How well an athlete can react to changes on the field and control their body, as a result, is based on dynamic balance. You may think it’s just a fancy term for athleticism or agility – improved just by playing or getting in their “reps.” But just spending a minimal amount of time training balance, an athlete can supercharge their improvement in sports skills and performance.
The Role of Balance in Sports
Better balance means more efficient use of strength, says Louis Stack, a Canadian national speed skiing team member, and balance training expert. “Balance conditioning is a way to train the body to make better use of the strength you already have,” Stack says.
Better balance also means a more conditioned athlete. “When you train someone for stabilization, proprioception, and balance, by default he or she is at less risk for injury. Good balance reduces [the] need for additional effort.” He goes on to say.
We’ve seen these types of athletes before – the kind that glides across the court, pitch or field with minimal effort. The Roger Federer, Cristiano Ronaldo and Julio Jones’ of the world. The one we refer to as ‘the most athletic.’ You can also look at them as the athletes displaying the most dynamic balance.
How to Train Balance
Stack recommends training balance in frequent, smaller increments as opposed to less frequent larger blocks of training. Once stabilizer fatigue occurs, agility is limited.
The goal is to improve special awareness and innately know where your body and limbs are in space. It’s best to train both static and dynamic balance with a focus on coordination. Static balance training is stationary training with a solid, predictable surface underfoot. Dynamic balance training is facilitated by adding stimulus underfoot that is unstable, like a wobble board.
You can also get creative with dynamic balance drills by using hand-eye and foot-eye coordination, agility drills, sprints, and other conditioning drills. Obviously, the athlete should start with static balance drills before progressing to more challenging dynamic balance drills.
You can add balance exercises to everyday cardiovascular, strength and flexibility routines, but earlier in the session after the warm-up – from most difficult to easiest, continuing only to fatigue. Make note of how long it takes to regain balance. The less time it takes, the better your agility.
But don’t push these drills beyond the point of fatigue. The nervous system takes five times longer to rejuvenate than tired muscles. “When the nervous system fatigues, balance, and other skills diminish,” says Paul Chek, founder of the C.H.E.K. Institute in Southern California and movement expert. “Sports become less fun and more of a muscular challenge. Continuing past that point has a reverse effect on your performance.”
Exercises and Drills
Following are examples of balance exercises and drills, listed from simplest to most difficult:
Upper-body Stabilization and Control
Start in a push-up position on the ground with partner grasping feet/ankles. Walk for a short distance on hands. Try 30-second intervals. For a challenge, go uphill.
2. Hand-stand against a wall.
Core Strength and Resiliency (for posture and alignment)
1. Standard crunches on an exercise ball.
2. Balance on all fours on a stability ball. When comfortable, straighten upright onto knees and hold for 10-second intervals.
3. Push-ups on a stability ball. For a challenge, lift one leg and the opposing arm.
Single-Side Stabilization (for single-side balance and strength and agility)
1. Balance on one foot at a time. For a challenge, stand on a couple of folded gym towels.
2. Single-leg band squats.
Anchor band to one ankle and hold for tension on the outside of leg on one side. Perform 10-15 squats per side.
Dynamic Balance and Balance Recovery (full body interaction is key)
1. Step-ups with cups of water in each hand.
Use a stair or 4- to 8-inch platform, and step up with the right foot then the left foot, and step down with the right foot then the left foot, without spilling the water. For a challenge, try it with full cups.
2. Single-side agility.
Play hopscotch or hop their initials on one leg at a time with eyes open and closed.
Using a rope about 6 to 8 feet long, line up two wobble boards (or any other type of equipment) about 6 to 8 feet apart. Stand on the balance board on one foot, face each other and try to get each other off balance.
4. Dot drill (single-leg agility test).
Place five pieces of masking tape in an hourglass shape. The pieces should be about 18 to 24 inches apart (two on top of the hourglass shape, two on the bottom and one in the middle.) Jump to each “dot” with both feet in a clockwise pattern, then counter-clockwise. Next, try this with one foot and count how many dots they miss in 20 seconds.
Hrysomallis, C, (2010), Balance Ability and Athletic Performance (Institute of sport, School of Sport and Exercise Science Victoria University, Melbourne Australia)
Brachman A, Kamieniarz A, Michalska J, Pawłowski M, Słomka KJ, Juras G. Balance Training Programs in Athletes – a Systematic Review. J Hum Kinet. 2017;58:45–64. Published 2017 Aug 1. doi:10.1515/hukin-2017-0088
Davlin, C. D. (2004). Dynamic Balance in High-Level Athletes. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 98(3_suppl), 1171–1176. https://doi.org/10.2466/pms.98.3c.1171-1176
Balance is something that I still struggle with, no matter how much I train, but I’ve learned that focusing on core strength training helps in this regard. Great tips here!