Proprioception in Tennis
Russell Gunner, C.A.T. (C)

Definition Proprioception: The body's ability to use nerve ending receptors in the muscles, joints, and ligaments (mechanoreceptors) to give feedback to the Central nervous system. This enables the body to make fine tuning adjustments to allow a desired movement to happen. An example of proprioception is the fine adjustments and correction the torso and lower legs make to balance on one leg with the eyes closed (no visual feedback).

How many times have I heard as a sports physiotherapist, "I was never the same in my tennis game after that injury I had 10 years ago" or "since my first sprained ankle I keep re-injuring it for no apparent reason".

Musculoskeletal injuries to the knee, ankle, and shoulder are very common in tennis. After restoring muscle and ligament integrity, a proprioceptive deficit is most likely to cause re-injury. Quite often in a rehab program the proprioceptive exercises are either ignored by the patient or not given at all.

The first thing we should understand is how injury affects the function of proprioception. When there is a soft tissue injury such as a sprained ankle, there is a significant amount of swelling and pain. Unfortunately these signs alter the information given by these mechanoreceptors. Despite the swelling and pain decreasing these messages may not correct themselves unless retrained with very sports specific movements.

As far as the game of tennis, increasing the proprioception will improve balance, agility, and of course injury prevention.

A proprioception program can take as little as 2 weeks to correct a condition but can take up to 6 weeks.
Here are a few sample ankle/knee proprioception exercises showing progression with each exercise. Please take note that these exercises should never be undertaken when suffering from an active injury unless supervised by a sports physiotherapist or athletic therapist.

Exercise #1
Standing on one foot, the opposite leg is straight. Swing the free leg backward and forward with full force without touching the ground. Arms at shoulder height, straight and in front of the body. 3-5X

Exercise #2
Standing one foot, the opposite leg is not touching the ground and is flexed at 90 degrees
With eyes closed (be careful with this one and have something close by to support if balance is lost!)3-5X each side holding 20 seconds

Exercise #3
Forward/Backward jumps; Starting position: feet together, Jump forward landing on the injured foot. Maintaining that position, (with no wobbles!) jump backward landing on the opposite foot. 30X This exercise can be done side to side as well

With a gradual improvement in proprioception, there is a significant improvement in the agility and reaction on the court. Have a great season!