Clinical Somatics for Athletes
Understanding the Effects of Muscle Memory in Athletic Training
During a game, competition or performance, there is little time for conscious decision-making; every reaction must happen both instantaneously and accurately. This is why athletes must train so much. It’s not just about being in the best possible physical condition; it’s about training the entire neuromuscular system to be able to react automatically and with precision while under stress.
Athletes spend so much time consciously training with the goal of acquiring muscle memory that their motor patterns tend to be very deeply learned. And depending on what sport or discipline they practice, they may have to learn how to move in unnatural ways. Athletes’ movement patterns are also shaped by factors such as stress, injuries, personality, handedness, and repetitive daily activities. When combined with the training required by their chosen sport, the result is that their learned patterns can be more complex than non-athletes.
Sometimes athletic training will improve an individual’s posture and movement, helping to correct imbalances and increase overall strength and flexibility. But in many cases, the great number of repetitions or the strain of heavy weight required by athletic training will enhance existing dysfunctional patterns. For example, a non-runner whose hips are internally rotated, creating a knock-kneed stance, may have no pain at all until she starts to train for a marathon. Her movement patterns are then put to the test, and she quickly develops pain in her knees and ankles. Likewise, a man who habitually stands with an arched lower back may have no issues until he decides to get in shape and start weight-lifting. His back muscles become tighter with each repetition; soon his lower back aches constantly and the compression of his lumbar spine leads to bulging discs.
Some types of athletic training magnify our natural function of handedness, demanding a great deal from our dominant side. Many sports require throwing, hitting or kicking a ball with great force and precision, over and over again. Other disciplines, such as gymnastics and dance, require jumping, balancing and turning movements to be performed repeatedly on one side, shifting the body weight and creating imbalances in posture and strength. The sheer overuse of one side of the body is likely to lead to dysfunctional movement patterns, as well as fatigue and structural breakdown.
Studies have shown strong correlations between body mechanics and incidence of sports injuries. Researchers at the Sports Injuries Research Centre in Limerick, Ireland performed a two-year study with soccer players and found that back injuries, muscle strains, and knee and ankle injuries were all linked to dysfunctional postural habits such as sway back, lumbar lordosis, kyphosis, scoliosis, and lower leg misalignment. They even tested the athletes’ abilities to accurately sense the alignment of their legs, and found that faulty proprioception was a predictor of ankle sprains. Other studies have had similar results, showing that misalignment of the knees and ankles leads to ankle sprains and injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament, and that athletes with poor lower back posture are more likely to suffer hamstring strains.
The fact that athletic training can enhance and create damaging patterns is not the only reason athletes suffer injuries. Athletes are also at high risk for injury because they tend to play through the pain. The desire to be tough and keep playing often prevents athletes from taking care of themselves and being proactive about their pain and injuries. Also, the stress that athletes experience during competition sends endogenous opioids coursing through their bloodstream, dulling any pain they might be experiencing. Many athletes ignore subtle warning signs of an injury, like soreness or mild pain, until the pain gets bad enough that it affects their performance. At that point, the injury has already progressed to the point at which considerable rest and retraining will be necessary to allow the injury to heal and prevent it from reoccurring.
The Benefits of Clinical Somatics Exercises for Athletes
Clinical Somatics exercises, which were developed by Thomas Hanna, make use of our natural pandicular response. Pandiculation contracts and releases muscles in such a way that the alpha-gamma loop, a feedback loop that controls the resting level of tension in our muscles, is naturally reset. This resetting reduces muscular tension and restores voluntary control over our muscles.
By releasing chronically contracted muscles and restoring voluntary control, Clinical Somatics allows you to unlearn damaging movement patterns and relearn how to use your body in natural, efficient ways.
Daily practice of Clinical Somatics exercises also keeps your muscles flexible, your joints moving freely, and your whole body relaxed and free of soreness. The exercises can replace all of your standard post-workout stretches. Since pandiculation actively retrains the nervous system, it is more effective and has much longer-lasting results than static stretching.
Most importantly, Clinical Somatics exercises allow you to develop a high degree of awareness and control over your posture and movement. With regular practice of Clinical Somatics exercises, not only will you be able to use your body in an extremely precise way, you will also be able to sense when your posture or movement is the slightest bit “off,” allowing you to prevent habitual misuse before it causes pain or injury.
If you want to learn Clinical Somatics exercises, start with the Level One Course!
Hennessey, L. & Watson, A.W. (1993). Flexibility and posture assessment in relation to hamstring injury. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 27, 243-246. http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/27/4/243
Loudon, J.K.; Jenkins, W.; & Loudon, K.L. (1996). The relationship between static posture and ACL injury in female athletes. The Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy, 24(2), 91-97. http://www.jospt.org/doi/pdf/10.2519/jospt.1918.104.22.168?code=jospt-site
Watson, A.W. (1999). Ankle sprains in players of the field-games Gaelic football and hurling. The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 39(1), 66-70. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10230172
Watson, A.W. (1995). Sports injuries in footballers related to defects of posture and body mechanics. The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 35(4), 289-294. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8776077
Watson, A.W. (2001). Sports injuries related to flexibility, posture, acceleration, clinical defects, and previous injury, in high-level players of body contact sports. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 22(3), 222-225. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11354526