Clinical Somatics is an excellent adjunct to any training regimen. It supports and enhances a trainer’s work by fundamentally improving an athlete’s own internal awareness and control of their body. The outcome can be an athlete with a range of motion and coordination level they never had or knew they could have.

Muscle Memory: Movement Memory

In athletics, muscle memory is considered the foundation of consistent high performance. The term, “movement memory” (sometimes called “muscle memory”), refers to learned physical movements. This includes everything from walking to elite athletic performance. The essence of movement memory is the brain’s ability to learn what a movement feels like and to coordinate muscles to execute it at will and with enough precision to meet the demand of the moment.

Movement Memory and Athletics

Movement memory enables us to touch-type, play a guitar, ski or ride a bicycle, even if we haven’t practiced that movement for a long time. This kind of movement memory also enables an athlete to return to play, pitching, making birdies and eagles, throwing a frisbee, or kicking field goals, even if side-lined with an injury for more than six months. When athletes say they are “automatic” or “in the zone”, they are exactly right. The brain is coordinating the most efficient movements possible without the athlete even having to think.

Movement Memory and Injuries

Athletes learn muscle (or movement) memory through years of practice. It’s the key component in an athlete’s initial and continued success on the field of play. The ability to hit a 90 mile-an-hour fastball, a drop shot from the baseline, a 40-foot putt, an intricate gymnastics routine, a long field goal, or a bending free kick are all examples of movement memory in action. The ability to consistently repeat these movements despite a host of variables separates out elite athletes.

Understanding Sensory-Motor Amnesia (SMA)

But what happens when an athlete is injured, sometimes repeatedly? What develops is a learned pattern of physical compensation and reflexive muscular tightening. This is often the case even after the initial rehabilitation is over. A traumatic sport injury such as a damaged ACL would result in a need to re-learn the mechanics of balanced walking. It is difficult to do at first without pain, because the initial injury and later surgery triggers reflexive, protective tightening of muscles on one side of the body (a Trauma Reflex). The brain has to re-learn this series of movements.  

How is it that the brain forgets how to enable the athlete to walk freely and without pain? Where did the muscle memory for coordinated walking go?  The answer lies in the sensory motor system of the brain, not the muscles. What causes an injured player to often have to regain simple coordinated patterns, despite their years of disciplined training can be answered by understanding sensory motor amnesia (SMA).  

Sensory Motor Amnesia is defined by Thomas Hanna as a condition in which muscles become habitually tight in response to injuries (e.g. soft-tissue injuries), physical shocks (e.g. falls or blows), repetitive use (e.g. overtraining) or on-going stress. Those afflicted with SMA lose their ability to release and relax muscles and move freely.

SMA occurs in reflexive, full body patterns of contractions that alter voluntary coordination, balance, tighten joints and cause muscular pain. In SMA, the feedback loop between the brain and muscles goes into “cruise control” or “auto-pilot”. This makes it difficult to control these muscles freely. Typically all the muscles along that specific kinetic chain tighten in compensation. 

For example, imagine a baseball pitcher who has repeatedly pulled a hamstring. No longer can they wind up and pitch the ball, allowing their leg to counter balance and support as they pitch. They still have residual hamstring tension that has become habituated on a neurological level. Not only that, but the muscles of the torso have tightened in a compensatory pattern as well. They can still pitch – recruiting other muscles to make up for those that have become “amnesic” and won’t coordinate. But, their pitch is thrown off. The muscles that are usually part of the movement memory of pitching are no longer effective. Their entire form is compromised. This is SMA in play on the pitcher’s mound.

To overcome SMA, brain-level muscle memory of the movement has to be re-established to regain good form. To regain good form we must retrain the brain. In learning to overcome SMA, the athlete becomes more self-sensing. Balance improves, and the athlete regains better coordination and control of their actions. This also leads to shorter recovery time from injuries and training.

Reversing SMA is the goal of Clinical Somatics. Through the use of a movement action technique called “pandiculation,” (so far unique to Clinical Somatic Education, also known as Hanna Somatic Education) clients learn to recover control of muscles from subcortical neuromuscular reflexes. These are often triggered by injury. This occurs through active tightening, followed by a gradual lengthening release of affected muscles. Pandiculation is neurologically like yawning. It interrupts habitual contractions of affected muscles and re-establishes full body control at the neurological level. Clinical Somatics is an active technique, using movement to reverse SMA and affect brain level control of muscles. It often yields effective, immediate and long-lasting results in comparison to other types of therapies.

For the professional athlete, a severe case of SMA could spell the end of a career. It could lead to the beginning of a series of recurring injuries to the same area of the body. But it could also lead to the beginning of a course of somatic training that improves their performance to new, higher levels.

The techniques of Clinical Somatics can keep players in the game while also giving them day-to-day strategies to continue performing at an greatest level. This is despite the accidents, injuries and the stresses of rigorous athletic training.

For more information about how to learn Somatic Movements on your own or in a class, work with a certified Clinical Somatic Educator, or train to teach Somatic Movements, contact us at info@essentialsomatics.com