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Biology, Figure skating, Sport

Figure skating balance

When I injured my knee as a teenager the physiotherapist put me on a wobble board. If you haven’t seen one they are a board on top of some sort of piece that is unstable. Mine both have half of a hard ball on the bottom. I was supposed to stand on the board on the leg I had injured to retrain my ability to sense position changes and correct to keep myself balanced. This wasn’t really difficult for me. They had to increase the amount the board would wobble and then I had to move my free leg around to create extra challenge. Mheh, it just wasn’t that hard.

Recently I had a standing desk at work. I took in my wobble board and stood on it while I worked. It took several months before anyone noticed that I was on anything potentially unstable.

Here’s the thing though, I grew up happily balancing on one leg, on an eighth of an inch of steel, throwing my body through all sorts of strange positions and challenges: I was a figure skater. In turns out however that not all figure skater a balance in the same way.

Riva et al. (2002) compared how international level free skaters (jumps and spins) versus ice dancers (complex turns and edges) found their balance. They also included a group of Junior level skaters. They found that the top level free skaters out performed everyone else in balance tests where they had to rely on their body’s messages about where it is in space (this is based in your ear). Ice dancers however, were the best when it came to balancing based on visual input. The junior skaters had more ear based balance than the ice dancers but less than the top free skaters.

The other interesting result was that free skaters were better able to keep an unstable platform level, but they did this by moving their upper body around a lot. Ice dancers weren’t quite as good at keeping the platform level but they were much more controlled and still in their upper body. Based on the differences between these two disciplines this makes sense. As an ice dancer you are skating in close proximity to another person. You also have a much smaller error allowance. As a free skater you have to land the jumps, and although you will lose some marks for execution, if throwing your upper body into a random position allows you to stay on your feet then you are better off to do that.

Very cool and very interesting that different people balance in different ways. Now my question is are these differences learned or genetic, and can you improve your weaker form of balance?

Riva, D., Botta, M., Trevisson, P., Trente, P., Venturin, N., Minoletti, R., … & Federation, F. I. S. (2002). 3rd INTERNATIONAL CONGRESS ON MEDICINE and SCIENCE of FIGURE SKATING VANCOUVER (CANADA) 17-03-2001.

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.


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