Let’s talk about coordination… which includes balance, stability, agility, and all the other impressive things your muscles can do when your brain directs them properly.
Why talk about coordination? Because coordination training can actually help you prevent injuries!
In this article, we’ll start by clearing up some definitions, then review some research to see why it might work. Then we’ll go over some examples so you can start including this type of training right now.
First, here are some (over)-simplified definitions, just so we don’t get confused later:
Coordination: your ability to activate (consciously or subconsciously) the right muscles in the right amounts to move -or not move- in exactly the way you want or need to.
In athletic activities, coordination is required for:
Balance: your ability to maintain a position. This could be staying still (a.k.a. static balance – standing on one foot), or while moving (a.k.a. dynamic balance – walking on a straight line).
Stability: your ability to resist a disturbance (a.k.a. perturbation) to your movement or balance. The disturbance can come from you (a mistake or dysfunction) or someone / something else (being tripped up). Being strong helps… but strength is pretty useless here without coordination.
Agility: your ability to change your position and move efficiently. This movement may be planned, or it may be a reaction to a change in your environment. Being ‘agile’ clearly requires coordination, but also speed, power, sufficient flexibility, endurance, etc.
A 2010 systematic review huh? reviewed 7 high quality research studies on ‘Neuromuscular Training’ 1 – which seems to be what the scientific literature calls any type of training that focuses on ‘proprioception’ (we’ll talk about this later), balance, coordination, agility, or anything like it.
They concluded that there is good evidence that this type of training can reduce the incidence of certain types of sports injuries in young adult athletes during sports that require pivoting. As always, more research is needed to see what the effects are of specific exercises for specific sports… but so far, so good!
A similar review in 2009 reviewed 15 research studies, this time on the effect of ‘Neuromuscular Training’ for rehabilitation after sports injuries 2. The researchers concluded that this type of training can lower incidence of re-injury and “giving way” episodes after ankle sprains and knee (ACL) sprains.
But is it really coordination training that helps? Could it just be any form of exercise?
Another study from 2012 has shown that athletes in a hamstring rehabilitation program using strength/stretching exercises had a 70% chance of re-injury. But athletes using agility/stabilization exercises only had an 8% chance. 3 70% vs 8 %! That’s pretty impressive.
This makes good sense when you think about it. Most injuries happen as a result of mistakes. I’ve outlined this in more detail in my post: How Injuries Happen. No, it’s not usually a lack of flexibility, or even muscle imbalances. It’s bad technique, or bad luck!
It follows logically that if we can make ourselves more coordinated: including balance, stability and agility, then perhaps we can protect ourselves from these mistakes.
Another thing to mention: ‘proprioception’.
Proprioception (a.k.a. joint position sense) is your sense of where your body is in space (without seeing it). To test it, you might look the other way, and I take your thumb, wiggle it up and down, then stop randomly, and you have to tell me whether it’s up or down. Seems like a strange thing to test, but people with neurological disorders (stroke, spinal cord injury, etc.) can actually get this wrong. As you can imagine, this is important for balance, and can make simple things like walking very difficult.
Science is awesome.
You can do these types of exercises on their own, focusing on improving them for a particular skill. Or, you could simply do basic things each time you exercise or practice, even as part of your warm-up. It doesn’t need to take too long.
Exercises for Static Balance / Stability:
You can try simply standing on one foot for 10 seconds at a time, and repeat 5 – 10 times. Progress yourself by holding for longer times continuously, instead of repeating short times. If you can hold a full minute, start trying something harder.
Drills for Dynamic Balance / Agility:
You see these a lot in sports like soccer. Here is an agility drill called the ’10-cone drill’ from ‘ultimatesoccercoaching.com’.
As you can see, players shuffle sideways and sprint forward in a particular pattern. The focus is on doing it quickly, but also precisely, staying close to the cones without hitting them. They would repeat this drill about five times.
Examples for dancers:
Remember: the most important thing about any exercise is to keep it specifically relevant to your particular activity. The running drills above closely resemble what soccer players actually do. If you’re a dancer, then you have to do drills that resemble how you dance.
Get creative – you need to think about what you are actually doing when you’re performing, competing, practicing, rehearsing, free-styling, etc.
Make up very general drills involving fundamental movements that challenge balance and agility. Be sure they challenge you in a variety of directions and situations that might happen during performance / practice.
For example, in my dance, B-Boying, we may practice “footwork” drills. This could involve a foundational pattern, like the basic 6-step. But we do it both clockwise and counter-clockwise, moving across the room: forward, backward, and sideways each way.
Or with something more dynamic like a handstand, we might practice holding it as long as possible. But we should also practice walking on our hands forwards, backwards, sideways, and turning in a circle each direction.
I plan on writing another post on particular ideas for B-Boys and Dancers soon.
- Coordination is important for balance, agility, stability, and pretty much all skills.
- You can practice, and improve, all of these skills.
- ‘Neuromuscular Training’ – coordination exercises, have been shown by good research to prevent injuries, and prevent past injuries from re-occurring.
- Injuries are usually mistakes… so this makes sense!
- Come up with general exercises and drills using fundamental movements of your athletic activity. Make sure they challenge you in a variety of directions and situations that might happen during performance / practice.
Next time you practice or exercise, think about how you can work in some coordination training!