Movement Education for Athletes


Joe Lee Griffin, Ph.D.

  • The method? Movement, gentle but rhythmic, connected, and continuing, that reaches deep functional body-mind levels.
  • The result? Athletes let go of physical and mental blocks, are quicker and more graceful, and perform better.

Milton Trager, M.D., developed The Trager Approach about 60 years ago. A skilled natural athlete, he was a boxer, gymnast, and dancer. The approach was not thought out, but emerged from his hands, from his nonconscious functional mind, when he happened to work on his trainer. He started working on people when he was 18, later became a Doctor of Physical Medicine, and went to medical school to earn an M.D. when he was over 40. During the last dozen years he has trained Practitioners, certified Instructors and reached many more people. The Trager Approach, created by an athlete, helps athletes in particular, as well as others who need to move in their lives.

1. Finding your "on" place, your operating center.
2. Enjoying your moving body.
3. Entering competition more rested.
4. Increasing your sensory feedback, body in time and space information for the operating part of your mind.
5. Easing or avoiding cramps or spasms.
6. Improving your mental focus.
7. Better circulation for nutrition and removing waste products.
8. Less parasitic tension, more quickness.
9. Fewer injuries, longer performing career.
10. More graceful and flowing movement.

Though listed individually, I believe these things are functionally connected. They need not be separately figured out or controlled. If your operating mind learns to move more effectively, more rhythmically, it uses your muscles appropriately to do what you intend and releases tensions that could interfere. You get the benefits not from specifics, like coaching advice, but from improving your balance, quickness, and grace. The Practitioner need not be an expert in your event.

Every athlete knows and appreciates the gift of the times when he or she is on, when the body is on automatic, the shots want to go in, and the thinking mind just enjoys the ride. Further, they have found that trying to force this or trying to figure it out just screws it up.

The rhythms of The Trager Approach reconnect you to your functional center and are an effective antidote to slumps, thinking too much, and trying too hard. You connect with your moving body and the feeling of operating on automatic and trusting and enjoying it.

Skilled acts that require knowing HOW need to be done by your nonconscious functional mind, while your conscious mind usefully decides WHAT. To effectively operate your body is much too complicated for conscious control. When you learned to drive, though you had years of experience with other acts, you were safe and comfortable only after driving became habitual and mostly nonconscious. Dr. J. said of his basketball at its best, "It is a force outside myself." Presumably, his conscious mind just watches while his functional mind (nonverbal, nonconscious) plays ball.
Yogi Berra said, "You can't think and hit at the same time." Gallwey, in "Inner Tennis," and Morehouse, in "Maximum Performance," show how conscious analysis interferes with athletic achievement. Athletics are best coordinated by your functional nonconscious. Your conscious needs to hold your intent and focus your energy, not think about HOW (and not just daydream).

Through sensations, sensory input. Muscle spindles, joint receptors, Golgi tendon organs, pressure, temperature, and pain receptors, the eyes, ears, and middle ear (balance) all furnish feedback signals about your body in time and space and let you know how well you are doing what you intend to do.
The Trager Approach uses rhythmic movement to generate sensations and reach the nonconscious functional mind. From both physiologic laws and practical experience, signals are best taken in when you are comfortable, supported, relaxed, unloaded, and moving. Trager work is done under these optimum conditions. Rhythmic, easy movement also lulls your conscious into enjoying the movement so it lets go of nonproductive holding, control, and worry patterns.

The best athletes, the naturals, learned early to enjoy the sensation of an active body, of physical achievement. When someone says to me, "Look how long he practices. Hard work is the secret!," I may suggest that he keeps going because he enjoys feeling his body, that he couldn't do long practices without stressing out if he didn't like it. In other words, if you are already gifted, you can enjoy and learn from long practices with many repetitions.

Coaches naturally select those with gifted functional minds who are able to easily (and nonconsciously) learn physical things. Most often coaches had nonconscious skills themselves and may not realize how the less gifted need to learn.

As a B-team sub in high school basketball, I thought too much. I practiced and often could play casual ball, but played well in only two formal games, one when I was too sick to get uptight and one when I got into it and forgot to think. By contrast, I reproducibly swam well because I enjoyed the water and myself in the water.

