Have you ever seen someone do a handstand? I mean really do a handstand and be able to hold it for like a minute plus? I’m sure you have, and I’m sure you have wondered how the heck they do that? To start, you probably think they have really good balance and strong shoulders, back, and core right? That’s true, they do, but they also have a really good body awareness. Body awareness is where it starts. But what is body awareness and what does it mean? It is a term you may be familiar with, or maybe it’s something you have not put much thought into.
Body awareness is an internal sense of what is going on in your body and mind and what your body is trying to tell you about its function. It is listening to your inner sensations and feelings and then learning how to appropriately react. Think of body awareness as the clues, cues, signs, and symptoms from our bodies that may be very blunt or may be subtle as well. It consists of obvious signs like hunger, pain, fatigue, thirst, and digestive distress as well as vague signs like decreased concentration, achiness, irritation, muscular tension, and anxiety.
Body awareness manifests itself in many ways and is developed by sensing, interpreting, and responding. Having good body awareness helps you to learn about your individual needs and how to take good care of yourself. By improving your own body awareness, you improve your ability to respond to these cues and assist your body in functioning better.
But being able to read your body is a skill and takes time and practice. As a high level rugby player, ask yourself, do you have good body awareness? Do you listen to your body when you feel tired and worn out at the end of practice or a hard gym session? Do you know when it’s ok to keep pushing versus when to stop? Do you eat more or are you satisfied? Do you need to stretch and move from the position you have been sitting in all day long? Do you need to eat again because you realize you haven’t eaten in 6 hours and you can’t think anymore? Do you feel in control of your body when you work out or do you feel weak and uncoordinated? These are all areas of body awareness that you can improve just by paying attention.
Going back to that person who can do a handstand for over a minute. They are sensing the position and movement of their muscles and joints (proprioceptive) and responding to how their center of gravity shifts (vestibular) as they try to maintain their balance in a handstand. They feel their shoulders, back, and core working to keep their body in alignment to stay upright while standing on their hands. They control their balance with very small movements to stay upside down. They notice the pressure of blood rushing to their head, the stress of their body weight through their wrists, and the fact that their feet are in the air instead of on the ground. They concentrate on their breathing too mentally and physically stay focused. They use their nervous system and its different sensory systems like the proprioceptive and vestibular systems to sense where their body is in space and how to make small adjustments to stay balanced.
I could keep going and connect all the different body systems working together, but they make it look so easy!As a rugby player, you already have a good amount of body awareness that may seem instinctive especially as you run, tackle, respond to throwing or catching the ball, and make split second decisions on what to do next during a game. That being said, when you are a high level athlete, you need to ramp up the level of body awareness to succeed physically and mentally and to maintain the high standards of training and performance.
If you would like to improve body awareness, then a simple tip is to pick one area of your body or mind and do a mental scan. Let’s say you have an old ankle injury that you want to take care of, then begin with a mental scan of your ankle. Think about how it feels... warm, cold, swollen, achy, painful...what type of pain, weak, strong, fatigued, etc. Continue to do this scan once, twice, three times a day or before and after practices. Take your awareness a step further and look for cues like pain during warm ups, practice, and days off. What makes it feel better or worse? Does it feel better when you get taped, work on your home exercises, ice after practice, or stretch? By focusing on one area of your body, you will develop this skill which will create a snowball effect in other areas of your life.
Whether it’s learning not to push too hard on old injuries or learning how to do a minute-long handstand, you will learn how to truly listen to your body and take care of it. The big takeaway is that by gaining awareness of any aspect of your body or life, you will be able to make better choices. Better choices can lead to being better prepared for practice, better recoveries after a hard game, and happier, healthier you.