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Optimum Performance: The best athletes have balance — mental, physical, spiritual and emotional

Serena Williams of the U.S. celebrates winning the final of the French Open tennis tournament against Lucie Safarova of the Czech Republic in three sets, 6-3, 6-7, 6-2, at the Roland Garros stadium, in Paris, France, Saturday, June 6, 2015. (AP Photo/David Vincent) (David Vincent)

In last Sunday’s New York Times, I was intrigued by a column, “Finding the Right Balance,” in which the writer, Alex Hutchinson, said, “we’ve come to view fitness as a collection of discrete traits — muscular strength, aerobic endurance, flexibility and so on — that can be isolated, measured and tinkered with independently. The pitfall of that approach is obvious: What is strength or endurance worth without the balance and stability to use them in the real world?”

For someone who has spent the last 30 years of his life working with some of the greatest athletes that sports has to offer, I came to the same conclusion years ago that the best athletes have one thing in common, despite their diversity in sports participation: Balance – mental, physical, spiritual and emotional.

And, it’s been my task to assist those athletes to maintain their respective balance, while directly or indirectly disrupting their opponent’s balance long enough to wreak havoc and devastation to their mental stability. In other words, take away the opponent’s instinct – the secret weapon which all athletes possess – and make your opponent think during the point in tennis, round in boxing or during a break-way in hockey.

Story by

Mackie Shilstone,

Contributing writer

When you make your opponent think during the heat of competition, they never see the kill shot coming, much less can they do anything about it, until they have lost the point, been knocked to the canvass or suffered a strike out at the plate.

For all us industrial athletes, Hutchinson notes that, “In 2010, 13 million Americans reported being injured in a fall, often caused by simple trips on the sidewalk or on the stairs at home. For the over 65s, the figures are worse: One in three in this age group falls every year, resulting in some 250,000 hip fractures and more than 25,000 deaths, usually from traumatic brain injuries. The health care cost of treating these falls is estimated to be $34 billion a year.”

The mode of exercise to address the inability to achieve balance in sports and rehabilitation is called stability/mobility training – which means while part of your body is stabilizing, such as when you swing a golf club and the lower extremity and core area of the body are fixed, the upper extremity is mobilizing during the various phases of the swing.

“Your feet alone contain 11 small stretch-sensing muscles,” Hutchison says, “No matter how many calf raises you do in the gym, your balance won’t be stable unless your brain is attuned to the signals from these sensors. Even wearing socks interferes with this subtle feedback and worsens your balance.”

And how can you test your balance? Try standing on one leg for 30 seconds, then close your eyes, as Hutchison suggests, and see if you can last for 20 seconds. Be prepared to have a wall or chair nearby if you start to lose your balance.

While there are many devices on the market – stability balls, BOSU and balance boards – that can assist trainers and therapists with improving a person’s balance and proprioception (the process by which the body can vary muscle contractions in immediate response to incoming information regarding external forces, by utilizing stretch receptors in the muscles to keep track of the joint position in the body), the best modes of training may be playing games.

Based on cognitive research, Hutchison commented that, “a striking feature of the balance and coordination exercises used in these cognitive studies is that they sound a lot like games. Perhaps the enjoyment we get from a good game isn’t just a nice bonus: It’s an indicator that we’re fully engaged, mind and body, in the activity. You could call that achieving good balance.”

I just call it enjoying a balanced life.

Mackie Shilstone, a regular contributor to | The Times-Picayune, has been involved in the wellness sports performance industry for nearly 40 years. He is currently a fitness consultant to Serena Williams and has trained numerous other professional athletes and consulted a litany of professional sports franchises. He is St. Charles Parish Hospital’s fitness and wellness expert. Contact him at