The Zen Coach

by Emily Faulkner

 

I have the privilege of being the movement coach for Steady Buckets, a youth basketball league in New York City for boys and girls ages 6–18 that offers skill building classes as well as league play. Children come to this free program from Manhattan’s private schools as well as from the projects in the Bronx. I owe this opportunity to the visionary coach, Macky Bergman, who saw that the Alex-ander Technique would reinforce his coaching, but from a completely different angle.

I first met Macky seven years ago when my son, who was nine years old at the time, started going to his workouts and playing on the Steady Buckets team. Steady Buckets is one of the few year-round skill building programs for basketball in New York City. I knew that Macky was interested in alternative techniques to help his players with focus and balance (he’d brought in a Tai Chi teacher one year), so I started telling him about the Alexander Technique. Finally, two years ago, we sat down for coffee, and I explained to him why I wanted to work with his players, and how the Alexander Technique would help them. Two hours later, after popping up and down to demonstrate for each othermonkey, defensive stance, and proper shooting form, we were both brimming with excitement.

It was a perfect marriage: For Coach Macky, what could be better than some-one who would teach his players to improve their form? For me, what could be better than an unlimited supply of kids to whom I could teach the Alexander Technique and see proof positive that it can change lives and games?

Macky intuitively understood inhi-bition: In order to get the ball through the hoop, you need to let go of the desire to get the ball through the hoop. Additionally, he was frustrated that he couldn’t get the kids to shoot with a straight spine or stand upright when defending. As a dancer and an Alexander Technique teacher, it was pretty clear to me that the kids needed to use their hip joints.

Emily Faulkner coaches a Steady Buckets player.

 

Although the Alexander principles are always the same, the bodies that come to me vary wildly. Some kids are slack; some kids are tense; some kids try too hard; some don’t try at all. Certain kids absorb the Technique like a sponge and instantly see what it can do for them. They start making their shots and finding themselves “in the zone.” “I feel loose. I feel light. I couldn’t miss.” Kids who are in pain often see the value immediately. Some kids don’t see the value, and I let them be. It’s not for everyone. The principles are the same, but the challenge each kid faces is unique.

I attend one or two workouts a week (as opposed to games) with 20–40 players at a workout. I end up giving lessons lasting five to ten minutes to approximately ten kids. I’ve tried working with groups, but I’ve found “hands-on” to be far and away my most effective teaching tool. Almost every kid I work with instantly recognizes that he or she feels taller and lighter, and so I immediately have his or her attention. There are a lot of distractions in a loud, busy gym, so I talk no louder than I need to and create a calm environment in the midst of all the chaos. Some kids request to work with me; sometimes a coach will tell a kid to work with me to help with a particular correction; sometimes I wander around observing and just grab players whom I think I can help. In addition to the satisfaction of helping the players, there is a real satisfaction to converting the other coaches to the Alexander Technique. In the beginning, only Macky really understood the value of the Alexander Technique, but now almost all of the coaches will call me over to analyze someone’s form and work with that player to help him or her make a particular correction.

Illustration A

How I work with kids depends upon each child’s personality and experience with the Alexander Technique. Some-times I teach very generally and then just set them free to see how their new sense of balance affects the way they play.  Other times I work very specifically on shooting form or particular movement patterns like pivots, which involve quick changes of direction. We practice monkey because it is the base for shooting, drib-bling, defending—everything, actually.

I incorporate Dart practices, like spirals and curves, and encourage the innate springiness of the body. Depending upon the age of the kid, I use analogies like “a river running up through the body” or “the floor bounces us up like a ball from our feet through the rest of the body.” I show the kids that their arms can move independently of their torsos by rotating at the gleno-humeral joint, and this starts to help them to see that when they shoot, their torsos can remain full and upright even as their arms move. For someone who doesn’t play any sports, I have an impressive theoretical knowledge of shooting form. My goal is to hit foul shots consistently and be one of those rare experts who gains mastery from a completely different angle. But even with the Alexander Technique, it takes a tremendous amount of practice, and I haven’t devoted nearly enough time.

When I started teaching young basketball players, I thought that shooting would be the most obvious application of the Alexander Technique, because it involves both monkey and inhibition. But now I see that shooting is the most emotionally charged, habitually ingrained skill that they learn, and it is very difficult to change. Proper shooting form involves sending the ball up in the air in a large arc by holding the body vertical, straightening the arms up over the head and slightly forward, and using the power of the jump to propel the ball. (See Macky’s lines of force, Illustration A: up through the whole body, forward through the hands and arms.)

For the younger kids, it is counter-intuitive to do this. They want to fling the ball forward with their elbows counter-acted by throwing their upper backs backward, because they don’t believe that straightening the arms coupled with a jump up will be enough. (See Illustration B.)

Illustration B

Older kids are deeply attached to whatever form of shooting has been working for them, even if it hasn’t been working well. When they change their technique, they will probably lower their shooting percentage before they raise it. And until the kids are really mature and philosophical about basketball, they don’t shoot a high enough arc because they’re aiming for the basket as opposed to aiming for the center of the hoop above the basket. Teaching someone to prioritize the means whereby in the act of shooting a basket is like asking someone who is hungry to look at food for ten minutes before beginning to eat. It takes a lot of inhibition. The players need to truly let go of the goal of making the basket.

Officially, I am the movement coach; a dancer who came to teach the players better posture and movement patterns. I’ve come to realize, however, that the main thing I have to offer them is inhibition. The other coaches can teach them form and biomechanics (although they don’t usually understand how to access the hip joints), but nobody else can teach inhibition. I am their Zen coach. I teach them to let the ball shoot itself, to let the game play itself. As much as they need to learn how to inhibit in order to change their form, I need to inhibit my desire to see them improve. As with any other activity, change can happen both instantaneously and glacially. They fold into a smooth, balanced monkey, and suddenly they’re moving around opponents a beat ahead of everyone else. When it comes to shooting, they slowly start to trust a different form. One of my favorite students, who falls deeply into the category of “tense and trying too hard,” improved dramatically when I said, “Remember that you shoot better when you’re relaxed.” That phrase allowed him to inhibit.

The Steady Buckets’ motto is “Out Work ’Em.” The pursuit of excellence requires limitless hours of practice and dedication—and there is no way around that—but to be truly excellent, you must be able to let go of the thing you desire while you work towards it. What a balancing act!

In a more general way, it has been wonderful to share the ability to change. The Alexander Technique shows us that change is possible and that there is a path towards that change. I imagine the kids I work with absorbing the idea that they can choose their actions. If they can go from slumping to standing up tall and balanced in less then a minute, maybe some of them will decide to study for a test instead of not studying or go to college instead of not going. Maybe some slumped-over little kid who considers himself un-athletic will feel “the zone” and decide that he or she can be good at sports. The Alexander Technique gives us choice and a means whereby!

 

Emily Faulkner (American Center for the Alexander Technique [ACAT], 1999) lives and teaches in New York City. Faulkner is also a dancer, dance teacher, and choreo-grapher. She is on the faculty of Movement Research, a world-renowned institution for experimental dance, and has presented her choreography both nationally and inter-nationally. Her current project is a dance film using Steady Buckets players. For more information, please see  her website www.emilyfaulkner.com or contact her at emily.a.faulkner@gmail.com.

 

© 2016 Emily Faulkner. All rights reserved.

 

Photograph of Emily Faulkner by Liam Pfieffer.
Photographs of the students shooting baskets by Emily Faulkner.

 

 

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