Challenging Balance and Stability

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Challenging Balance and Stability

Last week I gave my annual pre-season presentation to the Flyers junior team I work with. The goal of the meeting is to outline expectations, explain our philosophy and provide information about off-ice habits (e.g. sleep, nutrition, etc.).

Flyers Logo

This immediately preceded our season opening weekend, where the team went 2-0 with 5-2 and 7-2 wins. There’s still a long season ahead of us, but they’re currently on pace for a 44-0 season. Just sayin.

In talking about our assessment process, how they should interpret their results, and how it all ties in with our programming, the concept of stabilization feedback/strategies came up.

Understanding this idea is important, as it can help explain why someone has difficulties with balance (or joint stabilization in general) and what needs to be done to address it.

Simply, your body relies on a combination of feedback from 3 systems for feedback about where it is in space:

  1. Proprioception
  2. Vestibular
  3. Visual


The proprioceptive system includes joint, ligament, and muscle/tendon receptors that provide feedback about position, length, and load. As an oversimplified example, if you close your eyes, hold your hands straight out in front of you, and then move them apart, it’s your proprioceptive system that is providing you feedback about where your arms are.

Vestibular System

The vestibular system, involves three semicircular tubes positioned in different directions in your inner ear. Each tube has fluid in it that shifts when your head is moved in different planes of motion (e.g. flexion/extension, side bending, or rotation). This combination of fluid movement provides feedback about where “level” is, just as the bubble in a level tells you whether the picture you’re hanging on the wall is even.


Not quite this simple, but similar idea.

Challenges to this system are one of the more difficult concussion-related complications to address.

Visual System

The visual system also plays a HUGE role in balance and stability. This is easily demonstrated with the Single Leg Stance test that we use with a lot of our assessments. To perform the assessment:

  1. Stand up tall with your eyes open
  2. Lift one leg so your knee is in front of your hip
  3. Hold that position for as long as you can up to 20 seconds
  4. Document your time for each leg

Most of our athletes and general population clients nail this, and can go 20s without any issues. The next step, though, is much more challenging.

Now after you lift your leg, get your balance and feel stable, close your eyes and see how long you last on each leg. With the visual system removed, the other two stability feedback mechanisms are relied upon more heavily and things tend to fall apart.

Single-Leg Stance

Not as easy as it looks

This is important because it highlights an over-reliance on the visual system as a stability driver. This wouldn’t be an issue, except in sports (as in life), you can’t visually fixate on one spot to ensure stability; your eyes have to constantly track, analyze, and respond to the rapidly changing environment around you.

That said, you see people using variations of this strategy A LOT, notably when they stare at the ground while they walk or fix their gaze on a single point while they lift or jog. The tendency to visually fixate is inevitably worsening as a result of the amount of time we spend staring at computers and phones. The visual system is extremely adaptable; if we teach it stare at a fixed object within a foot of our face, it will become very good at that.

Training Implications

Training better stabilization strategies can be addressed with a lot of different methods, but these are a few of the ones we use are:

  1. Exercises in half kneeling positions to teach proper pelvic stabilization in a single-leg stance pattern, progressing to more challenging positions (e.g. split stance or single-leg stance positions)
  2. When proficient with eyes open, incorporate some of the above with eyes closed
  3. Use single-leg exercises to expose and re-pattern bad stabilization and movement strategies
  4. Encourage athletes to look forward and “around” as they locomote (e.g. don’t look down when you walk, run, etc.)
  5. While performing certain submaximal lifts, move the eyes with the head (e.g. don’t stare at the same point throughout the lift)

In addition to these strategies, I also recommend looking up from your computer or cell phone frequently and trying to focus your eyes on something far away from you. This way your eyes are constantly visually fixated on something right in front of them, but maintain some flexibility in being able to focus on objects near and far, and transitioning between the two.

Wrap Up

Balance and stabilization are dependent upon an interplay of your proprioceptive, vestibular, and visual systems. Many people over-rely on their visual system, which can compromise effective movement patterns when visual input is removed or challenged by another stimulus (tracking movement in a sport setting). Try the eyes closed single-leg stance test described above, and if you struggle, incorporate the training strategies from this article into your routine.

To your success,

Kevin Neeld

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“Kevin Neeld is one of the top 5-6 strength and conditioning coaches in the ice hockey world.”
– Mike Boyle, Head S&C Coach, US Women’s Olympic Team

“…if you want to be the best, Kevin is the one you have to train with”
– Brijesh Patel, Head S&C Coach, Quinnipiac University