Listening for performance

I made the big switch yesterday. I moved from regular pedals to clip-in pedals with proper cycling shoes. The transition was unpleasant. I’ve only been using the bike on the 12km commute to work for about three weeks, but apparently that was just long enough to build up some body habits. I’d already noticed that I was starting to monkey-clutch the pedals with my toes in order to secure my grip. Switching to the new pedals showed me I was doing a few other things.

The first thing that threw me off was a maddening desire to turn my toes out. I felt like they were being squeezed in, and there was a very uncomfortable pressure on my knees. I looked down at my feet while pedalling to check my position, and everything looked fine. My feet were parallel, my knees tracked correctly in line with my toes, everything was anatomically correct…which meant I’d been riding with my heels in and gotten used to it. There were a few other little annoyances, all of which added up to a gruelling, exhausting commute. Today was different though.

Eric Franklin wrote a great book called “Conditioning for Dance” that has been influential in my movement studies. One of the big take-aways I got from it was the power of internal self-observation and visualization. Specifically, the concept of paying attention to what is happening internally during a movement. A passive, observant attention. I teach it to my students as a listening. The passiveness has a real value to martial artists, but takes some work.

Years ago, my girlfriend at the time was an archer. Her archery classes fit right into the time slot before my rapier classes, so I would tag along. I remember being intrigued that the goal of the archer wasn’t to hit the bullseye every time, but to work for a tight cluster of shots. The idea was that if you could get all of your arrows to hit roughly the same spot consistently, then all you had to work on after that was to move that spot closer to the bullseye.

The Listening skill I picked up from Franklin’s book is similar. When trying to correct a physical technique, I first have the students pay attention to what is happening without trying to correct it. They put their mind inside the joints involved, and repeat the motion over and over and just try to fully understand what is going on. Once understanding has been achieved, a small correction may be attempted. The process is repeated continuously. Training with very advanced fighters, comfortable with the technique, we are able to use this listening loop during slow rapier sparring with each other. It has a very deep value.

Often we find that the source of a problem is something that wasn’t apparent. Working on my roundhouse kick one day, I felt I was not getting an easy enough rotation in my striking foot. My instinct was that I lacked flexibility in my hip, but before I went back to working towards achieving a full split stretch, I went into Listening mode. I threw a slow series of kicks. With each kick my awareness of the mechanics grew. I felt tension in my hip, but didn’t correct. Just kept throwing the kick. After about ten kicks, I had a solid image of what was going on, and the culprit was not at all what I thought it was. The problem with the right leg kick was a little residual tension in the left knee. By slightly flexing my left knee at one point in the kick, the tension vanished and my right leg kick behaved exactly as I wanted it too.

Cycling to work tonight, I stopped resisting and trying to correct my mechanics. Instead, I just listened to what was happening to my body. My heart rate slowed. I stopped thinking about haste, exhaustion, correct technique. I watched my little bike computer, and settled my cadence and speed. I resolved to keep them constant, and to just see what was going on. As the kilometers moved by, I felt the different muscles working and straining. A lot of my effort was being spent on muscles trying to do actions that weren’t needed. One at a time, I corrected small muscles, teaching them to relax and trust the mechanism. I stopped fighting the bike, and developed a smooth pedalling action. The last few kilometres were a complete joy. I felt connected to my bike. Pedalling was effortless. I pulled into work with a huge grin on my face, a few minutes early…and completely relaxed.

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