“The mind is like an iceberg; it floats with one-seventh of its bulk above water” – Sigmund Freud

Freud’s theory was that human consciousness has three parts synonymous to an iceberg: the conscious (above the waterline), the preconscious (just below the waterline), and the subconscious (a long way below the waterline).  He theorised that human behaviour and personality are simply the interaction of these three states of mind.

A man swimming butterfly at an indoor pool

This theory actually translates pretty well to sports performance, and to what some of us often describe on the pitch as ‘talent’.  While us amateurs might be actively thinking about where the defenders are positioned, or trying to read cues from the opposition player using our conscious mind, an elite athlete is perhaps more likely to tackle these issues in their subconscious mind.  This leaves space in their conscious minds to process other information.

The preconscious mind analogy also has an interesting parallel in sport.  Freud theorised that while the conscious mind contains all the things you are actively aware of at any given time, the preconscious mind consists of everything you could potentially pull into conscious awareness.

The idea that elite athletes can more effectively adapt to unexpected perturbations during performance better than amateurs is not new.  In fact, many researchers suggest this adaptability is a major performance differentiator between elite and non-elite athletes.  This is where the preconscious mind concept becomes quite attractive.  As we watch Lionel Messi glide through a gap that nobody else saw at the last second, or Roger Federer hit a backhand winner at full stretch to stun his opponent, the idea that their preconscious mind was already processing those possibilities, allowing them a distinct time advantage in executing the movement, just fits.

But what does this have to do with proprioception?  Well, proprioception is another skill that we don’t really see, but that has a potentially huge impact on the performance of Messi, Federer, and all the other amazing athletes that we’re fortunate enough to watch.

Roger Federer playing tennis at Wimbledon

What is proprioception and why is it important in sports performance?

Proprioception is defined as the perception or awareness of the position and movement of the body, either relative to the world around us or to other parts of our body.

Take this example. If you close your eyes and wave your arms about, you will have a pretty good idea where your left hand is in space. So much so that, if asked, you’d easily be able to reach out and touch your nose or grab that drink you left on the side while keeping your eyes closed. Your brain is able to collate and process a vast amount of information based purely on feedback from proprioceptors – sensory receptors located in the muscles, tendons, and skin. This feedback is happening constantly, with proprioceptors sending messages to your brain 24/7.

Proprioception is most commonly likened to walking in the woods at night. In this analogy your proprioceptors are flashlights. The better your sense of proprioception, the brighter the flashlights become, allowing you to see and react to your environment far better.

A woman walking in the woods at night

The signals from these receptors are now more useful to the brain, leading to a greater ability to control movement, muscle activation, recruitment, and awareness. The brain’s ability to know where the body is in space, how its moving, and being able to adjust accordingly, is the essence of proprioception. This ability to sense and adapt to the ever-changing environments, situations, and stimuli in sport is at least a part of the essence of sporting performance.

An athlete’s training helps to improve the body’s proprioceptive function. The more highly developed our proprioceptive abilities, the more confident and powerful we feel during sport, and the more able we are to adapt to the situations in front of us. Simone Biles is able to gracefully balance on a beam and perform powerful athletic manoeuvres owing in part to her highly developed proprioceptive abilities, honed over thousands of hours of practice. Virat Kohli is able to effectively adapt his technique to a swinging or seaming ball partly because of his heightened awareness of his current position and muscle activation. Beauden Barrett is able to accelerate, decelerate, and cut more efficiently in response to a defender’s movements partly for the same reasons. Every sport involves proprioception, and the best athletes excel in this area.

Clearly, proprioception and awareness are factors we should all be considering in our training if we want to improve. But how exactly do we work on proprioception, and how does it fit into our training?

How to improve proprioception in your sport

There aren’t many more divisive statements within fitness & training circles that stating outright that a session is designed to target proprioception. Minds drift to boring ‘functional’ instability work in the gym doing squats on balance pads and BOSU balls.

However, many believe that the right quantity and style of proprioceptive training can be a genuine gamechanger to raise the athletic ceiling. In short, anyone searching for performance enhancement should be training the nervous system as well as the muscles. A well-honed proprioceptive system will not only allow for more accurate skill execution, but also an improved reaction time and faster movement. As athletes we would be stupid to ignore it.

