Proprioception is something that we rarely think about (bada boom, no pun intended). It’s the sense we have of where our bodies are in space. It’s why you can drive a car without looking at your feet on the pedals. You can walk in a completely dark room without losing your balance. You can type without looking at the keys. And why NFL receivers can make those amazing stretched out end zone catches with their feet staying in-bounds. Your brain keeps track of what all the appendages are doing at all times without you thinking about it. Some of us just do it better than others.
My first real awareness of this was an experimentation period with barefoot running. I’d just finished Christopher McDougall’s book “Born to Run” and decided to go all-in on barefoot running. I went with the Vibram Five Fingers shoes and hit the trail. If you’re not familiar with them, there’s no sole or cushion – just a thin layer of rubber to protect your feet from scratches and cuts. Needless to say, landing on a rock while running hurts. A lot. I spent much of those early runs with massively bruised feet. Eventually, someone pointed out what I was doing wrong. I was watching my feet when I was running. I was so busy trying to avoid rocks and “direct” where I stepped, my running was awkward, clumsy, and I constantly stepped on the rocks I was trying to avoid.
The secret is to not look where you’re going. Instead, look way ahead down the trail. Your brain sees all the terrain and creates a map of where to step without you being aware of it. If you stop thinking about it and let the brain and proprioception do it’s thing, you become smoother, faster, and avoid the rocks. It seems very counter-intuitive. You’ve done it yourself many times without realizing it. Walk across a room carrying a very full coffee cup. If you stare at the cup as you walk and try not to spill, most likely you’ll start spilling. Look ahead and stop thinking about it and your brain, arm, and hand will take care of the balance just fine.
What’s my point with this? Our conscious thoughts often get in the way of learning new skills properly. Take the golf swing. The average downswing takes about a quarter of a second. Your proprioception WILL get the clubhead to the ball. The problem is you may unknowingly have to do all sorts of weird contortions to get the clubhead back to the ball depending upon what you did in the backswing, setup, etc… Here’s where conscious thought gets in the way. I’m someone who was traditionally too cheap and stubborn to take lessons. Instead, I’d spend hundreds of dollars on the driving range pounding away at balls thinking I can “fix” my swing by myself. I was sure I knew what I was doing wrong. It was just a matter of enough practice. When it finally became clear that wasn’t working, I broke down and took a lesson.
That first time I saw my golf swing on video I was blown away. Everything I thought I was doing, had nothing to do with what I was really doing. My conscious brain would lie to me and it would “feel” like my hands or hips were doing one thing, but in reality they were doing the opposite. It was an ah-ha moment for me. My stubborn insistence (and cheapness) that I can teach myself has probably cost me significantly over the years. If I’d been willing and open years ago to taking lessons for many of my sports, I suspect I’d be much more skilled than I am today. I’m a reasonably coordinated and athletic person, so I’ve been able to make things work. But I could have been so much better.
I’m now at a point that I have the time, resources, and willingness to take lessons. I’m embracing it. I’ve been going to a personal trainer and have been making gains far quicker than I ever did by myself in my garage gym. He’s correcting horrible form that I “felt” was correct. I took my first ever ski lesson this season. A few simple changes have made things more effortless and really dialed in my carving turns. I never would have figured that out on my own. I’m doing a big block of golf lessons because I want to stop fighting the game and enjoy playing. It’s very obvious now that I can’t do that on my own watching YouTube instructional videos.
Our bodies and proprioception are an amazing thing. But unless you’re one of those .001% of gifted natural athletes, most likely your conscious brain will get in the way of correct movement. But as Mrs Troutdog has told me for years (and I didn’t listen), even the top pros have coaches for a reason.
Whatever your sport is, go take a damn lesson.