In sports therapy and training, there is a lot of emphasis on tension. The thinking is that tension equals power and that power gives the ability to run, throw, jump faster, stronger quicker and so forth.
There are two issues that need to be considered when thinking about tension. Firstly within the construct of human function, tension is a given. Without tension the act of standing up would be impossible. The act of breathing is a basic tensional function, as is holding your head up or lifting a cup of tea.
The level of tension in a human body is already quite enormous and the pressures loaded on to each joint in order to make it move are similarly big.
So what does tension mean when sports training or therapy is talked about? Firstly I believe that this comes from a mistaken view and one that can be demonstrated by the fact that the vast majority of sports injuries are repeat ones. Sportsmen and women at high levels keep getting injuries and those injuries keep coming back. Something is going wrong.
A tensional structure, in order to be more effective has to have lots of power, but does that in turn mean more tension? The idea that the shorter the coil the more spring loading there is seems logical, but in terms of a body, it’s not going to work like that, and in the short term, something will, and does, break.
Tension therefore needs to be properly distributed in order for an energetic throughput. If one structure is loaded more than another, even slightly then this is not balance. The model of traditional anatomy might look at power and therefore the idea that the stronger the muscle, the more the power seems logical.
Unfortunately the old model of muscle moving bone in a lever type format doesn’t hold up any more. What is needed is constant transference of tensional energy throughout an entire structure. Load one area more than another tensionally without balance and injury is not far behind.
So a calf muscle is not a calf muscle, but part of an overall operating system. The achilles is not a straight tendon, blending in to a series of muscles on the lower leg, but a spiral of complex connective tissues, designed to distribute force from the foot, outwards around the leg and hip.
There is a fine line between tension and stress and this relationship is one that gets pushed, often unnecessarily. A suspension bridge works because the forces are evenly distributed and a large vehicle loading on to one end has its weight balanced by the forces above and below.
Try building a bridge like we build a sports person and disaster is one lorry away!
So is this bridge relaxed? Well it can cope efficiently with the load placed on it all day every day. It’s not floppy or loose, which is often the thinking when talking about relaxation. My view is that ‘relaxation’ equates to alertness. A relaxed golf swing, tennis stroke or aikido move is the one that is going to get the result.
Playing squash with world No7 Mark Chaloner some years ago, I was struck by how time seemed to stand still for him on the court. “You’ve got lots of time, ” he told me, “just relax!” This as I was dying seemed easy to say, but he was right. The harder I tried, the more it hurt.
Tension is not the key.