It's All About Balance
By Dr. Greg Rose, TPI Doctor of Chiropractic
Our bodies use three internal control systems to help maintain balance (and thus stability) throughout any athletic movement. These three centers are our eyes, our ears, and our nervous system. In the best athletes in the world, these three systems function together to supply tons of information from their surroundings and their bodies to their brains, so their muscles and joints can make appropriate adjustments for proper balance. This system of balance is a very powerful and accurate control mechanism, unless the channel of communication between any of these three internal control systems is broken or disrupted.
The eyes are one of the most important sources of information for our brains. Information on subtle changes in terrain and upcoming obstacles allows our brains to make appropriate adjustments in our body's posture and muscle tone and allow us to maintain perfect balance and rhythm. Just knowing which way is up and which way is down is something our eyes supply to our brains every second they are open.
If you want to see how important your visual system is to balance, close your eyes and stand on one leg. Not so easy to stand upright any more is it? If you feel that your vision may be affecting your balance, you need to get your eyes evaluated by a vision specialist.
The inner ear has fluid deep inside that acts like a level used in construction. When our heads move from side to side, so does the fluid. This shift in fluid stimulates tiny hairs found in the ear, which in turn tell our brains important information on position and orientation of our head with respect to the ground. Once again, we are getting more vital information from our body, which the brain uses to help maintain good balance. This is called your vestibular system.
To see how important your inner ear is to overall balance, try standing on one leg again, but this time tilt you head from side to side. Orientation becomes a challenge once again. If you have ever experienced vertigo or dizziness from an inner ear infection, this system has been temporarily shut down or the brain is getting poor information due to inflammation in the inner ear. This is why many athletes benefit from stabilizing their head during their sport (golf is an example) and why a championship boxer can knock you off your feet with a sudden punch to the head.
The last system our body uses to maintain balance is our nervous system. For example, go ahead and put your hand behind your back. Now, do you know that your hand is behind your back? Of course you do! You don't have to look or use a mirror to know that your hand is behind your back, you can feel it.
The joints in your hands and fingers all have tiny nerve endings and special receptors called proprioceptors that act as your bodies own internal GPS system. We know our hand is behind our back because those proprioceptors are telling our brains the exact position and orientation of our body parts every millisecond of our lives. This is what I call our "Feel Balance".
It is this feel or kinesthetic awareness that allows athletes to control balance, timing, rhythm, and feel. This feel balance is what the best of best have developed so well. Players like Roger Federer, Kobe Bryant, and Tiger Woods all seem to have unbelievable touch and feel. This all begins with their completely balanced nervous system. The bad news is that these receptors are very susceptible to damage with injury or disuse. For example, you might notice that is was harder for you to stand on one leg verses the other. This is potentially due to an old sprained ankle or damaged knee that also has sustained damage to the proprioceptors in that area. The good news is, these receptors can easily be retrained or repaired with proper exercises.
We refer to these exercises as proprioceptive retraining exercises. These exercises involve the athlete performing a familiar exercise in an unstable environment. Like a lunge onto an Airex Pad, instead of a stable floor. Or a horizontal chop while sitting on a stability ball with only one leg on the ground.
Unstable environments can be created with any of the following training tools: stability balls, foam rollers, Airex Balance Pads, Bosu Balance Trainers, PB Disc Pillows, and slide boards. I like to alternate devices on each training session with an athlete, to make sure we challenge all three balance centers. I can not over emphasize the power of developing these three balance centers on every athlete. Good Luck!