How would you like to quickly improve your athlete’s performance, reduce their risk of injury and optimize their health by emphasizing one simple, powerful concept? Although this may sound too good to be true, there really is an overlooked area of coaching that can provide all of these benefits.
Posture is one of the most powerful words you can add to your coaching vocabulary. For over 15 years, I have focused my business on helping athletes and non-athletes alike improve all aspects of their physical being - through strength training, total conditioning, and posture management. How many times have chronic injuries kept a key player on the sideline or prevented a team from performing to their full potential? There’s a good chance that faulty posture may have been a key contributing factor. Proper posture, or neutral alignment, is a cornerstone of optimal performance for athletes.
Before you start ordering your athletes to ‘stand up straight!’ or ‘keep those shoulders back! ‘, it’s important to understand the science behind healthy posture. The body functions best when it’s segments are in a balanced, neutral alignment. The nerves are unobstructed, the blood flows more efficiently, and the muscles work to their full potential. This position also relieves stress on joints and the skeletal structure. In contrast, poor posture is biomechanically inefficient and can contribute to poor performance, increasing fatigue and the potential for injury during activity.
What are the characteristics of neutral posture? When assessing an athlete’s alignment, there are a few key points to look for.
From the front:
- The point between the eyes should line up vertically with the chin, breastbone, belly button, mid-pelvic area and midpoint between the knees and ankles.
- The height of the eyes, ears, shoulders, hips and knees should be level.
From the side:
- There should be three natural curves in the spine, slightly forward at the neck and lower back, and slightly backward at the upper back.
- The ears should be aligned vertically over the shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles.
Once you start looking at the alignment of your athletes, there are some common postural deviations that you may observe. One of the most prevalent posture conditions is AHC (anterior head carriage). In healthy posture, the head is carried upright and level, balancing effortlessly on the body, with the ear aligned directly over the shoulder joint when viewed from the side. Since the human head is approximately the same size and weight as a bowling ball, moving it forward from its balance position allows gravity to take effect, pulling the head toward the floor. When the head is held forward for extended periods of time, the muscles in the neck and upper back are placed under constant tension, causing them to shorten and lose elasticity. During dynamic activity, AHC can inhibit performance and contribute to serious spinal and muscle injuries. Fortunately, it is usually possible to make improvements in head carriage through simple, proactive exercises designed to stretch and strengthen the muscles of the neck and upper torso.
A more complicated postural condition is known as leg-length discrepancy (LLD), where the pelvis is unlevel and the legs appear to be different lengths. This may actually be the case, but the problem is often caused by asymmetric positioning of the pelvis, possibly as a result of trauma or due to dysfunction of the hip, low-back, and leg musculature. Frequent training with the abnormal stresses and movements caused by LLD can contribute to a variety of overuse injuries. Most athletes are unaware of the fact that they are affected by LLD, and may be frustrated by pain or injury as a result. It is important for coaches to realize that early detection of this condition is invaluable to the lifelong physical health of the athlete, however successful management of LLD usually involves a detailed assessment, and may require intervention by one or more health-care professionals.
Be aware that static posture differs from the changing body positions required during athletic activities, known as dynamic posture. Obviously a moving person can’t stay erect and aligned during sport, but the first objective is to establish healthy posture in a static position. Once the body is comfortable in neutral, it is more likely to adopt healthy habits during dynamic posture and bounce back to healthy alignment between dynamic activities. This equates to better performance and less injury - a winning strategy.
Beyond the impressive health and performance benefits, improved posture brings much more to the lives of younger athletes. Studies show that first impressions are formed within 30 seconds of acquaintance, with body language as a major determining factor. Strong, neutral posture can contribute to:
- Improved Appearance
- Increased Confidence
- Improved Social Skills
Alternately, a person with poor body posture can send a signal of weakness; a known contributing factor for youngsters who are terrorized by bullies every day. Imagine the impact.
As a coach, be assured that helping to improve the posture of your athletes is easier than you think. Awareness is the first step to making measurable change. Begin by performing this simple wall test with your athletes to learn more about where they stand. The results of this assessment can start to bring awareness and motivation to your team.
The Wall Test:
Standing with the back against a wall and heels 2-4 inches away, the hips, shoulder blades and back of the head should be touching the wall. If the head needs to be tilted back or the chin lifted to allow contact with the wall, this indicates imbalance in the neck and upper spine. The space present between the lower back and the wall should measure about one to two inches, or the thickness of a flat hand. A larger gap can indicate anterior pelvic tilt, and the absence of a gap may indicate posterior pelvic tilt.
The benefits of good posture are immeasurable and positive results can be achieved with little more than education and awareness. Throughout my career as a kinesiologist, I have helped people of all ages and activity levels improve their alignment. I know from experience that early detection and treatment of postural deficiencies will reap a lifetime of physical and social rewards. Consider how you would incorporate posture into your next locker room pep talk. It may become the most powerful word in your coaching career – a true ‘secret weapon’.
Rob Williams is a Vancouver kinesiologist and posture specialist. He is also an experienced presenter and writer. His team of training professionals has changed the lives and bodies of thousands of clients over the last 15 years. Through the establishment of close professional relationships with respected organizations like SportMedBC, he is also working to bring posture awareness and intervention into the provincial athlete development programs. Williams is the founder of Performance Posture, Canada’s first multi-disciplinary posture clinic, and Mixx Fitness Studio, a 6000 square foot private training facility in Coal Harbour. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.