with the ribs and the spine. Even how the shoulders or the head participate in the movements can have an effect and pull the hip into an imbalance. If you work solely on the hip, but don’t address the fact that the ribs become stiff and the breathing stops when they stand on the leg, the problem will continue.
Hip problems for tennis players are on the increase, and I believe that this has to do with the types of core training athletes are doing. The more you try to make the core ‘stable’ the more pressure is put on the hips. What I try to do with players and something I have used extensively with Pat Cash and World No 1 doubles player Mike Bryan is to help them to become aware of the connection between the movement of the ribs and chest, and the freedom or lack of freedom in the hip joints.
For example I may observe what happens with the breathing during a simple exercise. If the breathing stops or is interrupted the ribs can stop moving, and the freedom of the hips is lost instantly, flexibility is lost, discomfort increases and the risk of strain increases. This isn’t something that I tell them, it’s something they discover for themselves through slow movement exploration with attention. Therefore it’s something they can change immediately, not by stretching or strengthening, but by finding new ways to move, and making the connection between freer ribs and freer easier hip joints. New neural connections are made and the changes happen instantly.
Another example would be work I’ve done with Pat around the knees. He has had 5 surgeries on his right knee but still manages to move incredibly well. He competes on the Legends Circuit worldwide and is dedicated to continue his tournament playing even when many surgeons have suggested retirement. We have spent a huge amount of time looking for ways to avoid any further damage to the knees, and to make sure that all the other parts of his body are moving well and can take some pressure off the knee. Therefore we must make sure the hips are working really well, that the feet and ankles stay flexible, and that he is able to push off through the foot. Any limitation of movement in the hip or foot will require extra workload on the knee. Feldenkrais has become now an integral part of Pat’s daily routine. We go through an extensive variety of different types of movement sequences, many are developmental, many related to martial arts. All looking at the ideal functioning of the person, and done in a way that allows for the optimal learning conditions- and this is a crucial aspect to how I work.
What can coaches look for in their players?
It may seem too easy, but the kinds of movements you are looking for in players are smooth and effortless. Anything that looks, feels, or sounds effortful should be a red flag that force is being lost in the body fighting itself, and the player is actually working too hard. It’s a sign that some parts are doing too much work while others not enough. The parts need to work together as a coordinated whole, like the instruments in an orchestra and not each playing their own tune. Well organised movement is aesthetic, smooth, effortless, and involves the whole self. Well organised shots are not dominated by one part to the exclusion of others e.g, an exaggerated knee bend, or a forced arm movement are signs that the full coordination of the body is not happening. Which means loss of potential performance, and increased strain. Think of Roger Federer, and how he makes it look easy. It takes a lot of awareness to be that graceful.
Work smarter not harder
Spend some time on improving the players body intelligence. Sometimes ask players to use less effort, to slow it down, and to come back to listening to their sensations. You can guide their attention with questions like what do the feet feel like when they contact the ground? What happens in the hips? In the belly? What about the eyes? But don’t tell them what they should feel, and direct them away from trying to guess what is right or prejudge what is the ‘correct’ answer. Let them have the experience and listen to themselves for the answer. See them turn their attention away from you and towards themselves. And you can watch as the quality and the smoothness starts to increase. This is something that should be done regularly so that players can come back to themselves. The more they come back to themselves and can listen to themselves the more they will improve, be confident in themselves, and start to manage themselves better.
Start the session with body awareness. Have them lie on the floor (without shoes) and slowly bring their attention to how they make contact with the floor. Which parts touch, which are lifted away from the floor? Which side makes more contact with the floor? Are the shoulders lifted or pressing the floor? Is one leg more turned out than the other? Where is the breathing? Continue for a few minutes, just noticing without any thought of how it ‘should be’. This alone will ensure the session starts with some awareness, but even better if combined with the exercise above.
A movement exploration
Bending the knees.
How often do coaches tell players to bend the knees? But what does it mean to bend the knees? How do you bend your knees? Try a few times to bend your knees as if towards a squat, or bend your knees as if to hit a forehand or a backhand. Do it a few times and begin to pay attention to how you do it. Where do the knees go- what direction? How far forward do they go? Do they move inwards or outwards as they bend? What happens with the pelvis? Does it move forwards, backwards or stays in the middle? What happens with the head? Does it stay vertical or does it move forward? Are the knees wide or parallel? Most people doing this exercise will bend the knee by taking the knee forward, and try to keep the chest vertical. Players who have excessive knee bend take the knees very far forwards. Can you try to bend the knee but without taking the knee forward? It means taking the pelvis and the hip joints backwards, and the head moves forwards. This allows the lower leg to be vertical. When you bend the knee with the knee forwards, it is a weak position that puts too much strain on the ligaments of the knee. When the lower leg is vertical with the knee bent all the force can be supported by the bones of the lower leg and not hanging on the ligaments. It’s a very strong position that doesn’t have risk to the knee. But- it means that you have to use the hip joints- a place a lot of westerners (who don’t squat) forget. So here not using the hips joints puts the knees at risk, and using the hip joints effectively can protect the knees.
Nadal & Federer
This is something that I observed that Rafael Nadal changed after his knee problems. When he came back, it was noticeable that he had reduced this very deep knee bend. Roger Federer does this brilliantly. Watch how he moves around the court- he is balanced over his legs as he hits the ball, each part working together, and all the force able to go vertically through his skeleton. Try some different positions of the knees, try taking the buttocks backwards and see what happens with the hip joints. Try leaving the chest vertical- how does it effect the balance? What about if you allow the chest to move forward as the buttocks go backward. Try it also asymmetrically- so bending one knee more than the other- how does it change it? Which knee/hip joint is more available the left or the right?
So the next time you want to tell a player to bend their knees, just think for a moment. Do you actually want them to bend their knees, or do you want them to bend at the hip joints? Stay open to discovering something new, and the coach and player learn together.