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Balance and proprioception training for efficient energy transfer

This is an excerpt from Golf Anatomy-2nd Edition by Craig Davies & Vince DiSaia.

Every great ball striker has the ability to control each body segment but must also consider the ground from which he or she is hitting. This last component is perhaps the least appreciated aspect of balance and proprioception. One of the differences of golf when compared to most other athletic activities is the unpredictability of the slope, firmness, or type of surface on which you play. In soccer, American football, rugby, cricket, baseball, squash, tennis, and hockey, the athlete expects to play on the same type and firmness of surface with the same slope (flat) throughout the match.


The only time a golfer can be confident the lie will be flat during a round of golf is when the ball is placed on a tee to start each hole. After the ball leaves the tee, the golfer is at the mercy of how the ball bounces and interacts with the environment to determine what body position and set up will be required for the next shot. The golfer may find the ball on an upslope or downslope in a bunker or on the side of a hill. When playing a course such as Augusta, there won’t be a flat lie anywhere on the golf course, including the putting surfaces. Mountain biking and trail running may be two sports that are comparable in this regard.


Players who succeed in major championships, where the courses often have significant changes in elevation and slopes throughout the 18 holes, usually place a significant emphasis on fitness and movement training, specifically on the function of their feet. While this may not be as important when playing on a course such as St Andrews or Hilton Head, where the course is unusually flat, it is extremely important on almost every other course. When the course slopes, the golfer must set up with varying degrees of dorsiflexion and plantar flexion at the ankle. Sometimes you will need a level of dorsiflexion in one ankle and plantar flexion in the other. This is significant because a change in the angle at the ankle will change the alignment and joint positions all the way up the body’s kinetic web.


To appreciate these differences, place a two-by-four under your heels and address the ball. Then place that same two-by-four under your toes and do the same. You will notice the angle of your knees, hips, lower back, and thoracic spine all change. Now place the toes of one foot on the two-by-four and the heel of the other foot on a two-by-four and address the ball. Each of these stances challenges the body and its ability to move.


The athlete’s feet and ankles must be able to move into position easily and with control while providing accurate information to the rest of the body so that the appropriate posture can be attained and maintained throughout the swing. This requires a high level of motor control, and motor control does not develop by accident. It is a deliberate part of a training program that should be considered in any program design. We need components in the training program that permit deliberate activation and movement at the ankles and feet, plus program modules that require our feet and ankles to function while our focus is on other areas of the body or external influences (such as a moving ball, another athlete, or another component of the environment).


We must prepare the connective tissue, muscles, and joints of the feet and ankles to perform as needed, and the other areas of the body must be able to adjust to what the feet are doing (figure 4.1). When the feet and ankles communicate with other body parts and function optimally, it results in a level of grace and efficiency of movement that makes the activity appear much easier than it is. Gymnasts, dancers, and figure skaters all exhibit a fluidity and control that is easy to identify.


Figure 4.1 Key muscles for balancing in the core and feet. Balance is the process by which the golfer maintains the center of gravity over the base of support.
Key muscles for balancing in the core and feet. Balance is the process by which the golfer maintains the center of gravity over the base of support.


Incredible balance and proprioceptive abilities throughout the body are needed to smash a ball 350 yards and finish the swing with balance and control like Rory McIlroy, to cut at incredible angles and immediately put the body over the base of support so to run upfield like American football running backs Barry Sanders and Adrian Peterson, or to play with the soccer ball like Pelé, Maradona, Messi, or Ronaldo.


Exercises that improve the ability to move the feet with greater control are one of our training program fundamentals for all athletes, regardless of gender, sport, age, or experience. The feet are incredibly dense with mechanoreceptors, the sensory organs found throughout the body that provide feedback on how the body is positioned in relation to the rest of the body and the environment. Mechanoreceptors also communicate the amount and direction of force that the body is experiencing at all times. When we don’t use the body in a manner that challenges these mechanoreceptors consistently, we minimize their function, and as a result, we have less accurate sensory information entering the body, which in turn creates less desirable motion, and performance suffers.


Shoes and socks are placed on our feet almost as soon as we are born. This is equivalent to placing mittens on your hands or a patch over one of your eyes. If you wore a mitten on your dominant hand for even a week, the ability to accurately move and control that hand would be considerably hindered. Likewise, if you wore a patch over your eye for an extended time, the muscles controlling the eye would be greatly affected, and your vision in that eye would be compromised.


Deliberately challenging these receptors in fitness training combats the negative effects shoes and socks have on feet and ankle receptors. This chapter is designed to help you improve foot and ankle control and then progressively incorporate more of the body until you are able to control the entire body through various angles and force requirements. Improving foot and ankle control will become something you don’t have to think about as we move into more complex multijoint and full-body exercises. With this control, you can expect better performance in both your training program and sporting activities.

Learn more about Golf Anatomy, Second Edition.