I was once instructing core training for 16 strong male basketball players. Their task was to perform some balance and coordination exercises in the warm-up – this was simply to get them ready for the “real deal”. However, to my big surprise, I witnessed the most amusing thing I had seen in a long time; big and muscular men jumping frantically back and forth on one leg just to find their balance. It was humorous only for a few minutes before I realized the sad truth: as easy as it may seem, balance is not a simple skill and you really can’t ‘ judge a book by its cover’.
During the last decade, athletes in general have achieved incredible fitness levels. However, being physically strong and evidently muscular does not mean that their body is in balance. Balance, of course, can be a broad concept. Scientifically, balance is defined as the body’s ability to maintain its center of gravity above its base of support. However, in order to achieve that equilibrium, a balanced state, such as symmetry between the right and the left side of the body, needs to be achieved throughout the entire body.
Four different body systems are helping to establish balance: the vestibular system, vision, proprioceptors and muscles. Core stability is emphasized because of its big contribution to achieving a stable body position. Generally in sports, balance can be divided into static (body is motionless) and dynamic (body is in motion).
Why is balance important?
Balance is a crucial precursor to movement. For example in basketball, in order to move from one side of the court to the other, balance has to be continually established and re-established many times over. In elite athletes, movements are so automatic that people often underestimate the importance of good stability. Balance helps to keep the movements more coordinated and efficient; it ensures better awareness about the body and strengthens proprioceptive abilities.
Studies show that in some sports, having greater balance leads to better performance. For example, dynamic balance ability has been found to be associated with maximal skating speed in ice hockey and a better score in golf.
Furthermore, balance has been strongly linked to injury prevention and this is probably the most examined effect in relation to balance. Numerous balance interventions in different sports have resulted in a decreased incidence of ankle sprains and knee injuries.
How to evaluate balance ability?
Assessing balance is probably the most critical task since there are many methods and the optimal approach depends highly on the athlete and the sport.
Static balance can be assessed by different variations of simple one leg stands, static stork test, tandem stance, etc.
For the dynamic balance, one of the most popular testing methods is Star Excursion Balance Test (SEBT). The SEBT requires athletes to maintain balance on a single leg while manipulating the opposite limb. This test challenges the postural control system as the body’s center of mass is moved in relation to its base of support. SEBT requires athletes to use strength, flexibility and proprioception; this test has been used in addition to physical performance to identify the athlete’s risk of injury.
However, it should not be forgotten that body is a whole and it has to be tested in relation to sport specific skills through an integrative process. As balance is created from the cooperation of different systems, all of these systems need to be taken into account while testing. For example, in basketball, a ball may be included in the testing procedure in order to evaluate players’ coordination between upper and lower body in relation to balance skills.
How to improve balance?
With developing technology and the need for more in-depth performance analysis, there are more advanced and complex possibilities for improving balance. The Dynamic Balance System (DBS) uses a force platform with specific software which helps to give visual and audio feedback of an athlete’s static and dynamic balance, weight distribution and center of gravity during sport-specific movements.
Another tool that has received a lot of attention in the media and the sporting world is the power balance bracelet that is claimed to have an immediate effect on flexibility strength and balance through holographic technology. This bracelet, however, has nothing to do with training and numerous studies have proved the irrelevance and absurdity of this ‘tool’.
As a matter of fact, balance can be trained easily by simply doing a variety of sports or trying new activities (‘cross training’). The main idea is to get the body out of its comfort zone. This can be achieved using different equipment (physio- and medicine balls, wobble boards, bosu balls, foam rollers, etc) or just by adding different distracters (closed eyes, alternating speeds, multiple tasks, etc). Although it is still not sufficiently tested, core training has been suggested to be one of the key elements in enhancing balance and stability.
To conclude, balance is something all athletes make use of; it can help in bettering performance, coordinating movements, and avoiding injuries; and can be relatively easily assessed and improved. To put it plainly, the importance of balance can be captured in the African saying: ‘when there is a misunderstanding between the left leg and the right leg the entire body falls down’. This saying is also perfect to describe what happened to those basketball players while conducting a simple one-legged stand. Naturally, we cannot judge those players’ balance and performance ability just by letting them stand on one leg. However, a well balanced athlete has good coordination and control over their body irrespective of the situation.