When it comes to sports training, there are many things to consider- power, strength, endurance, nutrition, skill, speed, balance, and proprioception. Recently, you may have heard the word proprioception get tossed around when people are talking about sports performance, but not many people know what it means or how they can apply it to their training.

Proprioception training is a combined term for proprioceptive, vestibular and visual systems. In essence, proprioception is having a sense of self or a sense of where your limbs are oriented in space.  Within the limbs lie proprioceptors, which are sensors that provide information regarding the joint angle, muscle length and muscle tension automatically to the central nervous system.  The central nervous system then relays information to the rest of the body, allowing it to appropriately respond.  Initially, proprioception is an unconscious action, but it can be improved through conscious training.

How can an athlete increase their unconscious proprioception to make them better athletes? Activities that require balance, coordination, agility, power, and combined movements are all excellent tools when performing proprioceptive training.  Besides the immediate effects on speed, balance, and strength, there is significant statistical evidence demonstrating that an injury prevention program incorporating proprioceptive training alters the neuromuscular risk factors and influences the basic elements of sports performance.

Most proprioceptive programs include a warm up and technique exercises with an emphasis on proper hip/knee/ankle alignment during running, jumping and cutting, balance, and strength.  Examples of balance exercises include single or double leg balancing on a mat or wobble board with eyes open or closed.  The level of difficulty can be increased by asking the athlete to perform squats, or a tossing a ball while balancing on the wobble board.  Depending on the sport, some programs will place a larger emphasis on proper hip/knee/ankle alignments during walking lunges, lateral (side to side) or forward double or single leg hops, and scissor jumps.  By encouraging the athlete to be very conscious regarding proper alignment, core stability, control and quality of their movements, the athlete can consciously train their proprioceptive system to be more effective during unconscious moments.  So when you are playing center field and sprinting to catch that fly ball, your body will unconsciously respond to that gust of wind or the divot in the playing field, allowing you to cut directions safely and quickly.

Proprioceptive training is not only beneficial for the healthy athlete, but has been proven to be extremely helpful for injured athletes as well. When an athlete is injured, there are many factors that play a role towards a speedy and healthy return to sport.  It all begins in the acute phase, which involves RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation.  Beyond the initial acute phase, an athlete may or may not require physical therapy.  During the initial evaluation, a physical therapist will examine the strength, balance, flexibility and range of motion deficits that will require improvement before the athlete can return to their specific sport.  Part of the athlete's physical therapy will then incorporate exercises that are geared towards this sport-specific proprioceptive training.   This rehabilitation may include the same types of proprioception exercises as mentioned before- namely balancing with an emphasis on proper hip, knee and ankle alignment; agility exercises; strengthening; and most importantly, education.  Besides utilizing these exercises during rehabilitation, the athlete can incorporate this newly learned skill set into their everyday training; not only preventing injury but making them faster, quicker, and stronger.