Have you ever heard someone say they can’t play sports or do a particular activity because they aren’t coordinated enough? Have you ever wondered what it means to be coordinated and whether you can improve how coordinated you are?
What It Means to Be Physically Coordinated
Many people confuse coordination with agility. Agility is a necessary skill for good coordination, but people with exceptional coordination also have other skills, including a strong sense of balance and a powerful core. Simply put, coordination is the ability of muscles to work together in an efficient manner to achieve a particular goal. Coordinated movements, whether it’s throwing a ball, jumping to shoot a ball into a basket or serving a tennis ball, is smooth, fluid and appropriately timed. Not surprisingly, people who are highly coordinated are better at playing most types of sports. Good coordination also involves strong proprioceptive skills, the ability to sense where your body is in space without consciously thinking about. Your muscles and joints have receptors on them that send information to your brain about your body’s orientation and the direction in which you’re moving.
Another type of coordination, hand-eye coordination, is essential for playing sports and for doing most activities you do every day like driving a car or writing a letter. Hand-eye coordination involves an interplay between your eyes, your brain, and your hands. When you see something in your environment you need to react to, your eyes send a message to your brain and your brain sends a message back to your hands telling them what movements to make and how quickly. In most cases, this happens at lightning speed and without conscious thought on your part.
Unfortunately, coordination degrades somewhat with age, and this, combined with deterioration of balance skills, explains why so many older adults have problems carrying out their daily activities.
Can You Become More Coordinated as an Adult?
Kids who learn to play a sport at a young age develop neural pathways that enhance their coordination. Interestingly, kids who take piano lessons also tend to have better hand-eye coordination. If you think about it, this isn’t surprising. It takes agility to play the piano, and your brain has to quickly send input to each hand as your eyes read the music so your hands can work together smoothly to make beautiful music. Piano playing also strengthens fine motor skills.
What if you didn’t play the piano or a sport as a child and you feel you lack coordination, is it too late to develop it? Even as an adult, you can improve your coordination skills. In one study, researchers taught a group of elderly people how to juggle three balls at once, a skill that takes a great deal of hand-eye coordination. The adults who learned to juggle showed changes in areas of their brains involved in learning, suggesting that even older brains can be modified, at least to some degree, by experience and training.
Imagine someone learning to play tennis. When they first begin, they miss most of the shots or hit them off the court or into the net, but with practice, they learn to react more quickly and coordinate their movements to better control where the ball goes. As a result of practice, their hand-eye coordination and muscle coordination improves. You’ll make the most improvements in coordination when you begin training at a young age, but you can become more coordinated at any age.
Improving Coordination Skills
Exercising on an elliptical machine or pedaling an exercise bike won’t make you more agile or coordinated. Certain types of exercises are better for developing coordination skills. Plyometric drills, such as lateral jumps over a line drawn on the floor, box jumps, tuck jumps, and squat jumps all enhance agility, which is important for coordination. High knee skips, “quick feet” and jumping rope are other exercises that can improve coordination. To work on proprioception and balance, do one-legged jumps. When you’re standing in line at the grocery store, balance on one foot and hold it as long as you can. Turn coordination training into fun. Activities as simple as playing catch, tossing a medicine ball against the wall or Frisbee will help improve your hand-eye coordination.
Other ways to work on coordination include step training and kickboxing, two fun activities that also improve endurance. Don’t forget about core training. When you have strong stabilizing muscles in your core, you’ll be more balanced and stable, which is important for coordination. To strengthen your core muscles and work on balance, do some of your abdominal exercises on a stability ball.
Why Is Coordination Training Important?
Good coordination is important for excelling at most sports, especially ones that require quick changes in speed and direction, but it’s also essential for doing the functional activities you do every day – like reacting rapidly to a threat, changing directions briskly and driving a car. Considering that you lose hand-eye coordination with age, you need to keep challenging your brain and muscles so they learn to work better together. Coordination training could save you from a nasty fall or other injuries later in life. It can also make you a better athlete, and one that’s less prone towards injury, no matter what sport you play.
The Bottom Line?
Vary your workouts. Incorporate plyometrics and exercises that emphasize balance skills into your workout. Do some workouts that involve rapid changes in direction and moves that you have to think about like step training with more advanced choreography. Doing so will make you more coordinated and improve your agility keeping your workouts more interesting.
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The Journal of Neuroscience, 9 July 2008, 28(28): 7031-7035; doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0742-08.2008.
Sports Performance Bulletin. “How to improve an athletes agility and coordination”
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