Achieving Life-Long Potential
Kids Under Construction
A Toolbox for Parents, Coaches and Educators
By Ronn W. Langford
The Physiological Systems and Strategies
Many of the kids I work with often have a specific area of “systemic difficulty” (such as visual processing, visual spatial awareness, sensory integration difficulty, limited coordination, balance, etc.) that has limited their ability to process information. Once the quantity and quality of processing has improved, the quality of their functional performance increases. It seems like a miracle! It is something that most of us can help them with – if we have the right tools.
Let’s begin to study physiology – by defining some of the functional systems.
Information provided by the various senses of the body:
Kinesthetic (or basic sense of feel)
Olfactory (sense of smell)
The Sixth Sense (that extraordinary sense of awareness of what is happening or going to happen)
There is a tendency to just look at the senses at a surface level. That is, can we see something? Can you “see” that house? If we can see it, then we can “see.” Can we hear something? If so, we can “hear.” Can we feel something? If so, we can “feel.” But the question is, can we increase the amount and quality of “seeing” or “hearing” or even “feeling” what is happening? Is there a way to develop a deeper level of sensory awareness?
In the training programs of our own coaches at MasterDrive, we hand out a card with the Braille alphabet on it. They can feel the little raised dots and see the corresponding letter of the alphabet. But … while they can feel the raised dots, they cannot “feel” the individual patterns of the raised dots, or how many there are and where one group of dots ends and the other begins. However, with practice, and practice, and more practice over several months, they can train their bodies to feel more detail about the dots. How many dots? What is the pattern of the dots? What does the pattern of the dots mean? The objective is to get that type of sensory acuity to the subconscious level.
The quality and acuity of sensory input, and the lack of quality and acuity of sensory input, has a critical impact upon the level of a child’s functional performance.
For the past several years, we have become more aware that each of us has a tendency to favor the use of a specific sensory processor. That is, the dominant processor for some people is visual information. Others may process and learn more effectively with kinesthetic information. (I.e., they learn better by doing and using hands-on learning experiences, rather than by seeing it.)
Most educators seem to know this at an intellectual level, and that we should always attempt to define our student’s primary processor. However, research into super learning techniques shows that people learn and perform MOST effectively by developing the use of all the sensory processors – and using ALL of them to learn.
Many of the problems associated with learning difficulties are simply the result of a student not using an appropriate sensory processor, and/or not developing other sensory inputs to a high functioning level. Several years ago this difficulty of processing sensory information was identified into what became known as Sensory Integration Difficulty. Many kids today experience this syndrome, and frequently it is not diagnosed. Even more frequently, there is little or no awareness of it. We will discuss Sensory Integration in more detail later.
Visual Spatial Awareness. Visual Tracking. Peripheral Vision. Depth Perception. Closure Speed. Vision Acuity. Short and Long Term Visual Memory.
We have a tendency to look at visual processing only in terms of central vision acuity. That is, the typical eye chart vision test given in a doctor’s office. Vision acuity is the ability of the eyes to see with clarity and detail at a specific distance – i.e., near and far distances.
Vision acuity is very important for reading and seeing detail, but visual tracking and visual spatial awareness is much more important when it comes to being visually aware in a dynamic environment – where things are moving and not static.
This includes the Proprioceptive System, the Vestibular System, and is also influenced by the Visual System.
Proprioceptive System – a system of receptor cells in the skin and muscle tissue, even down into the tendons, that sends stimuli information through the nervous system of the body and into the brain. This kinesthetic information includes the feeling of movement, transfer of weight, and the effect of various forces upon the body.
If the brain has better software to interpret this information, decide what it means, and if it has the software to then direct the muscles of the body to respond, accurately and quickly, then the body can perform at a higher level. The better the software to interpret and execute, the better the performance.
Vestibular System – Balance, orientation, centering, etc.
In general, the Vestibular System is a very important system in the overall function of a child. It is critically important for almost every type of performance.
We find that kids with a learning difficulty very often have major issues with balance, which limits their overall performance. And yet, very seldom is anything done to improve this function.
Visual System – The visual system is also important to the overall balance and orientation. To test the importance, stand up straight and come up onto your toes. Now, close your eyes. You can immediately see that visual orientation is important to balance.
This includes: Hearing, Auditory Memory, Auditory Recognition and/or Identification, etc.
Auditory processing is very important to us in many ways. The degree of importance depends greatly upon the specific activity. But just because a child can “hear” something, as in a sound, does not mean that they can hear with a broad range of auditory acuity. Distinguishing sounds, pitches, pace, rhythms, etc., is an important part of our sensory acuity. It is therefore an important part of our functional performance; especially in the performing arts.
The “ear” can be trained to do some wonderful things. But the ear just recognizes certain wave inputs and converts that information into electronic messages that are sent to the proper area of the brain. It is the programming in the brain that interprets the meaning of the sounds.
How important is this in our ability to communicate with others? Is it important to be able to distinguish and interpret the meaning of various sounds?
Other Sensory Inputs – Olfactory, Taste, and the Sixth Sense
Olfactory sensory inputs are very important at specific times. They obviously have a lot to do with our quality of lives. In fact, the sense of smell is one of the most effective “triggers” to retrieve memories of past experiences and places.
Taste is an important sensory input for children. Because if something does not “taste good” to them, getting them to eat it is a challenge. If something does taste good, it may not be the most nutritional.
The Sixth Sense is that special sense of awareness that is so difficult to define. You can literally anticipate that something is going to happen before it happens. In fact, at times it falls into the category of “the twilight zone,” and you can’t really explain it.
The Sixth Sense – a heightened level of awareness based upon subconscious processing.
There are always those of us (including me) that look at something we may not know much about, or that we do not understand and are not able to explain, and therefore dismiss that “something” as not valid. So let me give you some examples of this unique subconscious ability that we can develop to “notice” some things at a level that we can’t really even understand.
For example, a baseball batter has a fraction of a second to make the decision to swing or not. A very high level of awareness is needed to be successful. The batter receives the information literally as the ball comes off the pitcher’s fingers, and interprets or anticipates where it will be and what it’s going to do. The sense to do this is based in the subconscious programming to “notice.”
In football, a linebacker is taught to notice the “reads,” and to make a decision in covering his assignment. The linebacker who can increase that level of awareness, to notice or “read” a tenth or two tenths of a second quicker, is the extraordinary linebacker.
It is the same in other sports such as tennis, soccer, hockey, etc. Some people have this sixth sense in writing poetry or music. It is also true in “reading” other people or even animals.
Many years ago in Japan, a technique was developed to immediately identify whether a baby chicken was male or female. For the country’s economic reasons, it needed to be done within one day of hatching. And there was no way to identify a gender by just “looking.”
However, some people knew how to do this, but could not define how they knew. So they observed other people (in training) pick up a baby chicken, turn it upside down, look, and guess the gender of the chicken. The “Zen Chicken Identifiers” knew whether the people in training were correct and told them.
After a while, the people in training became “Zen Chicken Identifiers,” even though they could not explain what it was that they had learned to “notice.” Their awareness had become a subconscious programming. They somehow just knew.
During World War II, in the terrible air battle of Great Britain, one of the critical objectives was to identify whether aircraft coming across the channel was an ally or an enemy. And those identifying needed to be able to do that as quickly as possible to give as much time and notice for air raid warnings.
A few people could identify the enemy aircraft immediately, even though they could not see enough detail to explain what they saw. They did the same thing as the Japanese did with the chickens. And somehow, these people learned to identify enemy aircraft from great distances, and saved the lives of thousands of people.
Increasing one’s sixth sense can happen with repetitions of exercises that increase awareness or noticing. It is so powerful to be able to function at a subconscious level.
So, if we understand how the quality of sensory input influences a child’s functional performance, we can identify which sense might need to be enhanced. If the functions of the physiological systems of the body are improved through specific strategies and exercises, then the overall performance of the person will improve.
This should be obvious. And yet, very often, nothing is done to define the limitation and/or improve the physiological systems. A child’s performance can be limited by a breakdown of a specific system, and if nothing is done to solve the difficulty within the system, his performance will be limited. Very often performance is limited for the rest of his life – just because no one had the tools or the strategies to help him make a change.
One of my biggest frustrations has been working with kids who have been in special education for many years, and then have been “passed” through or out of the educational system at age 18. Most of these special education educators are totally dedicated to what they are doing. Often, there is simply not enough budget, time or strategies to invest in these kids with special needs, based upon their individual challenges.
For many children, if these causes had been identified at an early age, and strategies had been implemented to solve some of the functional challenges, the lives of these kids may have changed dramatically.
There is also a population of kids who have functional and mental limitations that will experience challenges for their whole lives. But they also have the potential of increasing their overall functions, to some degree. Some of these kids may not become outstanding students or live traditional lives – but they can improve from their “status quo.”
One of the biggest challenges I have experienced has been working with children with fetal alcohol syndrome or fetal drug syndrome. We have had some success in working with several of these kids, but the big challenge is that the “hardware” – the processing and identification systems within the brain – has been severely damaged.
More developmental work needs to be done in this area, so that the strategies can be used with these kids at an earlier age. We have experienced changes, but the work with a child needs to start at an early age, and this is usually not the case.
Schools of Thought
One of the general sources of information going into the brain – the bio-computer – can be labeled as “thoughts.” When you really “think” about it, the whole concept of thinking is much deeper and broader and more complicated than we are at first aware.
What is a thought?
How in the world can we even have a thought? Usually we would perceive a thought as being able to process some information about a prior experience. Another place and time. A person. An emotional event. What we did yesterday afternoon. What we have planned for tomorrow afternoon.
It is difficult to even attempt to define thought – or thinking – without using the word itself. Can you choose to process a specific thought? Can you control your thinking? How can you control your thinking? Can you develop the ability to just think about what you want to think about?
And then, how do we have an original thought? Something we haven’t ever thought before? Maybe something no one else has ever thought before?
So let’s look at thoughts in terms of processing:
Focus and Concentration
Primary or Specific Attention
Divided or Broad Attention
Focus and Concentration
Most people who have been involved in athletics have a basic understanding of the importance of focus and concentration. The problem is that most of those who are either competing or involved in coaching or teaching are frequently not clear what focus or concentration really means. We think we know at a surface level, but find it hard to define accurately. We have even more difficulty in explaining “how to do it.”
So coaches or educators or parents often tell a child – “You need to focus.” But does telling a child to focus really do anything? It’s a lot like telling a child to have more confidence. Or that they need to be taller.
Think of focus and concentration as the information that is going into our bio-computer, our brain. That information can be visual, auditory, kinesthetic, or any of the other senses. But focus can also be what we are thinking about, especially from a prior emotional experience. Focus is not just the ability to put our attention on one thing, and exclude all other things. Sometimes you need to focus on the big picture, on all the detail. On the forest rather than a tree.
If you are focusing on something that has made you angry, your body actually experiences the anger physiologically – by contracting muscles, holding your breath, increasing your heartbeat, and losing the ability to respond quickly. The result – your performance level decreases.
If you are experiencing a crisis situation or a problem, there is a tendency to focus upon the crisis – to continue to think about the problem – rather than focusing upon possible solutions. While riding a bike, have you ever noticed that you have a tendency to go where you look? My wife and I used to go mountain biking a lot. Real mountain biking, down the trails of mountains in Colorado and Utah. If you focus on the rocks, guess where you will have a tendency to go? Toward the rocks, of course!
While teaching various types of driving including high performance, we use a term at MasterDrive we call “potholism.” Basically it means that if you are focused on the pothole, you are probably going to veer toward the pothole and hit it. Why? Because that is the information going into your brain, and that is WHAT is being processed. Therefore the brain directs the muscles of the arms (subconsciously) to steer the car or the bike toward the pothole. The brain actually thinks that is what you want to do, since that is what you are focused on.
Why do we have a tendency to do this? Because the brain cannot – NOT – think about something. If I asked you not to think about a pink elephant, what did you think about? You simply cannot NOT think about a pink elephant. The brain does NOT understand NOT. So you have to have a strategy.
That is, you CAN choose … choose … to think about something else, to think about a different thought or another object. It would be great if we all could be trained to do this subconsciously, to do it automatically, without having to think about it.
You can train someone to focus on the solution, rather than the problem. How important do you think this could be to a high school or college quarterback, who has just thrown two interceptions? He is now focused on NOT throwing another interception. But, as we have said, the brain does not understand NOT, so he is actually focused on “throwing an interception.” He is literally focused upon the defenders, and will very often throw the ball to the defender.
In this situation, I would wager heavily that the coach said something like, “Forget about the interceptions, and just go back out there and throw the ball.” Which sounds like it would be the right thing to do. But does he need a better strategy?
So focus is not just a visual thing – or a kinesthetic thing – or an auditory thing – it can also be a mental thing. You can focus upon a thought of a past situation in which you have succeeded, or one in which you have failed. You can focus your thought upon a past experience that was very traumatic; one in which you may have made a mistake, or been injured. And you can actually experience that thought at either the conscious and/or subconscious level. The ability to focus will directly impact the level and quality of your performance in any specific situation in the future.
The Skill of Multi-Tasking
Multi-Tasking is a very special skill that is important in our ability to perform just about everything we do at a higher level. It is, however, a challenge to many kids who are playing sports, an instrument or driving a car.
Multi-tasking is especially important to most kids who have been defined with some specific learning difficulties.
Multi-tasking is the execution by a single processing unit of two or more programs at once, either by simultaneous operation or by rapid alternation between the programs.
This is a good basic definition of multi-tasking as it relates to a human being. The brain has tremendous potential as a “processing unit” – IF we give it the software to process.
Let’s look at some of the areas of multi-tasking.
If we look at attention as the information being processed, then alternating attention is running one program based upon a need or the priority of the moment. And then choosing to run an alternating program, based upon that need for the moment.
Alternating attention gives the ability to actually choose based upon importance. That is, I may choose to give more weight or importance to one thing at that moment, and then based upon a change I may choose to give more “attention” to something else.
In a dynamic environment where things, by definition, are changing rapidly, the information can have a tendency to be chaotic without having a program for alternating attention. If the person has good programming for alternating attention, he will probably make better decisions.
Primary or Specific Attention vs. Divided or Broad Attention
Primary Attention is focusing upon a specific thing or specific activity. For example, while I am driving on a highway, I might be focused upon the back of the car immediately in front of me. Therefore I have very little awareness of what else is happening around me or further down the road in front of me. If I am playing soccer and focused upon the goalie, I am probably going to have a tendency to kick the ball “toward” where the goalie is, rather than “where the goalie isn’t.”
Divided or Broad Attention is the ability to put into my brain only the pertinent information needed – (i.e., the information that is needed or selected to make a good decision). The ability of a quarterback or a middle linebacker to be able to see the whole field is constantly discussed in sports. A singer who is accompanying himself with a guitar uses Divided or Broad Attention to deliver a great performance.
The problem is – you don’t get a quarterback or a middle linebacker or a singer to develop this ability by talking about it. Each person must develop a program to do both – subconsciously.
Our “rules” in regard to processing and attention:
Rule #1: To perform at a higher level, you must develop the ability to switch back and forth between the two areas of attention. The only way you can do this quickly is for the process to be “programmed.”
Rule #2: You must be able to process a large portion of the activity at the subconscious level – as a chunk of information – or in fact, you will not be able to multi-task. It is virtually impossible to be able to “multi-task” (i.e., do multiple processing and execution) at the “conscious” level. At the conscious level you can only receive “feedback,” think about it (process it), and then hope that the execution is in time. And you will find it very difficult to do more than one thing at a time.
Rule #3: You may be able to do “alternating” attention at the conscious level, but you will not be able to perform either activity at the maximum level – because one cannot do multi-tasking at the conscious level.
In the seminars that I conduct for race drivers, this is a very important concept for drivers to understand. It is important for them to develop some strategies to be able to do as many things at the subconscious level as possible. As you can easily understand – you simply cannot do all the things that are necessary to drive a car at maximum speed, or play tennis, or ski race, and think about it. In sports we often hear about an athlete “thinking” too much, but typically do not connect the process with the problem.
As an example, look at the unique ability of the hockey legend Wayne Gretsky to score goals at a level not attained by others. His ability to score goals wasn’t just “luck.” It was a combination of the skill to put the puck where he wanted to put it (a psychomotor skill) accompanied by the programmed ability to focus (visually) upon where the goalie or other defensive players “weren’t” at that moment – or more accurately, where they “weren’t” going to be in about a tenth of a second.
So how do you develop this skill to “look” for the openings rather than the obstacles? You learn to develop a skill by doing it repeatedly. Enough repetitions of doing the right things will result in you doing them automatically – i.e., without having to think about it.
I’ve included some exercises to develop higher level visual tracking. These exercises are very important. As a coach, you can help develop and strengthen an athlete’s ability by being creative in the use of these exercises. For example: practice running plays with your quarterback without a ball in their hands, with only ONE objective. That specific objective is to just observe (in a dynamic environment where everything is changing and moving) exactly what other players are doing, where they are located, who is open and by how much, or anticipating when they will be in the open. And then have them “debrief” to you about what was happening and where everyone was located.
For kids with learning difficulties, the primary challenge is that they (probably) have not worked at developing their brain’s multi-tasking programming. Since they don’t multi-task very well, we just accept that as a “status quo.” It is something they just don’t do very well. Because they have not had an opportunity to do activities in which they multi-task, or practice multi-tasking, they don’t have the programming to do so. Most kids can develop the ability to do this, IF you work with them to develop the programming of each activity – to be able to do more and more at the subconscious level.
Let’s look at multi-tasking as a LEARNED skill. Everyone has an ability to develop the skill – to some level. Obviously, it is easier for some people than for others. But I believe that the great performers have (somehow) developed the skill of multi-tasking, and that is a part of why they function at a higher level. They did not get that programming in their DNA. In many cases, they may have done this accidentally and not with intention.
There are a few great coaches and educators who actually work with their kids on multi-tasking. They have developed some strategies to actually change the performance of their kids, rather than just talk about it. My voice educator in college was an expert in getting the muscles of the head and neck and chest to work together to do the things necessary to produce a great vocal sound. He just didn’t refer to it as multi-tasking.
Exercises and Strategies for Visual Processing
The following are several proactive visual exercises that I recommend. These are just a few of the most important and effective exercises that I use. Some of these exercises are both diagnostic and therapeutic. That is, you can use them to define some potential problem areas; and you can use the same exercise to make some changes.
If you observe some specific difficulties with a child you are working with, I would also recommend that you find a good sports vision therapist or an ophthalmologist that practices vision therapy (many do not). Professional people who specialize in vision therapy are often difficult to find.
The ability of the eyes to track through vision fields is very important to the quality of visual input to the brain. Let me attempt to give a clear understanding of the process from a functional perspective. For a Visual Tracking Example, please view the following video.
