A balanced approach to sports

…balance is critical. Without balance, there is very little ‘game’ that a player can create.
— Dr. Jack Groppel

Poor balance is a common cause of injury, yet balance is often neglected by coaches and players alike during training. Much research has been completed, establishing a strong relationship between balance ability and sport injury risk. Beyond injury risk, the relationship between balance ability and sports can also be seen in athletic performance.

anatomy trains

Studies show that gymnasts tend to have the best balance. They were followed by soccer players, swimmers, and basketball players. In some cases, elite athletes were found to have superior balance ability compared to non-elite athletes in sports such as golf and football. There are also performance measures you may not immediately relate to balance. Balance ability was shown to be significantly related to rifle shooting accuracy, archery shooting accuracy and ice hockey maximum skating speed.

When asked to discuss the issue of balance as it relates to playing better tennis, Dr. Jack Groppel, co-founder of the Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute, replied that “…balance is critical. Without balance, there is very little ‘game’ that a player can create. Yes, you can hit shots ‘off-balance’, but you don’t want your game to depend on off-balance mechanics.”

Prevent Sports Injury – Find Your Center

Balance is the meeting ground of multiple body systems including the vestibular, visual and somatosensory systems. These systems work together to provide rapid, continuous sensory input to your brain about your body’s positioning. Based on this, your brain executes smooth and coordinate neuromusclar actions to maintain your balance. Training all these systems in unison is necessary to strengthen the body’s natural ability to adapt to internal and external disturbances.

Balance exercises focus on either static or dynamic balance, both of which rely on controlling the body’s center of gravity (CoG). Your CoG is the most concentrated point of body mass where gravity acts and can function as a pivot point for the body to move around to maintain balance.

 Static balance requires the body to activate muscles isometrically to maintain a single position without motion of your CoG.

Static balance is necessary for things like standing vertically outside the 3 point line during a free throw in basketball, a tree pose in yoga or holding a handstand in competitive cheer.

Dynamic balance is your ability to control your CoG while moving through your environment with changes in posture and position.

Dynamic balance is required for basic activities like walking or riding a bike. It’s also required for very complex movements such as a gymnast performing acrobatics on a balance beam or a football player staying in motion for a touchdown after being hit off balance by a tackle.

Whether you are a pro athlete or enjoy recreational sport, how well you control your COG over your base of support is important for performing at your best and staying injury free.

Visual Integration is Key

While it takes the vestibular, visual and proprioceptive systems working together to maintain balance, typically the visual system provides a majority of the necessary information.

Your eyes do more than allow you to identify changes in the environment, they provide your brain with valuable information about your vertical positioning in space and balance overall. Constant visual analysis of the environment allows you to control your CoG, adjust and obtain a new position if necessary, and maintain appropriate body orientation. The connection between the visual system and balance cannot be over emphasized for injury prevention and top performance. During competition, athletes constantly assess their environment and react accordingly.

Visual challenge through head turning and gaze stabilization helps synchronize the systems necessary for balance and control.

The visual system responds to loading and can be trained in order to strengthen one’s sense of balance through integration of visual input. Proper integration is key to managing balance and preventing uncontrolled body movements in both static and dynamic situations. Incorporating visual challenge through head turning and gaze stabilization awakens the connection between the eyes, brain, and body to synchronize the systems necessary for balance and control.

Standing With Cervical Rotation

This static balance exercise helps your body become connected from within and grounded to the earth. It can be utilized as a warm-up or a stand-alone training exercise. The goal is to incorporate additional sensory challenge to promote your sense of balance. The WAV provides an added stability challenge while giving you a refined understanding of your body’s responses to the movement.

Align the body in neutral, forming a connection between the body and the earth.

Align the body in neutral, forming a connection between the body and the earth.

Step  1

  1. Stand with feet hip with apart and feel grounded through the feet.

  2. Hold the WAV with an underhand grip equidistant from the center logo, elbows bent.

  3. Find balance through the body and the WAV while gazing directly ahead with the neck in a neutral position.

Provide the visual system with variable stimuli through cervical motion.

Provide the visual system with variable stimuli through cervical motion.

Step 2

  1. Rotate your head towards the right, allowing your gaze the travel with you. Pause here and stabilize your gaze, connecting your visual system to the body.

  2. Return to center and reset the body.

  3. Repeat to the left.

  • What am I doing?

Providing the visual system with variable stimuli through cervical motion.

Channeling the connection between the eyes, brain, and body to maintain a static position.

  • What am I mindful of?

Am I maintaining a neutral spine and pelvis?

Does my weight feel equal between the right and left foot?

Does my body shift and lose balance when turning my head one way or the other?

Is the motion smooth and controlled?

Am I able to breathe throughout the motion?

Visualization and Variation

Was that challenging or a simple warm-up? This move can be repeated at varying speeds of cervical rotation, adapted for a single-limb challenge or brought down into a half-kneeling position - the variations are limitless. This static balance exercise allows you to connect your eyes with your body and become more mindful of how your visual integration is impacting your balance. 

References for the importance of mind-body connection, balance, and vision can be found here:

  1. C. Hrysomallis, Balance Ability and Athletic Performance, Institute of Sport, Exercise and Active Living, Victoria University; 2010.
  2. H. Minoonejad, A.H. Barati, H. Naderifar, B.Heidari, A.S.Kazemi, A.Lashay, Effect of four weeks of ocular-motor exercises on dynamic visual acuity and stability limit of female basketball players. Gait & Posture, Volume 73, September 2019: 286-290.
  3. O. Faude, R. Rössler, E. J. Petushek, R. Roth, L. Zahner, L. Donath, Neuromuscular Adaptations to Multimodal Injury Prevention Programs in Youth Sports: A Systematic Review with Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Frontiers in Physiology. 2017; 8: 791.

Lindsay is part of the movement team for WAV training. As a top althete and Doctor of Physcial Therapy she integrates the brain-body approach with her passion to help althetes avoid injury and achieve top performance.

Want to know more about using the WAV for athletic taining and sports rehabilitation? Contact us for more information about our sensory-based training approach.