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Proprioception and Gymnastics

Basketball forwards evading offense, soccer goalies guarding the net, gymnasts on the double bars. These athletes utilize a fair amount of skill, energy and stamina to stay on the top of their game. The brute forces involved in athletics are essential, but so is maintaining balance while playing a sport. Sports and specialist health writer, John Shepard investigates the role that balance plays in optimizing athletic skill.

Balance is a complex and many-faceted element that governs our everyday lives. It is especially essential for athletes whose exceptional sense of balance and equilibrium allows them to excel in their respective sports. Balance can be seen in the way a basketball centre drives toward the basket and makes a leaping shot to score for his team. In many ways, balance is also unconscious, relying on an internal sensory structure in which pre-programmed responses react to various external stimuli. This type of unconscious balance is called ‘pro-prioception’, more commonly known as the “sixth sense”. It is largely responsible for awareness of muscle tension and movement control.

Muscles, ligaments and joints have their own “thought processes”. Conscious movement made by a body or motions caused by external forces, prompt them to react according to information they receive from nerve endings. These reactions stem from mechanisms referred to as the sensory-motor process, and scientific research continues to investigate how the body’s senses consciously and unconsciously interact with one another in controlling response to external stimuli. Sports scientists are working on the premise that athletes can actually heighten their pro-prioception and sensory-motor sensitivity by disciplined cultivation of certain habits.

The Proprioception Process

The Central Nervous System, or CNS, is a broadcasting powerhouse of all sensory stimuli received from the outside. As soon as joints, muscles and ligaments acquire an external impulse, the message is sent through the CNS, which then relays this information to the rest of the body, giving it “instructions” on how to react. The brain receives some of these messages and acts on these messages unconsciously. The spinal cord also receives some of these messages and automatically responds to them. This is how pro-prioception is achieved.

The nerve endings that are found in muscles, joints and ligaments are sensory “feelers” called pro-prioceptors. Reacting to force, tension and stretch, these feelers act as key determinants in kick starting the ‘stretch/reflex’. Stretch/reflex is a common term used in sports to describe what happens when a body attempts to stretch a muscle to its breaking point. The muscle sends a message through the pro-prioceptors, which is passed along to the CNS. A reply is sent back instructing the body to start up the stretch/reflex mechanism, preventing the muscle from stretching any further.

Manipulation of the postural muscles is also the domain of the stretch/reflex mechanism. Postural muscles control the body’s equilibrium against the effects of gravity. Even if not immediately perceived, the stretch/reflex mechanism works to adjust the muscles’ reaction to stimuli. For instance, adding an object to a set of weights already held in the palm of one hand will cause the hand and forearm muscles to tense to accommodate the additional weight. The stretch/reflex causes this automatic adjustment by “informing” all the muscles involved in the carrying action. This makes the stretch/reflex mechanism both an overall and specific muscle manager.

Effects of Injury on pro-prioception

Injury is a prime suspect in the impairment of pro-prioception, particularly in athletes, who rely on all of their senses during sports performances. Despite rest and rehabilitation to recover from the injury, both athletes and coaches remained unaware of the diminished functionality and stability of the sensory-motor system. Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh took note of the relation between joint injury, shoulder muscle fatigue, and how it affected pro-prioception. They found evidence that the return of shoulder muscle stability could only be accomplished though neuromuscular control of mechanical stability and pro-prioception.
Training Specificity in Relation to Proprioception

Training specifity pertains to performing definitive exercises tailored to improve performance in a particular sport. For instance, sprinters will benefit more from doing plyometric drills as opposed to training with weights. Specific training, however, does not guarantee the enhancement of an athlete’s proprioception.
Sports Injury Bulletin, a sister publication of PP, has published an article written by former gymnast Mark Alexander, which comments on exercises to enhance speed and power. It took note that these training specific exercises involving fast-twitch muscle fibres actually diminished pro-prioceptive power. Apparently, fast-twitch muscle fibre impaired the body’s ability to control muscle tension due to the excessive speed of impulses relayed through muscle spindles and spinal motor neurons.

In premise, balance type and slower paced exercises largely improves the quality of an athlete’s pro-prioception. Postural stabiliser muscles, like the soleus muscle of the lower leg, while relying on slow-twitch muscle fibre, will find more opportunity to fine tune muscle control and guide motion. On the other hand, certain muscles of the body, like the gastrocnemius, a major calf muscle and prime mover, respond favourably to fast-twitch muscle fibre exercises.

Effective musculature, especially in the prime mover muscles, can deliver more power. With this concept in mind, slower balanced type exercises are recommended to enhance pro-prioception and reduce the risks of injury. More importantly, these exercises improve the power of the athlete’s performance. By analogy, fine tuning a car’s suspension (stabilising muscle) will increase the speed produced by the engine (prime mover). Similarly, a high jumper preparing to take-off for the upward leap will need stabilising muscle control over the prime mover leg muscles to achieve a more powerful thrust.

In conclusion, coaches and athletes need to know the difference between pro-prioception and kinaesthetic awareness. Pro-prioception is automatic in nature and involves unconscious reactions to external stimuli. Kinaesthetic awareness is all about the utilization of an athlete’s conscious motion control in the face of unpredictable situations. An appreciation of this difference negates the theory of undertaking specific training to enhance pro-prioception.







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