Many kids today have major difficulty in visual tracking, and therefore some issues in regard to visual spatial awareness. This is especially true for kids diagnosed with ADHD, Sensory Integration Difficulty, and other kids defined by their learning difficulties.
After working with so many kids who have difficulty with visual tracking, I have reached the conclusion that many of these kids, who have been defined as having a challenge with focus, actually have a difficulty with visual spatial awareness (due in a large part with having difficulty with visual tracking).
The result is perceived as “an inability to focus.” Many of these kids spend a lot of time playing computer games, and they get really good. So it may not necessarily be a difficulty in being able to focus. You have to have the ability to maintain focus to play these games! And you don’t necessarily need to have good visual tracking to play these games well. The reason – the information is in a very small visual field. In addition, the muscles used to track are not being exercised because the vision field is so small. Net result – in many cases – they can’t visually track. They don’t know it, and no one else is aware of it. Visual tracking has not been diagnosed as a cause of their problem. They don’t “seem” to have a problem.
After observing tracking with the marker, we will then have a person do a “Lazy 8” exercise. This is a standard exercise used in Educational Kinesiology strategies. This exercise is both diagnostic and therapeutic.
Lazy 8 Exercise
For video of the exercise, please view the following.
To help the person get started, especially if they are having some difficulty with tracing the hand through the 8 and visually tracking the thumbnail, hold their wrist with your thumb and first finger, and help them start the 8 pattern. Hold their wrist since many young people are simply not comfortable if you hold their hand.
If you are not observing good and complete tracking with the eyes, that person will probably have extreme difficulty with visual spatial awareness, especially in a dynamic environment. This will often cause a limited level of performance – because of the limited quality of visual information going into the brain. However, after several repetitions, you will probably notice substantial improvement.
Reading, writing, and comprehension skills improve as the physical mechanics of these tasks become easier and attention can now be focused on mental activity. Good tracking in this exercise will improve an individual’s ability to track movement in the periphery of vision, especially important for activities in sports.
Just doing this exercise a few times for a few minutes will not “reprogram” to the level needed for long term change. Depending upon the actual results, we often recommend that the person do the exercises for 5 to 10 minutes, 3 or 4 times per day. In a 15 to 30 day period, most people (who have had a difficulty tracking) will become substantially better at tracking. Doing this exercise daily may be something they will need to do for the rest of their lives.
Many kids with ADHD and most kids with Asperger’s or Autism, among other conditions, will have moderate to extreme difficulty with visual tracking. However, it is seldom diagnosed as a cause in regard to the functional difficulties for these kids. With this exercise alone, you may notice a big change in the overall performance of many kids.
A few years ago, I heard a television interview with a nationally recognized middle linebacker for a ranked college football team. The interviewer made a statement that the linebacker was known for his ability to “see the whole field” and locate where everyone was moving. He asked him how he learned to do that. The linebacker told him, “Well, my high school coach taught me how to do this exercise … (and he demonstrated the Lazy 8 exercise) … and it has helped me to see the whole field.”
For a coach of any sport, this should be something you do with every member of your team. Educators and parents can use this exercise to help their kids with reading, writing and comprehension skills.
I use this exercise to work with all athletes. And also with kids who have learning difficulties, people who have had a brain injury, and many other situations. It will make a big difference in regard to performance.
I usually have a person start the exercise at a medium pace, then change to very slow, then go back to a medium pace, and then to a very fast pace with a slightly smaller pattern.
Visual Processing Exercise
A few years ago, I worked with a young race driver who was stepping up through a preparatory racing series. He was very good when we started, but we worked on several specific objectives to further enhance some skills and quick decision making. When we originally started doing this Visual Processing Exercise, he was fairly quick, but not really at a level to compete at the highest racing level.
After working with him over several months, his responses became so quick that you would have thought he was “reading my mind” and responding before I even moved my hand. He actually became that quick! He started making responses to any changes in the handling of the car immediately.
Just to give you a little motivation, this young man won the Formula Atlantic Championship that year. And a few years later this driver graduated into Indy Cars, and won the Indy 500. His name is Buddy Rice. There are many other Formula Mazda, Formula Atlantic, NASCAR, Sports Car, and Indy Car drivers with whom I have worked and used this exercise. It is very effective with everyone! Most of them continue doing the exercise as a part of their warm-up ritual years later! Why? Because it works.
If you are a coach, this exercise should be used with each of your players. Response and reaction quickness is important for everyone. If a child with a learning difficulty can increase quickness and response, it will make a massive change in his or her performance.
The purpose of this exercise is to help increase the speed of processing visual information, originally for race drivers. It may seem a little like the children’s game of “patty cake,” but it is done with a very specific intention to help speed up the processing time of stimuli, and the response time in terms of the brain’s communication to the muscles of the body.
A good metaphor would be to perceive this as downloading into your brain a new super-fast processor. Would it help the performance of your computer to update the processor with the most current technology? How important would this new processor be to a tennis player? Or a downhill ski racer? Or a pianist? Or a child who has been defined as “slow”?
Let me underline, this is a major issue with many kids who have been defined with a learning difficulty, or have difficulty with maintaining focus and concentration and many other labels that kids can get. This exercise alone can substantially impact the ability of a child to process information and respond.
In addition, as we get older, our “processor” seems to begin to slow down. We perceive that an older person’s reaction time will slow, and we usually just accept that as a fact of life – he is just getting older. I have worked with hundreds of people over the age of 60, and it is amazing how much reaction can be increased in a very short period of time. We can actually measure it objectively since we have the equipment to measure the improvement in time.
The quality of peripheral visual information is also very important to performance. Peripheral information is the visual information that you get from all other areas around your central vision acuity, and includes each side as well as up and down. Some people have difficulties in receiving quality peripheral information. Frequently with kids, that is because they aren’t doing as many activities that allow for the development and programming of peripheral vision. So much time is spent in front of the computer, or doing computer games at a fixed distance, that many kids are not processing as much peripheral visual information.
Place both hands together with arms extended in front of you, with the thumbs pointed up. Pick a specific point in front of you and focus on that point. Continue to focus on that point, while very slowly moving your arms in opposite directions (horizontally) to each side until you can no longer see your thumbs. That should be at approximately 180 degrees to your body. It may help you to maintain focus by slowly “wiggling” your thumbs as you are doing the exercise. The objective is to notice the thumbs with your peripheral vision while using central vision acuity to focus on the point. Return the arms to the original position and repeat the exercise.