If you are less-gifted (like me out of the water), repetitions need to be pleasurable first, purposeful later. The Trager Approach connects you with your body sensations by repetitions of gentle, rhythmic, continuing, connected, supported movement, with no external goals. The Practitioner listens to your rhythms and matches them, so the message is transmitted through to your functional mind, "This is how easy movement feels. This is how release of unneeded tension feels. This is the part of your body and your mind that does physical things for you. Enjoy and appreciate it."

Movement used in The Trager Approach may be Practitioner-generated or self-generated. In the first, a Practitioner uses his or her hands to listen to and move you. In the second, called Mentastics, you shake, wiggle, swing, shift, and elongate yourself lightly and rhythmically. Often, a Trager person suggests and models the movements. Mentastics can be done at any time, so you can take your learning experiences with you. Some Mentastics are included in sessions. They are also taught separately, as in my Mentastics class at the Walter Reed Fitness Center, and are described in the book by Dr. Trager and Cathy Hammond (1).

I believe Satchel Paige's amazingly long career as a baseball player was in part because he discovered his own equivalent of Mentastics. One of his list of secrets was to jangle gently when you walk.

Many years ago I read a short story with a surprise ending. It seemed to describe mountain climbing, with a person working through ice fields and getting past vertical walls and being stretched to the limit by other barriers. At the end, the individual was physically handicapped and wanted to be on time on an icy morning for a job interview in a city building. We all face the contests of daily life. Easier movement helps.

John Pearcy, President and Founder of the Greater Austin Track Club and a professional coach, says, "The advantage of Trager is that the athlete can stay more limber and loose, and thus freer of muscle damage." (1) A further advantage, "In working with competing athletes, one of the primary things we are looking at is how to control stress and improve their sleeping patterns and put them in competition in the most rested state possible." (2)

Every muscle has a balancing muscle that needs to relax just as the active muscle contracts to do what you intend. If this relaxation does not happen, excess tension stresses joints, ligaments, and tendons. The excess tension is also parasitic, subtracting from the force that can be delivered to run, leap, shoot, or whatever. Weight lifters who have neglected relaxation skills have been known to pull a muscle reaching for the salt, as two muscles oppose each other, instead of one yielding. Parasitic tension also flattens the miles of capillaries that branch out to carry blood in your muscles. This limits input of oxygen and nutrients and removal of waste products. Periodic relaxation is needed. Rhythmic contraction and relaxation of skeletal muscles pumps blood in the veins and lymph in the lymphatic system to help the work of the heart. Nonmoving soldiers who stand at attention naturally tend to pass out because blood circulation is limited.

Excess tension and spasms can affect even the best athletes, as the sports pages often tell us. Examples from the Washington area (in '80s) are Kevin Grevey's hamstrings and John Riggin's back. The gentle rhythms of The Trager Approach can encourage even chronic tensions to release. I recall a former athlete, approaching 50, who came in with back pain such that he could not even sit up. After the Trager session, he said he felt better. I saw him 4 days later and asked how his back was. He replied, "Back?" Only after I reminded him did he remember that it had been hurting. I believe the work reached his functional nonconscious and it was taking care of his back and his movement, so the conscious let it go.

Dr. T. L. Edwards, Jr., founder and Medical Director of The Hills Medical Sports Complex in Austin, Texas, says, "I use Trager in a number of my patients, particularly those with tension. I find that it's most helpful in patients with shoulder tension, neck tension, upper back tension, and lower back tension, relieving the pain and discomfort in those areas. In addition I use it in athletes who want to excel in their performance." (2)

Neil Amdur, Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of Tennis World magazine, sampled Trager and wrote, "... when the body feels lighter, it begins to move as if it were lighter. For a tennis player, on and off the court, this feeling can be invaluable." (3)

Bob Blaze, ranked touring pro, said, "After a Trager session, my feet move so lightly and quickly on the court I'm amazed. My endurance has increased and my previous problems with leg cramps have disappeared. Even concentrating is easier because I am more relaxed." (4)

Paula Glazer, LPGA, Futures Tour, and teaching golf pro, says, "The Trager approach allows me the opportunity to swing consistently with no physical hindrance. My shoulders feel softer and stay DOWN where they should be, allowing me to putt correctly, which helps my scoring ability. I recommend Trager to my students." (4)

Diedre Wagner competes in triathlons like the Hawaii Ironman; 2.4 miles of ocean swimming, 112 miles biking, plus 26.2 miles running. As a result of Trager work, she said, "the trauma in my injured hip was released body became lighter, freer, extremely receptive to new patterns of movement and training. .. Now I run with more freedom and fluidity." (4)

Jann Girard, a professional triathlete, wrote, "Just two months after I added Trager to my training, at the Brazil National Championships, I noticed new feelings of strength and power, and yet felt light and quick in my movements. It was easier to adapt to the different race conditions and terrains than it usually had been for me. I placed first overall, and felt better and definitely in control." (5)

Mixon Henry, 34, a "middle-of-the-pack" runner (5K, 10K, an occasional half or full marathon) said, "Trager has helped me relax my back and shoulders while I run. I now run faster, smoother and with more ease. I was very happy to see visible improvement in my arm drive, higher knee lift and back kick when I saw myself on the video tape before and after shots." (4)

Felix Rippy won 17 marathons between '84 and '87 and began Trager after an ankle injury. As he trained for the '88 Olympic tryouts, he said, "Trager has helped me increase my mileage without getting injured." (4)

The client is supported on a padded table and kept warm and covered, draped except as needed for access. The Practitioner gently and rhythmically rocks, shakes, lengthens and connects your body, sometimes sitting on the edge of the table to improve access. The Practitioner operates from a relaxed, focused state called Hook-up (which seems to me like being on for an athlete). Milton says you catch Hook-up from someone who has it. Clients wear at least briefs or trunks. Even nudists or those accustomed to therapeutic massage wear briefs, as some moves would cause a reflex tightening. As client comfort is most important, those who wish to be more fully dressed are encouraged to do so, but keep the clothing soft, avoiding jeans or skirts. In most sessions some time is given over to Mentastics. Time on the table is rarely less than 45 minutes (for a full session) or longer than 75 minutes.

For the very best athletes, I suspect about 3% improvement, unless there is a condition, like cramping, that limits performance, in which case improvement would be greater. At the highest levels of performance, however, even 3% (one more shot in basketball) can make a difference.
For less skilled athletes who get into slumps, try too hard, think too much, or don't coordinate easily, both improvements in performance and in enjoyment can be significant. I believe that you can learn (your nonconscious can learn) how to be a more natural, more relaxed and more successful athlete.

Your first experience of Trager should probably not be within three or so days of a major competition. There often is some rearrangement of muscle tone that needs time for integration by your operating mind. A session can be a wonderful way to release stress and tension after a maximal exertion. Relaxed, easy movement of muscles improves the blood flow needed for nutrition, removal of waste products, and rebuilding.

The stress of trying to stay up for every contest seems to lead some athletes into using mood-altering drugs, which is unsafe. The centered feeling that follows Trager work is safe and has only positive side effects. One client even said, "It's like a legal high!"

The Trager Approach is educational, not diagnostic, not therapeutic. Though it is not a medical procedure, not a treatment (unless done by an M.D., like Milton), it can help you learn to release holding due to trauma or pain and feel and function better. The Trager Institute (2) will be glad to give you names of Practitioners in your area and schedules for Introductory and Beginning workshops. (6)

Joe Lee Griffin is a Trager Practitioner, Tutor, and Workshop Leader, who did muscle, brain, and nerve research at Walter Reed. He is the author of " Learn To Swim Before You Go In." He has a Ph.D. in Biology from Princeton, taught physiology as an Assistant Professor at Brown, and was an NIH Special Fellow in Anatomy at Harvard Medical School. He was Secretary and Outreach Coordinator of The Chesapeake Trager Association for many years.

Copyright. Joe L. Griffin, 1989. Trager Practitioners may make copies of this article for distribution to potential clients. Publication requires permission.

References and Notes.

1. Milton Trager, M.D. and Cathy Hammond, Ph.D. "Movement as a Way to Agelessness. A Guide to Trager Mentastics." Station Hill Press, Barrytown, NY 12507, 1987, Revised, 1995.
2. "The Trager Approach" Video Tape. 1986. The Trager Institute, 21 Locust, Mill Valley, CA 94941-2806. Ph. 415-388-2688, fax 415-388-2710.
3. Neil Amdur. Trager in tennis. Altered states for mind and body. Tennis World, May, 1987.
4. Jann Girard. Train smarter instead of harder. MetroSports (Austin, TX), Feb., 1986.
5. Michael Butler. The Trager athlete. The Trager Journal, Vol II, Fall, 1987.
6. The words Trager, Mentastics, and Hook-up are service marks of The Trager Institute.

This article is from the Appendix of the book, " Learn to Swim Before You Go In," by Joe L. Griffin, Ph.D.

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