Trager®: A Body/Mind Approach in Sports Psychology

by Stephanie Rauch, PhD

Have you heard the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words.” In the circles of Trager® Practitioners, we like to say “a feeling is worth a thousand pictures.” We do so because we understand that feelings are very powerful. Perhaps you may remember a favorite teacher or other important person from long ago. Remembering what she said to you will be difficult, but I bet you remember how she made you feel… when her gentle touch on your arm let you know you were important.

My point is that working with feelings and the “felt experience” is a complement to the cognitive-behavioral approaches most often associated with sports psychology. For example, an athlete’s ability to hear words, metaphors or symbols from their coach and transpose them into physical sensations in the body is what the “felt experience” is all about. Both the sport psychology consultant utilizing “talk therapy” and a Trager® practitioner working with movement and touch may be working with the felt experience. Combining the skills of both creates synergy, meaning the new whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Athletes are taught by traditional coaches to get “their mind right” and to get “psyched up” for important sporting events. Even when they might be losing, a coach or consultant is likely to work primarily with the athlete’s mind using words. In doing so, they may miss other opportunities to support the mind/body. The Trager Approach® is designed to do just that.

To be successful, an athlete needs to play his sport of choice well, but he also needs to learn how to develop a sense of “presence.” By “presence” I mean the ability to think, sense, imagine, intuit and feel all that is happening in the moment. Presence is also characterized by the absence of distractions fears and extraneous chatter that can ruin the moment and interfere with our ability to be in the here and now.

Trager® is a form of bodywork that uses gentle movements with lightness and ease such as “weighing the bones in your hand.” The method is named after Dr. Milton Trager MD, who founded this modality of bodywork in the 1960’s. It consists of two parts. The first incorporates the table work, much like massage. However, in this body work the practitioner supports and gently moves the athlete’s body so that the athlete can find his own rhythms and new movement patterns that in turn release tension and create ease. Typical movements are “weighing the leg, molding the arm, or rocking the foot.” The experience is pain-free, very gentle and feels as if one is being rocked back and forth in collaboration with gravity – as one “feels” the muscles unwind and tension fall away as a state of homeostasis is restored to the nervous tissue within each muscle fiber.

Trager® also incorporates self-care movements called Mentastics®. The origins of this technique are reported to have derived from a competition on the beach with Dr. Trager and his brother. The challenge: “Let’s see who can jump the highest.” Subsequently a young Milton challenged his brother to: “Let’s see who can land the softest?” With this in mind, Mentastics® (mental gymnastics) was created using symbolism, gentle movements and imagery to develop a felt sense of ease in the body, much like attempting to land softly. Typically this approach draws upon images that bring peace of mind and relaxing movement (e.g. “walking as if you can feel the soft grass beneath every part of your foot” – “imagine “feeling the ‘clothes’ on your skin – can you sense your skin feeling its own weight?”) Many times the technique incorporates purposeful shifts in the senses we use the most – only in much different ways….“What would happen if you allowed your eyes to soften and then imagined your head to be like a delicious tomato bobbing in a dish of oil?”

The table work is analogous to training wheels for the athlete, helping him to develop the feeling of ease. Mentastics® is like teaching the athlete to walk so that he can recall or develop those feelings self-sufficiently. The ultimate goal involves equipping the athlete with acute prescriptive sensations to reduce tension for the heat of competition.

Blending the techniques of Trager® with typical skill building in sport psychology merges the best of both worlds – both mind and body. Via traditional sports psychology, the athlete recognizes when he needs to “relax” in order to play his best – while the specific application of the “felt sense techniques” provide both focus and specificity in execution.

If you remember watching the Olympics, all the swimmers would shake or loosen up their muscles before a race. Athletes save energy when they can let go of tension and then call on their strength when they need it. Chronic muscular tension or muscle amnesia wears out the athlete, literally leading to burn out, fatigue and injury. The Trager Approach®, The Feldenkrais Method and Alexander Technique are a few modalities of bodywork in conjunction with traditional sports psychology that an athlete can utilize in practice and on the playing field to prevent burnout, reduce the likelihood of injury and prevent panic in the competitive environment. It can even facilitate the opportunity for the athlete to have more of a chance to play in “the zone.” Gentle bodywork is effective because it helps the athlete remember and ultimately – develop – preferred feelings of ease, relaxation, and lightness at the most crucial times.

“Presence” is a felt sense.  It puts the athlete back into his body.  Because the mind moves so quickly, and so many of the mistakes athletes make take them out of the NOW moment – past thinking (could’ve, would’ve, should’ve) – as well as – future thinking (what if ? happens, what’s gonna happen next?) can doom the athlete to a poor performance. ‘Presence’ and the felt sense automatically takes the mind to the body – and the preferred felt senses the athlete knows and desires in the performance zone.

Developing “presence” is as simple as focusing on the joy within your body as you move. A Mentastics® can be focusing on the joy you feel in the act of swinging your club, hitting the ball, or feeling your body function as you move. “Presence” throughout the serve in tennis, a baseball pitch, or swing of the golf club can make a huge difference in performance. These principles also work for the athletes in open motion who are playing and moving with ease vs. out of fear. Taking a moment to get back into your body’s felt senses allows the athlete to let go of ruminating thoughts and other distractions that can make the difference between playing well, simply enjoying yourself and winning – as opposed to “chatter” driven poor performance characterized by stress or just playing on empty.

Feelings can overwhelm. Therefore, having the training to observe the feeling and know how to shift it is a true mind-body approach. Traditional sports psychology has always worked with these feelings, often teaching the athlete to overcome the feeling. Trager is a complementary approach that teaches the athlete to shift the feeling from an undesirable one to a preferred one. Sensations, feelings and thinking are closely linked to your nervous system. Learning how to work with these sensations – rather than overpower them cognitively can be a valuable tool.

That anxiety in the nervous system is realized as the fight-flight-freeze trauma – and – at a minimum athletes often feel pre-competitive anxiety, both the degree and specific sensations of that experience can allow one to start well – or start poorly. Rhythm, tempo and kinesthetic senses in the nervous system are all interconnected with the overall athletic performance. What you do with your senses early on can make a difference.

Bottom line, if you are in a competition and you feel relaxed, safe, light, easy, pleasurably excited and curious – your nervous system will be more connected to a sense of nurturance and safety. If you knew you could not lose no matter what you did, you might have the feeling of ease and fun. You might even have the presence to see possibilities that you hadn’t seen before. Athletes are much closer to the performance zone when relaxed and have an acute sense of presence, without exception. Finding a movement that gives each athlete a sense of ease – and – repeatedly, consistently executing that movement enables the athlete’s overall sense of “presence.” Presence enables them to replicate their “preferred feelings” and incorporate those sensations in each performance.

Stephanie Rauch, PhD, LPC, LMBT, TP is a formerly world-ranked professional tennis player, ski instructor and avid golfer. She has a private practice in mind- body therapy in Charlotte, NC and works with a variety of clients including competitive athletes. She can be reached at: [email protected] and her website is www.rauchmindbody.com. She welcomes your questions or comments. To learn more about the Trager Approach® or find a practitioner in your area go to http://www.trager-us.org/.

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