You can also do a vertical stretch by moving the arms in a vertical plane, with one arm going up and one going down. You will note that obviously the eyebrow will limit the upper vision plane.
Many people have difficulty with the eye muscle’s ability to control the lens – to be able to adjust to distances quickly and easily. This becomes pretty obvious for most people as they reach the age of about 40 to 42 years old. Suddenly, they have difficulty reading. Or their vision may be acceptable while reading, but they have difficulty seeing at far distances. Today, many kids are experiencing this same difficulty, long before the age of 40.
We are finding that more and more young people have difficulty with their eyes (even though they are young) being flexible enough to quickly react to get enough clarity of detail at various distances. That is, if the eyes can almost instantaneously flex the lens so that they can see with clarity at whatever distance – up close, middle distance, or far distance – they function at a much higher level. However, if the flex is slow, function becomes a major challenge because the visual information is distorted.
The best metaphor for this is to look at the process as a slide projector with “automatic focus.” Do you remember those slide projectors – before we had power point presentations? (A lot of young people won’t know even know what I am talking about, so let me explain.) You would change a slide, and the lens of the projector would go something like … bzzzzzzz. And it would take a half a second or so to adjust the lens to bring the slide into focus. Automatic focus was “state of the art” at one time, believe it or not. Would it be better if the adjustment of the lens of the eyes could be made in half the time? Or almost instantaneously? The quality of depth perception and closure speed is important in almost every activity.
Many young people can do this very well, and it would not seem to be a problem. But what if you could help them increase their ability to flex their vision a few fractions of a second quicker? Especially for an athlete. This exercise can help their tennis game or their defensive abilities in baseball. Or their batting average.
They can get more accurate information more quickly. What would another 50 or 100 points on their batting average be worth in terms of a scholarship or as a professional athlete?
Strategies to Enhance Kinesthetic Sensory Input
We typically refer to kinesthetic sensory input in terms of “feel” or “tactile” information, and usually define tactile as what you feel in your fingertips. However, kinesthetic information is much more than just tactile. It is the ability to feel forces such as weight transfer, dynamics, balance, movement, and most important, the meaning of that movement. The ability to feel the amount of pressure of the fingers while playing a musical instrument is an example of fine motor skills for processing kinesthetic information.
Since kinesthetic information is a very important source of information that directly impacts overall function and performance of the human body, we need to place more emphasis on understanding the system. Especially for those of us who have a responsibility of coaching and teaching kids about performance.
Young people who have a learning difficulty, very often have challenges in regard to kinesthetic processing. We don’t typically recognize it as the source of a problem, because no one diagnosed that as a cause. Therefore, nothing is done to make a change.
It is important to understand the total systems involved, and to have some strategies on how these systems can be developed and improved.
The Proprioceptive System
The Proprioceptive System is one of the most remarkable processing systems in the body. Every parent, coach and educator should have a functional understanding of the proprioceptive system. And yet, outside of the medical profession, few people have any knowledge of the proprioceptive system or how to improve the function of the system.
The development of the proprioceptive system is critically important to any activity that has to do with movement and dynamics. This is frequently a cause for kids who have experienced learning difficulties.
The foundational dendrite programming (neuron patterning) of a baby occurs as the result of movement. A future capability to learn is very much dependent upon that foundational dendrite programming. If, for whatever reason, that foundational programming is limited, a child will experience limitations in regard to function and learning. This is the development of the foundational “software” upon which future learning will or will not be created.
“Typically, a newborn’s brain is only slightly organized, responding to sounds and to gravity, and ready to take in and react to the material world. Though we vary genetically, we all have basically the same immense potential. Given the proper amounts of nutrients, oxygen, stimulation, and freedom to move, we all design and redesign complex nervous systems – and think nothing of it. The inherent plasticity and capacity of our minds is awesome – and many people believe that as human beings we haven’t even begun to tap into the full mental potential available to us.”
– Dr. Carla Hannaford, Neurophysiologist
Author of Smart Moves
So how does one develop the proprioceptive system? Just like you develop any other programming in the body. By practice. By experiencing. By doing. By exercising the proprioceptors. Repetitions of doing various things that will teach the body the meaning of that information.
Within any sport or other activity, a coach, parent, or educator will need to be creative in defining ways to do this, based upon the specific activity. The important thing to remember is that this is learned or programmed through an experiential process.
In our Driving Camp program for teens – which is an intensive immersion into learning car control skills – one of the things that we believe is critically important for a teen driver to learn is the dynamic feel and limitations of a 4,000 or 5,000 pound vehicle in motion. Lecturing a teen about the possibility of losing control doesn’t do anything. They have to learn what that weight in motion means.
In the past, while working with ski racers, I have had them ski a practice course with one objective. To come back and tell me the quality and feel of the snow (or surface) around each gate on the course. As a result of doing this, they are totally focused on just feeling what is happening – just feeling what the surface, the topography, the line, feels like. And of course, by focusing on feeling, they are literally programming a higher level of software for interpreting the meaning of that information. They are getting this process more and more to the subconscious level.
Development of the Proprioceptive System
A huge impact upon the proprioceptive system is a higher level of integrating the right hemisphere of the brain to the left side of the body, and the left hemisphere of the brain to the right side of the body. Obviously, the opposite of this with unilateral function, is also true. If there is little Right Side/Left Side integration, there will be a negative impact on function and coordination. Fear, anger, doubt, etc., as we have said, will also (typically) disintegrate function.
As we know, the way we as human beings are built, the right hemisphere of the brain is “supposed” to control the left side of the body, and the left hemisphere of the brain is “supposed” to control the right side of the body. But for various reasons, many people don’t operate this way. They operate Right Side to Right Side, and Left Side to Left Side (what is referred to as Unilateral or Homolateral). Now – how do we know this? How can we tell what is happening?
Actually, you can watch someone walking and observe it immediately. If a person is walking with an excellent integrated movement of their body – with the right arm moving forward while the left leg is moving forward, and they are walking smoothly and rhythmically, you can pretty much bet that this person is very coordinated. (If you were playing softball and choosing sides, you would want to watch various people walk first and choose the ones who walk with an integrated movement. I am not kidding about this!)
