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â€œIn art and dream may you proceed with abandon. In life may you proceed with balance and stealth.â€
â€” Patti Smith
When we look at the traits that make up overall athletic ability we typically look for speed, strength and power as the usual suspects. There is one quality in particular that draws each of these together, one quality that conveys ability beyond athleticism.
When watching the elite in any sport, we can see there is very little that separates them. Sure, some are a bit faster and others a bit stronger, but the real superstars - they all seem to have something else. A something else that gives the Ablett, Slater, and Azarenka's of the world that extra poise and grace. Something else that seems to give just them, more time.
Whether it's the idea that balance is something you've either got or not, or perhaps because it's difficult to quantify and measure; given the difference it makes, it's strange that few athletes (outside of the martial arts) do any training dedicated specifically to improving it.
We seem to accept it as an 'X-factor' - a divine gift bestowed on a chosen few.
But while some have more natural ability than others, as with any other athletic quality, balance can be trained.
And what can be trained, can equally be detrained. Our abilities here can be chalked up as yet another casualty of our sedentary lifestyle, but balance has an obvious and immediate transference to our everyday lives - relevance to us all.
Definitions of balance, as it pertains to biomechanics and athletic performance, are commonly staid and incomplete. None of them convey the athleticism we see from the seemingly impossible angle, over some bland description of just standing upright:
maintaining the line of gravity within the base of support
the ability to maintain equilibrium whether stationary or moving
Snore. Again, the martial arts to the rescue:
The ability to maintain or recover your center despite an external force(s).
When we consider that, for a surfer this force may be a wave, for a footballer an opposition player, and with both also subject to gravity, now we start to get a bit closer. Particularly as this also addresses the idea of recovering balance. In many sports, you may purposely sacrifice your balance to gain an advantage, safe in the knowledge you will subsequently be able to regain it.
In fact, this, is the essence of all movement. Walking is simply the act of (voluntarily) losing and regaining balance, repeatedly.
But maintaining balance requires the coordination of input from multiple sensory systems:
Vestibular system: organs that regulate equilibrium including the inner ear.
Somatosensory system: information from skin, joints and mechanoreceptors that through pressure and vibration detect our movement and position in space as well as the position of body parts relative to each other - proprioception.
Visual system: reference points to our verticality and our position relative to our environment. Although we rely heavily on this information, we are also easily deceived by it, and pilots, for example. are well drilled to ignore these cues in poor visibility, and fly solely on instruments
Together these systems detect changes in body position relative to our base of support - a delicate dance of messages received and corrections necessary. Call and response.
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