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Proprioception: The X Factor in Tennis

April 19, 2005 05:06 PM

By Jim Brown, Ph.D., Executive Editor, Sports Performance Journal (athletesperformance.com)

It’s a word well known in exercise and rehabilitation circles, but one that is seldom-used by tennis players. The concept is not completely understood by anyone.

The word is proprioception and it refers to the capacity of the body to determine where all of its parts are positioned at any given time. Proprioception is like an on-board computer that complements conscious efforts to stabilize everything, whether you are moving or standing still. It triggers muscles to contract and relax to fit the situation. It even factors in speed and direction of movement. A perfectly working sense of proprioception helps us perform better in tennis (or any other sport) and avoid injuries.

When It’s Lost
The problem is that proprioception can be lost when a player sustains an injury. If a nerve fiber is ruptured at the same time damage is done to soft tissues, the message that part of the body needs for protection either goes undelivered or it gets through with incorrect information. It is not a coincidence that those in the highest risk group for sprained ankles are ones who have previously suffered sprained ankles. The problem escalates into faulty mechanics or loss of coordination. In addition, the longer you stay out of training and competition following an injury, the greater the loss of proprioception.

Regaining flexibility, strength, and muscle endurance is not enough. Proprioception training should be the next step, even with relatively mild injuries that don’t require medical intervention. Just because a player or exerciser is pain free, that person is not ready for serious training or competition. Proprioceptive mechanisms have to be tested.

How to Get It Back
Wobble boards are used by physical therapists and trainers to help athletes redevelop a sense of balance. Leg presses, squats, vertical jumps, running in figure eight patterns, change of direction drills, and crossover walking are other routines that help establish the connection between nerves and muscles. Successfully completing these kinds of exercises is the last step before sport-specific movements that complete the rehabilitation process.

Using It to Prevent Injuries
An increasing number of injury-prevention programs now include proprioception activities. There is a consensus of opinion, although an absence of conclusive evidence, that well designed movement drills might further develop the neuromuscular pathways that enhance performance and prevent injuries. Instead of something merely to be fixed, this X-factor might be a skill to practice.

Proprioception is more than a vague sense of where you are in space. It is real, observable, and measurable. When it’s lost, it doesn’t come back automatically. Regaining it requires time, effort, and the expertise of someone who knows how to put it back into operation.

© 2004 HMS Publishing, Inc.
Jim Brown will be contributing new content to this site on a monthly basis. If you have a question for Dr. Brown please feel free to email him at




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