Skip to content

Everyday Poise: Shawn Johnson and the Balance Beam

by Ellen on August 16th, 2013

Hi All!

In today’s edition of Everyday Poise, I’d like to look at women’s gymnastics. Specifically, I’d like to look at Shawn Johnson and her amazing skills on balance beam, and point out a few things that I think give her that consistency and grace that the commentators are so enthralled by.

If you’ve never seen her work, here’s a sample beam routine from the 2008 Olympics. You’ll have to click through and watch it on YouTube since the embed doesn’t work anymore. Watch it first, and then we’ll discuss.

Balance beam seems to be one of the trouble spots for most gymnasts, but Shawn manages to ace her routines both gracefully and consistently. There are two things I notice about her performance that I’d like to point out.

The first is her attitude towards the beam. Most gymnasts are terrified of balance beam, and even if they try to put on a brave face, you can tell they’re worried from the minute they approach the beam. They’re clearly thinking about how narrow it is, how small their margin of error is, and how picky the judges are about exact angles and tiny wobbles. All this worry wells up inside them and makes them tense, which in turn makes it that much harder for them to balance. Alexander would refer to this as an “unduly excited fear reflex”; you’ve engaged your fear reflex before you’ve even seen if it’s necessary.

Furthermore, it’s hard to maintain your balance if you’re trying to clench and make it happen. One of my ballet teachers once described perfect balance like this: “The negotiation is there, but the fight is gone.” Even when you “have your balance,” you’re constantly making minor adjustments in the muscles of your feet and legs, torso, and arms to maintain that balanced poise. If you’re fighting to keep your balance, or you’re knotted up with worry and clenching every muscle in your body, you won’t be able to make the minute adjustments necessary to maintain a stable balance, and a stiff wind will knock you over.

Compare that to Shawn’s attitude. She loves the beam, and you can really tell from the moment she sets up that she’s looking forward to this. She maintains a calm, relaxed attitude, which in turn makes it easier for her body to compensate and keep her on balance. Her movements become more efficient as a result; no extraneous flailing means there’s less variables to throw her off balance. She’s letting her body do what it needs to do, and trusting that it will catch her.

Second, check out the way she follows-through on her jumps. It’s particularly easy to spot as she comes out of the back flips. While most gymnasts try to freeze the moment their feet hit the beam, probably out of fear of being docked points for “wobbles,” Shawn lets her arms continue through the swing, which brings her body upright and her head over her pelvis and feet, so that when she chooses to stop the momentum, her body is already stacked up and ready to balance. Try standing with one foot in front of the other and your chest parallel to the floor, and see how long you can balance before you fall over. It’s much easier to balance when the heavy parts of your body (head and pelvis) are over your feet. And it doesn’t look like a “wobble,” it looks like a smooth follow-through and a “stuck” landing. Again, she’s letting her body do the work for her, and simply staying out of her own way. A beautiful example of poise and “use” in the Alexander sense.

Edit as of March 2020: I recently found Shawn Johnson’s own YouTube channel, where in one video she talked about this particular beam run. Turns out she was exhausted from being made to practice this routine in the warmup gym by her coach over and over right before coming out onto the floor to do it for real, and had kind of zoned out by the time it got to the real run. The gold she won for this routine took her completely by surprise, because she had already let go of her worries over the competition and just went out to finally do her last event and get out of there. My guess is that what happened was the physical exhaustion forced her to finally get out of her own head (or as Alexander might have said, get out of her own way) and allowed her body to move the way it wanted to all along!

Forward and Up! is a Pittsburgh-based private practice offering quality instruction in the Alexander Technique in a positive and supportive environment.

From → Everyday Poise

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Note: XHTML is allowed. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS