Article reproduced with the kind permission of Caroline Chisholm
STATnews October 2004
Great Britain's coxless four won gold at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. STAT Alexander Technique teacher, Caroline Chisholm, gave lessons to members of the Olympic Rowing Squad. She writes...
From left Matthew Pinsent, Ed Coode, James Cracknell and Steve Williams
Photo Courtesy PA Photos
Looking at the picture I realise that the two rowers who had Alexander Technique lessons (Coode and Williams) were able to give their directions (to lengthen and widen) to maintain poise and awareness whilst performing under intense mental and physical pressure in the 2004 Olympic final. A very 'big ask' had indeed happened.
I had been faced with oarsmen who had an almost religious belief in the contracted muscle, an over-trained physique and an immune system on the blink. On the plus side, I was working with world class athletes and I came to know them as very special people.
Here are some of the issues we worked on.
Rowers are under huge mental, emotional and physical pressure seven days a week for eleven months of the year. Consequently, their nervous system is rarely still. Many of them have low grade sore throats, fatigue and faster than average heart rate which they assume is normal. But soon they were enjoying the quiet semi-supine sessions to prepare for a race and to recuperate afterwards.
Overtraining is a problem for rowers because they spend many hours lifting weights and exercising on rowing machines. This can cause muscle shortening that may lead to injuries such as fractured ribs - a frequent occurrence amongst rowers. The process of becoming aware of their widening and breathing when lying on the Alexander table helps them appreciate their own role in prevention.
Rowers are taught to pull the head back while lifting weights. When the 2004 team were asked to inhibit this, there were surprised smiles as they began to experience the ease with which they could then lift.
These athletes were amazingly good at hearing and retaining information about physical activity, and they learnt very fast. But sensing change or release in their muscles was a slow process. However, with much inner listing on their part and lots of feedback from me, they enjoyed and sustained a more open and lengthened structure.
End-gaining in the boat
In the main, rowers' use afloat is painful to observe. It is heartbreaking to see the legacy of damage they are accumulating for later life. To encourage a rower to pivot forward using the hip joint, rather than using the waist as if it is a joint, is a slow, gradual process. Their training involves great emphasis on tightening their abdominals - or their 'wee' muscles, as one very famous oarsman said to me!
Inhibiting the fear reflex in an unstable, pencil thin boat in choppy water is hard. But using inhibition, and many rowing-orientated games later, they achieved a wonderful swing from the hips which gave them several inches more length in the spine. This enabled them to make longer and more powerful strokes, thus moving the boat further and faster to win gold.