Something I find interesting is that if an output doesn’t feel challenging and full of psychosomatic tension, it must not be hard enough; we must not be putting forth enough effort. In my previous post, I discussed how the space between our self-image and our perception of environmental demands may often be the source of tension and rigidity. Taking this a step further, I wonder how many times we only feel “right” when moving or emoting with heightened tension – particularly the things we perform automatically that should be effortless: walking, bending forward, even swallowing. Is this the most efficient way to move and perform within the environment?
I think there is a misplaced emphasis on tension in order to function. So many of us have grown up this way, associating effort and tension with success. And that’s how we judge if someone is trying hard – how effortful do they look. But in the next breath we talk about how effortless a top performer looks when performing their skill. What’s the disconnect here?

Well, for one, that top performer’s self-image is likely exceeding the demands of his task/sport. And two, he or she has learned beyond the high-tension strategy used while initially practicing movements. It is normal to move with some excessive tension when first learning anything. Much of this is driven by the use of sympathetic tone necessary to facilitate attentional and motor control (the sympathetic nervous system does directly innervate skeletal muscle). 

“We screw ourselves up to do things and associate with all action a sensation of effort” 
Feldenkrais, The Potent Self

But over time, we must move beyond the initial learning phase so that we are able to complete tasks with less effort, less tension. To inhibit what we don’t need. Too often, we progress without first inhibiting the excessive tone we have created. In fact, we’re often rewarded for it. The guy who can create the most tension with an air squat is “ready” for adding weight.

The Hebbian theory plays importantly here, in that neurons that wire together fire together. And when we give permission to create rigidity during movement we allow that feeling to be associated with its performance such that we are nearly unable to move without feeling stiff and effortful. Essentially, proper learning has stopped here even if movement skill progresses because they have not yet figured out how to inhibit extraneous muscle tone. And inhibition is a key to self-regulation and higher learning

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Fitts and Posner’s Three Stages of Learning. Creating excessive tension in the cognitive phase and then maintaining it in the associative and autonomous phases is incomplete learning. We begin to associate movements with tension, allowing this to become part of the act.

​In coaching movement, we need not work to arbitrarily increase the difficulty of a movement that should be easy as this artificially constrains the task and limits the adaptive capacity of the system. Telling someone to “get super tight” in order to perform a simple bodyweight squat or contract this muscle or that while walking is, in my opinion, improper teaching. And this will result in improper learning because the nervous system has not been enabled to self-organize around principles but is instead attempting to rigidly adhere to constraints. 

Rather, I wonder if we’re better off promoting a loose set of movement boundaries for a client to stay within. Allow for more exploratory, sensory-discriminating movements (“what does that feel like”) and progress when the client can perform the movement and its variations with less rigidity and more degrees of freedom, not less.* Allow the nervous system to have a choice, mediated thru awareness, in making a more efficient movement output.

– Seth

*I fully appreciate that high performers often require highly rigid systems with a reduction in degrees of freedom for the acute performance of a specific skill. But I think it may be deleterious to promote linear increases in sympathetic tone in the learning phases of movement training, as I often see the negative results of this clinically. Even a little autonomic balance goes a long way.

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