Proprioception training: How to make sure you don't fall when you play sports

In most sports, athletes have to act quickly and react to immediate changes within the game. If your body isn't trained to manage these reactive changes, you may be setting yourself up for injury.
Your body is a complicated machine, with muscles, tendons and bones working together to co-ordinate certain movements. To be successful and pain-free, all sports require synchronization of all these body parts to work in sequence.

The perfect Tiger Woods golf swing requires his legs, torso and upper body to work together and to contract in a certain order. If something's out of synch, the ball's liable to land on either side of the fairway, deep in the rough.

We may have a basic understanding of how the body works as one, but the tough part is trying to train it to make you a better all-around player in your particular sport.

All muscles will help produce movement, but a few specialize in synchronizing the balance in the body. Others stabilize the spine and hold it in a safe, neutral position. Still others contract when necessary to help hold your balance due to a loss in co-ordination. You need to teach your body to help maintain your balance, co-ordinate, and contract all together as one. This is when training must become very specific to you and your sport. If your trainer does not focus on this, you might want to look elsewhere.

The problem with your typical strength-training program (besides staying motivated) is that it often involves a machine that only isolates one particular muscle group. These machines often deal with a straight-ahead movement — something that doesn't happen that often in most sports. This can increase your risk of injury and can also limit your performance on the court or the ice.

Balance training is not just critical for someone wanting to avoid being checked in front of the net. It's also important for anyone who's ever fallen off a step or slipped on a patch of ice. It's in the everyday stuff that our strength and balance are put to the test. If you do a few simple exercises to work on this, you may reduce your risk of becoming a new patient in my office.

All of this technical detail is not as difficult to understand as you might think. It is actually called proprioception, and we do it every day.

I have come up with great way for my patients to do this daily without the inconvenience of hitting the gym. As your dentist will tell you, you need brush your teeth twice daily for two minutes for good oral health. While brushing your teeth, try standing on one foot the whole time without touching anything to help you balance. Do your left foot in the morning and right foot at night. Just doing this once a day on each foot can make a huge difference and maybe avoid those nasty ankle or knee sprains.

Training with stability balls and balance boards can take you to the next level and build your body strength together as a unit. These tools produce improvements that support dynamic athletic movements such as quick stops and starts — or cutting around that lineman to make it into the end zone. This type of advanced proprioception training can significantly assist in improving your performance and reducing the risk of injuries.

Hockey is one of the most volatile, reactive sports. To make things worse, it's played on ice, with full contact. Balance and stability are obviously key components of this sport and performing the movements in their particular sequence is essential.

Peter Twist, former NHL strength and conditioning coach of the Vancouver Canucks, is one of the most highly respected trainers in this field. He has come up with several key concepts for hockey players. His advanced exercises are widely used and accepted in virtually every high performance gym. He focuses on this proprioception topic throughout his books and training sessions with the understanding of their importance in hockey.

The best thing about balance training is that it is fun and can be made sport specific. Using a stability ball or balance board can be extremely challenging. Standing exercises can be done on a couple of Bosu balls. These balls are a kind of combination balance board and stability ball. Two people — each standing on one of these balls — can do wonders for their core muscles simply by tossing a ball back and forth.

My favorite experience was a couple years ago treating a young quarterback with a sprained knee, and a receiver with a sprained ankle. The game I came up with was throwing the football back and forth while standing on one foot. The first one to lose their balance and fall had to do 5 push-ups. The kids did this for about 30 minutes without realizing they were actually exercising. It was also pretty entertaining for the rest of the patients.

Trying different exercises during your sports season keeps your training program fresh and interesting. Proprioceptive training just adds to that integral program that is needed to increase your functional strength before and during the season.