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The Importance of Balance Proprioception In Pickleball

As most of us know, the key to being successful when playing pickleball is creating scenarios where your opponents are compromised in order to gain an advantage during the rally. Moving the ball around the kitchen and getting your opponents off-balance is a great way to create unforced errors. So, in order to be successful on the court, improving your balance and reaction strategies can help you stay in a point longer, and possibly avoid making unwanted mistakes. But what is balance, and how can you train it?

There are three main systems in our bodies that control our balance: visual, somatosensory (our brain’s awareness of touch, pressure, and body position [also known as proprioception]), and vestibular. We mostly rely on visual feedback during regular activities since our eyes are very good at judging depth and informing our brain on movements needed to balance. However, when playing pickleball, our heads move a lot, therefore making it harder to rely solely on vision since our eyes are constantly tracking the ball. Therefore, we have to use our vestibular system (inner ear) and somatosensory information (pressure through our feet) to compensate.

So how does each system affect our balance?

As mentioned earlier, the visual system is our primary feedback mechanism for balance. Our eyes convey most of the needed information to function in our daily activities. The vestibular system is based in our inner ear. We have two separate components in our inner ears: one that senses linear motion (for example, the feeling of going up and down in an elevator, or accelerating in a car), and the other that senses rotational motion (for example, during a somersault).

The somatosensory system takes all input from touch, pressure, heat, and proprioception to give our brain information about our position in space.

It’s important to know that no matter what your current balance level is (poor, fair, good), it can always be improved with targeted exercises. If you find that you lose your balance on a daily basis with basic activities or when playing pickleball, then incorporating balance exercises in your daily exercise routine will help you over time. Below you will find various exercises that will work on and challenge your balance. Remember, always start with the easy version, and progress as you feel comfortable. If you do not feel comfortable doing these by yourself, then seek out a physical therapist who will be able to help you with personalized attention.

For all the exercises listed below, there is a common progression:

Step 1: Eyes open, with hand support (holding on to something)
Step 2: Eyes open, no hand support
Step 3: Eyes closed, with hand support
Step 4: Eyes closed, no hand support
Step 5: Performing the previous 4 steps on an unstable
surface (such as a foam pad or a pillow)

Once again, always start with the easy step for each exercise, and progress to the next level if you are successful.

Exercise 1: Tandem Stance. Start at the kitchen counter with your hands on the counter. Place one foot in front of the other so that your heel from one foot touches the toes from the other foot. Make sure both feet are nicely lined up. Stand nice and tall, and try to maintain the position. The goal is to hold the position for 1 minute without loss of balance. Go through the progressions listed above, making sure to switch your feet position to work on both sides.

Exercise 2: Standing on One Leg. This might seem easy, but you would be surprised how many people struggle with it. The goal is to hold for 1 minute without any loss of balance.

Start at the kitchen counter with your hands on the counter. Stand nice and tall, and pick up one leg. At first, maintain your vision on an immobile object with your hands touching the counter. To progress this, perform without holding on. Then try it with your eyes closed (remember this will be more difficult since we are taking vision out of it), holding on with your hands. Then finally, eyes closed without holding on. Once you get good, you can also incorporate single leg balancing during some of your daily activities such as brushing your teeth.

Exercise 3: Stepping Up on a Step. This is a progression from Exercise 2. Be sure to feel comfortable with Exercise 2 prior to performing this one.

To perform the exercise, grab a medicine ball or a weight (start light and progress as you get better and more comfortable). Face a staircase or step stool, hold the medicine ball (or weight) close to your chest, and step up on the step with one foot. Maintain your balance on the foot without putting down the second foot, and hold as long as you can, then come back down and switch the lead foot. To progress this, as you step up on the step, extend your arms so that the medicine ball is farther from your body (the farther you reach, the harder it will be). Finally, you can also perform this same exercise by performing a sidestep up onto the step. Be sure to work both sides.

If you work through the progressions, you will see how difficult it becomes when you take vision out of
the equation, as well as when you stand on an unstable surface (take out sensation). However, every time you progress the exercise, you are challenging different parts of your balance systems, and therefore training them in various ways. Since your eyes are focused on the ball during a pickleball game, improving your other balance systems will help you feel more confident with your overall game and you will be in better positions on the court to be successful.

If you incorporate these exercises into your routine, and work through the progressions, you will see improvements over time, and you will become more confident in your ability to be balanced. This will translate into your pickleball game, especially as you add more dynamic variations to the balance exercises. Be creative, and if you think of innovative ways to challenge your balance, please post a video of you doing it on The Pickleball Doctor’s Facebook page.

If you have any questions, do not hesitate to reach out to thepickleballdoctor@gmail.com.



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