Let’s say you watch some 6-year-old boy or girl walking, and you can just SEE how integrated their walk is. They are walking while rising and rolling off the balls of their feet, with a totally integrated movement. You just KNOW that this kid is going to be a pretty good athlete. They literally WALK like a great running back. Also, for kids who don’t walk in this integrated manner, you will know that they have and will continue to have a difficulty with integration and coordination. Unless someone does some work with this young person!
Over the years, I have developed a therapeutic strategy that I refer to as “Walking Therapy.” You will find it valuable to notice a person’s walk and the presentation of their body. Is their body tight with contracted muscles? Are their arms moving in a reciprocal rhythm with their legs? Is their posture straight, or is their head and shoulders drooped over? A child’s confidence and self-esteem, as well as fear and doubt, will often be revealed by their walk.
We have found that if a child can change their walk, their belief system about themselves will often begin to change. We have also found that if a kid becomes good at doing something well, their walk and overall presentation will begin to change. Now – which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Answer – Yes!
My wife and I travel a lot, and one of our favorite things is to sit in airports and watch people walk. When you get really good at this, it will tell you a lot about each person. I use this when I am working with a race driver or other athletes. Or in working with a child who has a functional difficulty, an adult who has had a brain injury, a senior citizen, etc. A person’s walk, and their overall presentation, says so very much about what is happening within them, as well as their functional abilities. It also says a world about their psychology, their belief system, confidence or lack of confidence. In fact, their whole personal identity.
The Vestibular Exercises will also impact the proprioceptive system. In addition to balance, the vestibular system deals with forces caused by movement, dynamics, and weight transfer. To be able to perform at a high level, you must be able to feel – to interpret – what that transfer of weight and dynamic forces mean.
The Vestibular System
The vestibular system is literally the gyroscope of the body. It is where the body processes information in regard to balance, sense of movement, and both static and dynamic equilibrium. Static equilibrium refers to the orientation of the body relative to gravity when you are standing still. Dynamic equilibrium, or balance, maintains body position in response to movement, such as walking, running (change of acceleration), turning (change of direction), slowing or stopping (change of deceleration), rotation, etc.
The core processor of the vestibular system is the inner ear. The group of tiny hairs suspended in a fluid, gives the brain information about what is happening in regard to balance and movement. But it is the brain that must have the programming to interpret the meaning of the movement!
The vestibular system of the body has such tremendous potential, and yet most of us have little or no understanding of the potential of the system, unless someone has experienced a problem such as a brain injury. Great athletes, circus acts, extreme athletes, gymnasts, etc., have developed the vestibular system to an ultimate (now referred to as extreme) level of performance.
We might notice the great “balance” that a particular running back has. But we just look at it as something special that he has, and not as something that can actually be improved upon or developed to a higher level.
These special performers may have been born with a propensity toward this level of function, but I can assure you they were not born with the system already developed. The system has developed to its current level by doing something. This is NOT a part of what is transferred through the DNA. It is a learned function!
Kids can develop a unique level of skills, IF someone with understanding and strategies along with a clear intention, works with them. Obviously, a gymnast and a dancer must develop the vestibular system in order to be competitive. A football player, a cyclist, a golfer, and a race driver also need to develop the system. The ability of the body to interpret information regarding balance and orientation of the body is critically important to performance in almost any activity.
Several years ago, I taught a good friend who had developed a large dance studio many of these concepts and exercises. She implemented all of them into her program, and experienced a totally new level of performance with her kids. This substantially changed the quality of her program.
Difficulty with balance and integration is very often a challenge with many kids who have been defined with learning difficulties and functional limitations. It is also an area where young people who have experienced a traumatic brain injury, even a minor TBI, experience these same challenges. Their sense of balance and the orientation of their body is confused. They need to do something to get it back. Time is the usual medical prescription. But these specific strategies and exercises are very effective in developing the vestibular system with intention.
In Eastern history, the importance of “centering” has been a primary strategy and objective for thousands of years. In the Western world, we are only recently beginning to even understand the concept of “centering.” We might be more familiar with the term “balance.” However, the concept of centering is much more than just the balance of the body. We know how fear can impact balance, but centering is about energy.
Centering is the ability of the body to literally take on additional dimensions of energy. Rather than just physical energy, it is a form of life force energy. It is very difficult to objectively define the cause, but you can surely observe what happens experientially.
Confidence can affect centering in a positive manner, as fear and doubt can affect it in a negative manner. In Tai Chi, before you begin the movements, it is very important to use a strategy to center the body and the mind because Tai Chi is all about the integration of the mind to the body. It is about flow of movement, and the flow of electro-magnetic energy through the body. For many of us in the “Western World” this is sometimes perceived as something “strange,” although all of these things can be documented and measured today.
My first experience with working in the areas of mind and energy was several years ago. I was asked to place my hand (palm up), while extending my arm to the top of another person’s shoulder. And then, the other person placed both hands near my elbow, and pushed down on my elbow. With two people of approximately the same strength, it is easy to push the other person’s elbow down.
Then I was asked to close my eyes and visualize my arm as being a fire hose, with water rushing through it and out of my fingers. When I had a good visualization, the other person pushed down on my elbow again. This time, however, it was much more difficult for them to push my elbow down. There is a BIG change in your “strength” – IF you are fairly good at visualizing. If you are realllllly good at visualizing, your arm takes on a totally different level of power! And, in fact, it is not by contracting more muscle. It is the result of a flow of energy.
One of the exercises that I do when working with a group of race drivers, other athletes and our coaches, is the following centering demonstration. I would suggest using the same example with kids.
Let’s talk about what happens in this process. As I said, in Tai Chi, the center point of the energy of the body is just below the navel. So the person is triggering the “Chi.” In addition, by touching the tongue at the forward roof of the mouth, there is an acupressure point that literally triggers integrated brain function. This is no longer a matter of opinion. It has been experienced in Eastern cultures for more than 3,000 years.
Most people can learn to do this very quickly, and they will also begin to achieve an intuitive understanding of handling stress – by centering. We will also be discussing the importance of breathing in another section. It would very much enhance this process to ask the person to slowly breathe in fully through the nostrils, and exhale slowly through the mouth. You will experience the substantial effect of centering.
Visual Processing and Kinesthetic Input
Visual Processing does have a large impact upon the quality of kinesthetic information, not just pure visual information. To demonstrate the importance of how visual information can impact kinesthetic processing, let me ask you to do something.
