Importance of Balance and Stability to Mastery of Sport Skills
It could be said that the world’s best athletes are always in control. It can be defined as mental control, as their recognition of specific situations within the game and how they can appropriately respond. Or as emotional control, their ability to ignore the things that don’t matter and focus on the things that do make a difference in the game’s outcome. But, certainly, the ability to control one’s physical self is a major issue for athletes. They must control their sports skills and execute them properly, despite numerous obstacles that are very physical in nature. An obstacle could be a rushing defensive lineman, in football; a tall, long-armed center, in basketball; or a quick-moving goalkeeper, in soccer. In all cases, a high level of physical control—more specifically, balance and stability—is required.
Balance and stability: The words may seem interchangeable, but they are not. The words are closely linked, of course, but they aren’t a two-way street, because it is possible for an athlete to have one but not the other.
Balance is the ability to neutralize forces that would disturb equilibrium. Most healthy people have balance to one degree or another. Simply watching a young toddler take those first steps is evidence of this. Further evidence of balance can be seen in a variety of movements: from someone simply standing on one leg, to an intricate, dynamic movement during execution of a specific sports skill. The topic of balance gets even more interesting when one throws moving, living, breathing obstacles in an athlete’s path. For instance, the football running back must demonstrate great balance as he ricochets off defensive linemen. Or notice the balance of the basketball point guard as she weaves around players on her way to the basket.
Balance comes in all levels of difficulty. The line that separates superiority in a specific sports skill is the concept of stability. Stability is measured in the level at which one can retain one’s balance while experiencing factors that disturb balance. In short, stability is described by the answer to the question, “How balanced are you?” Skilled athletes are able to employ certain tactics to increase their stability under oncoming forces, practically bracing themselves to be immovable.
The amazing athletic highlights seen on television are usually a result of dynamic stability, or stability on the move. The difference between balance and stability can be seen easily on the football field. A punter has great balance as he receives the snap and punts the ball 50–60 yd, elevating high on one leg and landing effortlessly on that same leg. The punter’s lack of stability is seen, however, when a defensive back comes flying into him while he is in the air or standing one-legged. The sacrifice of stability in the practice of balance usually results in a flattened punter. On the other hand, a 290-lb offensive lineman, his backside dropped into an athletic stance, can take on the maximal pushing of 400-lb defensive lineman and not fall down, because he has great balance and stability (remember, “How balanced are you?”).
Two other sports positions that thrive from a combination of balance and stability are the baseball catcher and the basketball post player. Both positions rely on some degree of balance and some degree of stability. The baseball catcher’s balance and stability, however, are an absolute necessity for the position, and the best basketball post players, too, understand the value of balance, stability, and leverage.
The baseball catcher, first, ideally has such physical traits as quick feet and hands, good arm strength, and good balance and stability. The catcher will spend much of the time on the field in the crouch position. The catcher’s weight will be on the heels, and the knees will be bent to place the upper leg below parallel to the ground. In this position, the rear end is near the back of the heels. The catcher’s back should not be curved; the shoulder blades should furthermore be pinched back. The catcher’s head should be held high and the gloved hand should be held out. This crouch position (and the ability to catch pitches) relies heavily on the catcher’s mastery of balance and linear stability.
Balance has been defined as ability to neutralize forces that might disturb equilibrium, while stability has been defined as the level of challenge at which one can still balance. Linear stability is putting up resistance against being moved in a given direction. The catcher’s linear stability is challenged by the action of stopping an 80- or 90-mph pitch. Linear stability is directly related to the mass of the object that applies force (here, the baseball pitch) and the object that resists the force (here, the catcher). Due to the “massive” difference between force mass and resistance mass, for catchers, linear stability is an easy battle.
Two of the most important skills a catcher performs are blocking a bad pitch and throwing out a runner attempting to steal a base. Blocking bad pitches many times involves leaving the crouch position to throw oneself in front of the pitch and keep it from passing behind one. The nature of the crouch position reflects three important principles of stability:
- A broader base of support increases stability. (A catcher’s stance places feet more than hip-width apart.)