In essence, the trick to creating effective proprioceptive training is to layer sport-specific motor skills with proprioceptive development. Take your sport-specific movements, and in the simplest terms add an appropriate level of instability. This forces the body to adapt, allowing for a more effective link to be made between muscle and nervous system, promoting proper muscle activation patterning, resulting in improved movement skill. The more challenging the instability, within the reasonable confines of safety and common sense, the more efficient your body becomes at finding it a solution.

Two people adding balance training to their press up workout to work on proprioception

Where does this fit in your training?

This is ultimately where the coach and their creativity come in. Each sport has different fundamental movements and requirements, but there are a few common ways to integrate proprioceptive training into your routine:

In the warmup

The warmup is actually a great place to incorporate instability training, essentially using it as a wake-up drill for both the nervous system and the musculoskeletal system. Rather than just going through the motions, challenge your body and brain before practice or game play, making sure to build some instability and decision making into your sport-specific movements.

During gym work

Within the relatively safe confines of the gym, instability can be created using wobble and balance boards in both static and dynamic exercises. Consider everything from isometric holds to controlled plyometrics, generally without external loading in favour of a focus on precision and stability. Use your creativity here to add perturbation and instability to your regular exercises, and even make things competitive between athletes. Don’t forget to make these movements at least as multi-directional as your sport is. By only training in a linear fashion you are asking for trouble.

Rehab & return to play

Proprioceptive work is perhaps most common in a rehab scenario, either with the goal of correcting movement, posture, or improving muscle activation and patterning during return to play. We’ll cover this in a future article, but the potential benefits of proprioceptive training in both rehab and injury prevention are huge, and as a result should not be overlooked.

A word of warning

This all sounds fantastic, and if you’ve read this far I bet you’re buzzing to go out and try something new at your next session. But before you do, please make sure you’re using your common sense and staying safe.

The best way? In short, start simple. Not every exercise is improved by adding instability. And not all training is more beneficial by adding weight. Unstable movements with substantial loading are inherently unsafe, so work your way up starting with simple bodyweight exercises. You’ll soon see the benefits even without external loading.

How does Exosuit improve proprioception?

What if an athlete could wear specialised clothing that enhanced the feedback between body and brain? The inevitable result is improved proprioception, confidence, and ultimately performance.

We realise that Artificial Intelligence and wearable tech are grabbing all of the headlines at the moment. Companies around the world are offering increasingly complex solutions to increasingly complex problems. Algorithms, AI and machine-learning augment our brain’s ability to process data, thereby condensing into a keystroke what might otherwise have taken hundreds of years for humans to calculate.

However, there remains one aspect of human performance that algorithms cannot realistically replace or augment at present: athletic performance. Many manufacturers have started to explore incorporating wearable tech into clothing and equipment, across a range of sectors and applications. In sport, this is with a focus on collecting data so the athlete can attempt to learn, refine, and eventually improve their performance through data analysis.

What wearable tech struggles to do is provide live tactile feedback to the athlete’s brain regarding their movement or skill execution, often relying on post-activity visual or audio methods. Sports manufacturers haven’t yet fully explored the potential of the human brain to achieve more beyond the assistance of wearable tech. This is where proprioception and Exosuit come in.

How does Exosuit technology actually work?

To fully understand this, we need to go back to the fundamentals of proprioception. Proprioception is not just enhanced by training, but also by providing additional somatosensory or tactile information. As before, if you were to shut your eyes and wave your arms about, you would have a pretty good idea where your hands are in space. However, if someone were to hold that hand as you waved it, you would have a far clearer idea of its position. The signals from the proprioceptors in your hand are now more useful to the brain, making it more aware of the information they are providing and thus the position of that hand in space. T o use a previous analogy, the bulbs in the flashlights all shine even brighter, so you can see better in the darkened woods.

Exosuit EXO1 sportswear interacts with the body to support and enhance proprioception

Exosuit products work in a similar fashion. By interacting with your skin via silicone panels at key anatomical locations, and engaging our patented flexible support over key joints, Exosuit garments stabilise and enhance awareness of position, movement, posture, and muscular activation during activity.

We are exploring a completely new approach to sports performance through clothing. Our products won’t magically heal or prevent all injury, or mean you can suddenly run like Usain Bolt. But by wearing Exosuit you are giving your body a better chance to learn, to improve, and ultimately to make you the best athlete you can be.

Read more about the science behind Exosuit on our blog page.