Jan 29, 2015The Balance Challenge
By Peter Twist
Consider a high-speed collision-oriented athlete relying on movement mechanics, whose weight is supported only by a thin skate blade while navigating a slippery surface. Visualize a pro golfer driving a ball over 350 yards, a downhill skier blasting over icy terrain, a mountain biker riding over rocks and roots, or a Major League Baseball player making a spectacular diving catch. One of the movement skills that each of these athletes relies on for optimum performance is balance, which leads to one question: Why hasn’t every level of athlete development embraced structured balance training?
Perhaps it’s because not every strength and conditioning coach understands that balance can be taught. Balance training overloads the ‘software’ that muscles rely on to detect, read, and process mechanical adjustments. We can teach this software to compute accurate responses and command the muscles to get the job done the right way. This system of mini-brains sensing shifts in body position and muscles reacting with corrective actions helps develop exceptional proprioception.
Dynamic sport participation requires stability, which serves as the resistance to the disruption of equilibrium. Athletes can improve their ability to withstand body checks, incidental body contact, force absorption, and power production by performing balance training.
During tight turns or high-speed maneuvers, a well-balanced athlete will be able to regain their balance after momentarily losing body control or having their mechanics break down, rather than falling. With training, mini brain sensors become more sensitive, identifying deviations sooner, and the information loop from sensor to brain and back to the muscles becomes shorter. Therefore, the information is processed quicker and response accuracy is improved. The muscles are given precise and accurate instructions appropriate to the sport challenge.
Sport features speed and impact played out on an uneven terrain, making falls a given and rapid body adjustments a requirement for success. A highly trained balance system is needed to give athletes the ability to react quicker to unpredictable events and keep them on their feet.
Balance for Strength: The perfect position for an athlete to apply optimal power is the same as their perfect position of balance. An athlete needs whole-body stability to be injury free. With balance training, athletes can automatically assume a more stable position before applying or absorbing force.
Balance for Movement: A player who hopes to improve acceleration must first work on deceleration and mechanics in order to achieve perfect transitional balance. Stopping under control in a perfect, balanced position decreases risk of injury and sets the athlete up for more proficient acceleration upon restart. In the stop and the start, transitional balance aims for proper weight distribution, while activating all of the deceleration muscles, and braking into a balanced position with the knees flexed and the center of gravity low and over the braking leg, along with an aggressive body lean. Essentially, this means athletes should decelerate into a position that lends itself to optimal starting mechanics.
Being in a proper balance position is also important to each enhance stride length, whether executing linear power strides, cross overs, lateral transitions, or explosive adjustments backwards. Achieving optimal balance on each stride will result in more movement per stride, while expending less energy–a powerful combination.
Balance for Reactive Agility: Balance teaches the muscles to react quicker and helps the body learn to make fast and automatic adjustments. High-speed reactive agility becomes increasingly critical as players move up to higher levels of competition. Each step up is accompanied by challenges of less time and space. Athletes have less time to make decisions, less time to cover a set amount of space, and less time to execute specific skills and movements. Opposing defenders are faster, more skilled, smarter, and better positioned–they get on their players sooner. This tighter competition space makes reactive agility an important asset.
The key rule in balance training is that you must be slightly out of balance to train balance. Single-leg jumping drills, partner pushing exercises, and accessories like stability balls and BOSUs fit in a sport balance program. They’re also fun to use because there are elements of play and athleticism. It is interesting to try and coordinate the body to succeed at a balance challenge. These challenges also force athletes to focus and think their way through an exercise. Conquering the balance challenge develops a body that is capable of linking the mind and the muscles–almost intuitively–to the point where the muscles quickly respond to the mind’s commands. Working hard, thinking sharp, and having fun equals a great workout!
Peter Twist, MSc BPE CSCS TSCC PTS is President of Twist Conditioning’s three divisions: franchised Sport Conditioning Centers, product wholesale, and the Twist Smart Muscle™ Coach Education program. To learn more about the Twist training methodologies, education, and equipment, visit: www.twistconditioning.com.