Sunday, April 24, 2011

Crew Rowing and Repairing the Brain

I have just returned from Sacramento, California where I did a recertification for the Associate Trainers of Victor Services. It was very moving to reconnect with these skillful practitioners and experience how they had made Risking Connection their own and used it to transform their treatment programs.
While I was there I visited a local lake and saw some teenagers practicing crew racing, the sport with those long thin boats and many people rowing together. And it occurred to me that this might provide a useful metaphor for the task of healing the lower brain.

Imagine that you have been asked to coach a crew team. Although you have not done so before, you have seen the lovely boats slipping across the water as the coordinated rowers respond to the call of the leader. How hard could it be? So you agree.

Alas, when you first meet your team in action you find them to be much different from what you had envisioned. There they are, a bunch of rowers in a lovely boat on the water, with a separate boat calling out instructions. But, the leader sitting in the front is terrified, and keeps yelling: “Careful!!! We are going to drown! Oh no we are tipping over! Hold on!” and other such things. This constant stream of fear has all the rowers upset and disabled. Several are rowing frantically, but in different directions. Two have dropped their oars into the water and are sitting with their arms crossed. One is crying. The boat is turning in circles, lurching from side to side. The noise is so loud; no one can hear the instructions coming from the other boat.

(This is the disorganized brain. It results from early trauma and lack of attunement. No parts are working smoothly together, and the fear system is in full alert, drowning out all other input. Movement forward is impossible.)

As the new coach, what do you do? Do you tell them you will give them each $5 if they can do a better job and row from one end of the lake to the other? Or do you tell them that unless they row that distance successfully they will be on restriction for two weeks and not able to see their friends? Do you give them a lecture on how much better everything would be if they would just get it together and row smoothly?

(Our normal approaches to our children.)

I would suggest that the best coach would not start with rowing at all. He would start by doing lots of exercises on land. First, there would be activities to help the team members get to know each other and trust each other. These would start with easy things and gradually increase in difficulty. (Relationship forming) Then, he would begin having them experience physical challenges together. He would use all sort of rhythmic activities such as drumming together, dancing, playing ball to help them experience the feeling of being in sync and interacting smoothly with each other. Other games would increase their strength and confidence. Every activity would include elements of relying on each other, interacting with each other, helping each other to achieve success. When things didn’t go well they would develop a method for working them out. They would practice team coordination through carrying the boat together, lifting it up and putting it down, making turns on land while carrying it.

He would make sure they all knew how to swim.

The team would adopt a name, and begin a narrative of its journey from the beginnings to success. The team members would retell the story, always adding the day’s events, each night around a campfire.

Then, gradually, the team would return to the water. The challenges would be small at first. They would try regular rowboats in pairs. When they started the crew boats again they would be in shallow water. Each of them would practice leading the beat, the rhythm that coordinates them all, until they could feel it deep in their bodies and respond almost automatically. They would try rolling the boat and falling out until they felt confident they could handle any eventuality. This phase would take a long time.

(All the treatment activities of healing the brain.)

And then, the magical day would come when the team would get into the boat, row through the water together in a smooth and effective way. The youth in front would carry the beat. The team would respond in rhythm. The ideas from the second boat would be easily heard across the silent water. When a wave came, or it started to rain, or they had to make a turn, the team would laugh and solve the problem together.

(And thus the brain would become as powerful and skillful as it had always been meant to be.)


Kathleen Benckendorf said...

I actually took a rowing class last summer.

We introduced ourselves.
We practiced the rowing stroke on rowing machines on the ground, with instructions from our coach.
We received instruction on how to get the boats out of storage and into the water.
We were instructed in how to get the boats into the water.

Our coxswain, the person in the back, the one giving orders, the one in control, the only one who could see --- was an experienced rower and coxswain, while the rest of us were beginners. The coxswain had a microphone, and there were speakers by each seat in the boat, so all could hear.

There were 8 rowers. In the beginning, only two people rowed at a time. The back person of the pair was responsible for matching his timing with the front person. The other six "only" had to balance the boat. that is SO much more complicated than it sounds! Any slight shift causes a reaction elsewhere, and any changes in the post's balance make it more likely that one of the rowers will drag an oar and throw the boat further off-kilter.

We slowly worked up to four, then six, then all eight rowers - but each time we learned a new skill, we were back to only 2 or 4 rowers.

Each person also got opportunities to row in different positions in the boat - with either a port or starboard oar, and in the "front" or other positions.

Along with all of us in the boat, we also had a safety launch near us at all times - a motorized boat with megaphone and safety equipment.

I would say that the disorganized brain analogy is valid - only when the boat is disorganized, it is not balanced - and you do feel like it could tip - like it could be dangerous.

BTW - regular rowboats wouldn't help at all because regular rowboats are essentially self-balancing.

Oh, and - you need all 8 rowers or the boat is unbalanced - it's a very structured sport - the whole team has to show up, same time, prepared, ready to row, or you go in circles - or you don't go at all.

Hope this helps if you'd like to fine-tune the analogy! :-)

Patricia Wilcox, LCSW said...

Kathleen this is so awesome that you wrote this! I was actually going to seek out someone who knew something about crew rowing (as I obviously don't) to improve the analogy. Thank you so much for your contribution!