Stand with your arms extended in front of you, palms out, thumbs down. Place one wrist on top of the other (either is fine), interlace fingers, and fold your hands under and back toward your chest. Now, cross your ankles with one in front of the other. Rise up on your toes and hold for a few counts, and then back down with your feet flat. Then, rise up on your toes again, and this time close your eyes and see what happens. You will probably find it very challenging to maintain your balance because you lack visual input.
In addition, if you tilt your head to the right or left, for most people there will be a slight distortion of vision. Example: Focus on a point in front of you. Now, place your dominant hand in front of you with the thumb pointed up, still looking at the point. You should see “two” thumbs, although one will be dominant over the other. Now tilt your head to one side and then to the other. You will probably see the two thumbs rising and lowering depending upon which side you tilted your head. Of course, the thumbs are not moving. The movement is a visual distortion.
This is why Grand Prix motorcycle racers do not “lean” their head (with helmet) while they are going through a turn at a high rate of speed. Although their body is leaning, they actually tilt their head so that the head is as level and balanced as possible. Otherwise their vision is distorted, and the quality of visual information as it relates to balance is also distorted. This directly applies in other sports and activities. As an example, some amateur race car drivers develop a habit of leaning their head into turns; sometimes to fight the G forces in the race car. However, this will distort their visual processing at some level. It is a bad habit that they will need to reprogram in order to progress, and they will need to do this by literally practicing keeping their head straight!
Exercises for the Vestibular System
There are several types of small platforms that can be used for developing the vestibular system (for balance). Skiers often use these platforms to practice balance. Basically, it is a small circle or square with a “roll” or half curve on the bottom. You place both feet on the platform, and try to balance on the roll. It would be better to find a platform that is not too difficult at first, and then graduate to something more difficult. Otherwise, it can be frustrating at first, especially for a child who has some challenges.
You can also use a “helper” in the form of a long rod or 1 1/2 inch dowel, or shovel or rake handle. Holding it in your hands at waist level, use it to help you balance. I would recommend that you use this helper at first. (This is kind of like the helper used by a high-wire walker.)
You can use a simple 2” by 4” board, and set it with the 4” side up. And simply walk across the board. And then (with support of some type of the sides), turn the 2” side up, and walk across the board.
If a child does some “cross crawls” before working on the balance platform, it will help them tremendously.
The Cross Crawl Exercise
The following is a great exercise to use to work with kids. It is actually a great exercise for each of us as preparation for doing any activity. For race drivers or other athletes I work with, this exercise becomes a part of their “ritual” exercise in their preparation to perform, because it WILL integrate the right hemisphere of the brain to the left side of the body, and the left hemisphere of the brain to the right side of the body. The Cross Crawl Exercise is a basic exercise used in Educational Kinesiology.
The Cross Crawl activates both hemispheres of the brain simultaneously. It engages the brain for coordinating visual, auditory, and kinesthetic abilities, and will help to enhance the skills of listening, reading, writing, and memory. It is a very powerful exercise to integrate the hemispheres of the brain to the reciprocal side of the body, especially under stress and pressure.
The Cook’s Hook-Up is a passive exercise, but is very effective in integrating the hemispheres of the brain, as well as intersecting the electro-magnetic energy fields of the body. This exercise was developed and used by an electro-magnetic engineer by the name of Wayne Cook, for his daughter who had major learning and coordination challenges.
While standing bring one ankle (right or left) in front of the other. Then hold both arms extended in front of you, with palms facing “out” and thumbs pointed down. Cross one wrist over the other (either one on top) and interlace fingers. Bring your hands toward your chest, and carefully fold your hands under and move them next to your chest below your chin. As you inhale, touch the tip of your tongue against the¬ forward part of the roof of your mouth, slightly above the upper gums. Close your eyes, and rest in this posture, enjoying deep relaxation for four or five deep breaths.
You can also do this exercise while sitting; however, it is not as effective. It is an excellent exercise for someone who has difficulty with balance while standing.
While standing with your ankles still crossed, open your eyes and rise up onto your toes after you feel centered. Balance your weight on the balls of your feet rather than trying to force your balance by using the muscles of the feet or calves. Hold for 10 to 15 seconds. Be sure that you are placing the tip of the tongue onto the point in the roof of the mouth.
Uncross your legs, placing your feet slightly apart on the floor. Lightly join the fingertips of both hands together, as though you were enclosing a ball in your palms. Relax and use deep breathing for 20 to 30 seconds. Deep Breathing: inhale slowly through your nostrils, hold your breath for 3 or 4 counts, and then release your breath slowly through your lips. Repeat several times.
Visual Processing Exercise – for Psychomotor or Reaction Time
In sports, as well as many other activities in which we are involved, our reaction or response time is an important element. As a tennis player, how important is our immediate reaction to what the opposing player has just done? As a quarterback, how important is our ability to “read” a defense, to see where everyone on the opposing team is, to locate the receivers, and make a decision as to what to do? As a jazz musician, if you are creatively free-flowing in the moment based upon what others in the group are doing, how important is it to respond in real time?
What if you could evaluate a situation a tenth of a second quicker? Two tenths of a second quicker? And then, what if you could make the decision of how to respond a tenth or two tenths of a second sooner, telling your body exactly what to do and how to do it?
This is a psychomotor response. We need to understand that this is not accomplished by telling a child they need to be quicker. Just talking about it does not do anything!
What if we could work with a child with a learning or functional difficulty and actually “train” them to be able to process more quickly, and respond more quickly? The psychomotor response or reaction time with so many kids with functional difficulties is a large part of their challenge. Those kids may never develop the psychomotor response abilities of a professional basketball player, but they can (and do) substantially improve their response or reaction time.
Isolation of Sensory Input
Many young people have difficulty integrating sensory input into their brains. As we discussed earlier, this new syndrome is referred to as “Sensory Integration Difficulty.” It means that a person has difficulty in the interpretation or meaning of some form of sensory input. It can be any individual sensory input (visual, kinesthetic, auditory) or a combination of all of them. The result is a limitation of their function or performance because they cannot integrate sensory information.
The ability to increase the quality of each sensory input is also important in further developing the ability of a high functioning athlete. This development can take an athlete to a totally new level of personal performance.
