Learning How to Learn: My Work with the 1976 Olympic Rowing Team
In writing about my work with the 1976 Olympic Rowing Crew some history might be in order. In the spring of 1975 when I was having lessons with Frank Pierce Jones, I arranged to have Frank work with the USA World Championship Rowing Crew. At the time they were preparing to defend their title in Mexico. Frank agreed to do so. However shortly after he agreed he began to exhibit symptoms of what would later be diagnosed as a brain tumor. Frank suggested I work with the crew instead of him. This was the first time Frank had given his blessing to me going public with the Alexander work. I did so. I traveled to Princeton University and spent a week working with the crew in the river and in the training tanks; the team retained their title as USA world champions. Then, the following year most of that crew went on to be the USA Olympic Rowing Crew.
Their coach, Alan Rosenberg asked me shortly before they raced in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, to work again with his crew to give them an edge in the race.
Although nearly all of the crew members felt the AT did in fact give them an edge in speed which had been measured a year prior at Princeton, none of the crew training a year later for the Olympics at Dartmouth College was willing to commit totally to the work and make changes several weeks prior to their race. The previous year produced the best results in terms of enhanced and improved performance. And their coach anticipated his team would respond similarly. However he had not anticipated his crew being reluctant to make changes weeks prior to their race. This was one of many things I learned then about working with top athletes and performers of any kind. Don’t expect an openness to change too close to performance.
My actual work with the rowing crew:
Although each team member rows in concert with the other members they must be approached individually. And, with exceptions there are two basic moments where inhibition works most effectively to improve both speed and effectiveness in the strength of the rower’s glide through a single stroke in the water.
At the beginning of a single stroke individually and in unison, the rowers move forward from a seated and semi crouched position from the back of the boat towards the front of the boat. Stretched fully forward they then connect the oar with the resistance of the water and with their full strength throughout their body they pull the oars backwards towards their chest.
At the onset of this movement forward there is a driving effort to move as fast as possible towards the completion of the movement forward before the oars connect with the water because it is this stroke and many afterwards that sends their boat forward towards a winning time. And in this moment there is inevitably a classic” postural set” which proceeds and accompanies their movement. This “set” translates as a dorsiflection backward and downwards of their heads and necks. The movement mimics the neuromuscular pattern associated with the startle reflex where there is a simultaneous contraction of the sternocleidomastoid and trapezius muscles. The head is pulled backward and down and there is simultaneous and corresponding contraction throughout the body. In this position relative to what they attempt to accomplish their strength, speed and reflexive response is compromised.
When I applied an inhibitive pressure to their heads around the sub occipital muscles and at the mastoid process and sustained the length of their necks; and consequently a neuromuscular integrative response throughout the rest of their bodies relative to their strokes as they moved forward in space and time there was more length and expansion throughout their bodies, along with increased speed and available strength to row.
Once the oar met the resistance of the water the stroke backward in preparation for the next stroke; less strength was lost as they lengthened from feet to head. And They were measurably faster. Their heads both freer and higher and their attention was far more focused in front where their race belonged.
Conversely at the conclusion of their movement forward in preparation for their next stroke, as they began their movement backwards in the boat, subsequent to executing the actual stroke, they exhibited the exact same postural set along with the same compromising consequences. Only this time they moved backwards from their crouched sitting posture to position themselves to move forward once again for another stroke. Once again their habit was to bring their head backward and downward– both going forwards to set their stroke, then moving backwards to execute the stroke.
These postural sets that preceded the beginnings and the conclusions of each stroke once brought to the rowers’ awareness proved to be enormously valuable to their performance once they were able through experiential guidance to inhibit their habituation.
The new experience through guided movement was essential to convince the rowers that their performance could be substantially enhanced and actually improved. Once they focused on their insight born from that new experience they had a greater understanding that the way they used themselves to accomplish what they wanted was as important as simply trying to win. This was understood best by those athletes who were less inclined to equate winning with extreme exertion of effort and energy. For the space between preparation of the stroke and the execution is a journey without distance.
Notes: “Postural set” is a term used by Frank Pierce Jones when describing a person’s habitual onset.