- Centralizing the line of gravity inside the support base increases stability. (A straight back and head held upright centralize the line of gravity.)
- A lower center of gravity increases stability. (Crouching’s deep knee bend lowers the center of gravity.)
Because of these three products of the crouch position, a catcher can quickly maneuver the entire body (most importantly, the line of gravity) in front of a speeding pitch moving well outside of the strike zone.
Many times, stability depends on an athlete’s ability to put the line of gravity towards an oncoming force. The movement temporarily unbalances the athlete, but then the impact of the force re-balances him or her. But for the catcher blocking the bad pitch, this is not the case. Despite its velocity and momentum, the baseball has very little mass. This means that the catcher must first quickly throw his line of gravity in front of the ball, then also quickly re-balance, exploiting the advantage of the baseball’s force. It is for this reason the catcher often blocks a pitch by dropping to the knees. Dropping to the knees lowers the center of gravity even further, providing the catcher with greater stability.
The skill employed when a catcher challenges a runner’s attempt to steal is, in some ways, a reversal of balance and stability principles. As when blocking bad pitches, the catcher must position the line of gravity in front of the force to throw out the runner. In the skill of rising and then throwing to the base, the catcher applies force rather than resists it. As the catcher rises, the line of gravity must remain centered to prevent falling over before the ball can be thrown. As the catcher draws back to throw, weight must be shifted onto the back foot, to the rear of the base of support. In some extreme examples, the “thrower” actually shifts the line of gravity temporarily outside the base of support. As the throwing motion begins, the line of gravity shifts from the rear of the support base, through the center and front, ending up in front of the support base.
As for the basketball post player, things have changed in the past two decades. What was once a position for massive, slow-footed players playing 5– 10 ft from the basket is now more commonly given to players who, although still very tall and long, have lesser mass in exchange for better foot speed and more perimeter-oriented skills. The old-fashioned post player may have become an endangered species, but the importance of balance and stability for a large post player cannot be overstated.
Basketball post players are subject to several particularly important principles when attempting to enhance stability in order to deter a bigger, stronger player (or when themselves presenting the bigger, stronger player attempting to dominate). The first principle is the player’s own mass, which should be taken advantage of. Athletes automatically have greater stability when they have greater mass. Not only does Shaquille O’Neal have great footwork, he also has what few others in the NBA have: enormous mass. At one time early in his career, it was speculated that O’Neal weighed 380 pounds, less than 10% representing body fat. Imagine how stable a mass like that is! At times, however, athletes of enormous mass can be put at a disadvantage when their momentum is used against them. The more mass one has, the harder it is to get going and the harder it is to stop or change direction. The mad rush of a 400-lb sumo wrestler is fairly easily used against him if the opponent sidesteps and adds to the momentum with a grab or push propelling the first wrestler on down his initial course. Basketball players of such size have a great advantage. The nature of their position does not require large amounts of momentum, and since they typically operate within 5–10 ft of the basket, their mass can rarely be used against them.
The second principle is the value of a wide base when posting up or blocking out. Again, stability can be increased by widening the base of support. Many post players miss out on prime positioning because they simply do not have a wide enough base. This is especially true if a player with less mass is attempting to gain an advantage on a player with more mass. In short, get wide. The third principle is the value of lowering the center of gravity. This happens to some extent whenever the base is widened; but that is not enough. Post players must learn to play with a wide base and bent knees. A player with a mass advantage will become dominant when he or she masters the value of bending the knees and lowering that massive center of gravity. In short, get low.
The fourth principle involves the need to extend the base of support in the direction of an oncoming force. Rotary stability has taught us that shifting the line of gravity in the direction of that force can help us stabilize and defend against the applied force. However, the defending post player must not shift the line of gravity too close to the support base’s front perimeter. When that happens, the player moves out of the base of stability, becoming unbalanced.
In sum, the application of principles of balance and stability when performing specified sports skills is necessary to success. Many coaches would be wise to spend more time studying sport mechanics like balance and stability in order to improve the performance of their players.