Oct 31, 2007

To See or Not to See...

Written for SportsVision Magazine Vol.1 No.3
by Chris Ecklund, MA, CSCS

In the past couple pieces I have focused primarily on what happens when an athlete sees better, sooner, more, etc. as well as how to improve those capacities. This issue we’re going to take a slightly different slant on vision…or lack thereof: how the lack of vision can be helpful to an athlete.

I know, I know. You’re probably thinking, “He’s just taking us down this road to make it appear like he’s going to tell us something that’s fantastically counterintuitive.” And, if you are thinking that, I would have to tell you…you’re right.

Balance and stability are things I constantly work on with all of my athletes (and clients in general). I don’t care what sport you play or what activities you do (or if you primarily engage in power walking for your activity like my mother does), balance is important. The ability of an athlete or individual to be kinesthetically aware (know where his/her body is in space) is extremely important. The way I see it, the better an athlete knows and can feel where his/her body is in space, the better the application of force, and the better the application of force, the better the outcome is with less chance for injury. That’s a pretty simplistic approach, but I’ve found it to be quite successful.

Case in point. I had an athlete a couple years ago who was a sophomore basketball player playing on the varsity basketball team. He came to me about a month before the end of season and asked me to help him improve his vertical jump. Now, for those of you who haven’t heard this before…the end of the season is not the time for improving power. And to make the issue worse, this sophomore was (though a great little player) still quite physically underdeveloped after his growth spurts left him tall and lanky. So, my plan was simple. I told him we’re not going to work on improving power, that needs to be done in the off season. We’re going to work on balance, stability, and jumping mechanics. And that’s what we did. We worked on single leg balance with a good hip load and knee-toe alignment. We worked on single leg hopping and sticking the landing. And we worked on low level double leg jumping and landing on balance. What happened? Two inches added to his vertical in one month. To be honest, I was a little surprised. But hopefully my point is, in part, exemplified. Yet in case it’s not, let’s go a little further.

One particular drill I work up to with my clients is something I call Balance Triangles. It’s a ¼ squat, single leg, eyes closed balance for time with the other foot in various positions. I am constantly amazed at how often my clients are surprised that this is more difficult than with their eyes open. Of course it’s harder. You can’t see! But why does that make it harder? Vision is one of a number of tools our bodies use for balance. Vision provides feedback to our brain with respect to where we are in space. Therefore, our nervous system can send messages to our muscles to respond before we get too far off balance. Now, take that advantage away and what are we left with? We are left with the sensors within our muscles, tendons and skin as well as our inner ear feedback mechanisms. While these mechanisms are effective, in some individuals they can be underdeveloped (due to previous injury, lack of use, etc.) or underutilized. A concept that I’ve heard many coaches that I respect offer is that practices should be tough enough that games seem easy. I think in the strength and conditioning realms, this concept has application as well. And this is one of those areas. If I can get an athlete to feel and control their body’s ability to balance without sight, how much more easily will that be accomplished with sight?

Therefore, I often progress to eyes closed balance drills. When athletes can better feel where their bodies are in space, body control is a natural byproduct. The more control I can get out of an athlete, the better directed is the force production. The better the force is directed, the more power I get out of the athlete. And if I can get more power out of an athlete who is now better balanced before I even truly address the area of strength…we have something exciting happening.

Try these simple drills at home to help improve your balance and body control. Start with your eyes open first. Begin with 2-3 sets for 5-15 seconds per position. Once 3 sets can be accomplished in each position for 30 seconds, then try with your eyes closed.

Coaching Points for Balance Triangles:
1. Draw In Tight (belly button to spine)
2. Maintain Knee-Toe alignment
3. Begin in a ¼ squat position with hips loaded (slightly pushed back until you feel your glutes and hamstrings firing)
4. Make sure you can wiggle your toes
5. Hit all 3 points of the triangle before switching feet
6. If you’re struggling moving from eyes open to eyes closed, try to take a visual snapshot of the room you’re standing in and then imagine that picture in your mind once you’ve closed your eyes.

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