We have found that one of the most effective ways to increase or enhance a specific sensory acuity is to “isolate” that specific sense, as much as possible. We discussed earlier that we sometimes have a teen driver who is having difficulty with “feeling” the dynamics of a car in motion. We have them sit in the passenger seat, close their eyes, and put their hands on the dashboard of the car. We will then drive them through a dynamic exercise, back and forth and with braking, so they can begin to feel the car’s motion. This experience will invariably give them more awareness of the dynamics.
With advanced students, we will put them in a car on our skid pad, with a blindfold shutting out all visual input, and put the car into a skid. Their objective is to bring the car back under control with only kinesthetic information – with no visual input. This is quite a challenge, but a very effective exercise to develop the feeling of the car’s dynamics.
Strategies to develop Focus and Multi-Tasking
Primary vs. Divided Attention
Focus your attention on a specific thing outside or in a room. Really focus totally, exclusively, upon that point. Now while still looking at that point, become aware of other things around that area in your peripheral vision. Refocus on the point, etc. And then notice all the sounds around you while focusing on the point. Become aware of all other things around you while noticing all the sounds in the area. Hold each one of them approximately 10 to 15 seconds.
You could also sit in a chair while reading a book, listening to music, and process all of the words of the music while working on understanding the words that you are reading. It is rather amazing what the brain can learn to do – IF – we actually work on the skills of multi-tasking.
I have found this type of exercise to be very effective in working with race drivers, ski racers, and other athletes. As an example, a race driver must have the ability to see what is happening on the track, and where s/he is located on the track. And they must at the same time be able to hear what the engine is doing. Are there any changes in rpm’s, potential “lugging” of the engine or is the engine running free, and are the tires making noise? They must be able to feel what the car is doing, and whether the car is balanced or is being stressed, etc. That is, the ability to be aware of all of the information is a part of multi-tasking, not just the execution. It is also important for a ski racer to be able to feel what the skis are doing, how the surface of the snow reacts and what the snow (or ice surface) sounds like, how the wind is going to impact balance, etc.
You cannot do any of these things very well at the conscious level.
So as a parent … or a coach … or an educator … be creative in developing some specific exercises to increase this skill with your kids!
Focused Concentration – An Exercise.
Close your eyes and begin to breathe fully and exhale slowly. After you feel very relaxed, imagine in your mind a 24 second clock, as on a basketball court. See the number 24 on the clock, and then start a countdown from 24, to … 23 … 22 … 21, etc., seeing in your mind the numbers change, until you reach 0. If at any time you lose focus upon the number or you think about something else, then stop and start over at 24. You will probably experience some difficulty doing this at first, but after a while you will be able to keep the focus longer.
A slight revision to this exercise: Start again, with the number 3. Let the number 3 flash into your mind at a rate of about once per second, a total of three times. Then the number 2, three times. Then the number 1, three times. Then repeat the sequence a few times.
Now see the number 10 in your mind, and count down very slowly 10 … 9 … 8 … until you get to 1. Continue to breathe deeply, exhaling slowly as you proceed. As you count down the numbers, feel yourself go to a deeper level of relaxation at each number. Actually feel yourself settle into your chair, feel your body add weight into the chair, with each descending number.
After you complete several repetitions of the total exercise, go back and do the 24 second clock again. You will probably find that it is much easier to remain focused than when you started.
After doing this exercise for awhile, you can then add an overall relaxed concentration portion of the exercise. Just focus entirely upon something you enjoy doing. If it is playing tennis, or the piano, or soccer, or whatever, let your mind be totally involved in the activity or upon the place. See what is happening. Feel what is happening. Hear what is happening. And then put it all in slow motion. In ultra-slow motion. Then back to normal speed. Then, for a little while, put it into fast motion. And then back to normal speed. Totally enjoy what you are doing. Connect to what you are doing and imagine that you are totally connected and feeling great about what you are able to do.
As you lead yourself or a student through this type of exercise, you will find that you are able to increase your focus on what you are doing. If you practice doing this, you will be more comfortable in leading your kids through this type of mental focus exercise. It WILL make a substantial difference to their ability to maintain focus and concentration.
There are very important strategies and exercises to do and practice that will enhance mental performance. That is not a question. The question is, why don’t we do more of these types of exercises? We all know that the mental part is important. I believe it’s because we aren’t comfortable with what we need to do. With more practice, you can become very good at this.
Successful golfers, tennis players, and other athletes use these strategies. It is no longer unusual to hear about someone meditating prior to the start of competition or practice, or doing visualization prior to a drive or a putt or a ski jump. It is expected that they are doing something to prepare their minds to perform. It has actually become the norm to see more and more people using this strategy. This strategy is going to become more and more important to the performance of kids in the future.
Psycho-physiology is a new field of study, and is built upon the effects that psychology and physiology have upon each other. In recent years medical science has started to identify and study the impact of the mind upon the body. If a person experiences a high level of fear, what happens to the muscles? What happens to breathing? When a child doubts that they can do something, we all know that the doubt will limit what the body can do.
For example, let’s tie the vestibular system to psychology in regard to function. I use this example with race drivers and other athletes that I work with, because it is a great metaphor to understand the effect of fear upon the body.
If I were to put an 8” by 10” board across the floor of this room, 50 feet long, would you have difficulty walking across it? Most of us would probably say that we could do that easily. But now, if we put it on top of two ladders, 15 feet from the floor, would you be able to do it? Maybe about half of the people would have difficulty doing it. In fact, unless there was a large financial reward as motivation, most people would not even attempt it. They would not want to risk falling 15 feet.
Now, if we placed it from the top of one 10 story building to the top of another 10 story building, would you walk across it? Would you even attempt to walk across it? Probably most of us would pass. But why? It was easy enough to walk across this same 8” by 10” board while it was on the floor.
Most of us would literally fall off if we tried. Even if we were offered a million dollars if we could do it! Why? Because fear disintegrates brain function. That is, fear at this level – fear of death, fear of falling, fear of gravity, fear of failing – impacts the function of the vestibular system, along with most of the other functional systems of the body!
So how big of an issue is fear in regard to function? Fear of falling? Fear of losing? Fear of making a fool out of yourself? Fear has a substantial impact on our psychology as well as our physiology.
As we enter into the element of Psychology, I am going to ask you to look very closely at the integration of the “psychology” with the “physiology.” How do the psychological happenings actually impact the physiological function of the body – positively and/or negatively?
The power of the mind directly impacts the physiological disintegration or integration and resulting performance of the body.
Continue to Chapter 3
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