What is Proprioception, Anyway?

Proprioception is a sense, like sight or smell. A person’s sense of proprioception is their sense of where their limbs are in space.

You might be wondering: isn’t that just a subset of other senses? A person can see their arm in front of them, after all. They can also feel the touch of, say, their leg against their other leg.

Actually, no, proprioception is not merely an amalgam of other senses. This is evidenced by the existence of a strange pathology: some people actually lack the sense of proprioception.

Proprioception as a Distinct, Independent Sense

Here’s an experiment that illustrates whether or not you possess the sense of proprioception: close your eyes, and put your arm in front of you straight. Have a friend take your hand and move it such that your elbow bends. Without opening your eyes, tell your friend how bent your elbow is, then open your eyes and check. How accurate were you? Chances are, pretty accurate, because your sense of proprioception is intact.

A visual depiction of the elbow test described above.

On the other end of the spectrum, people without this sense are terrible at this exercise. They can feel the touch of their friend’s hand on theirs, but their proprioception doesn’t send them any signals after that, so they don’t have a sense that their elbow angle is decreasing.

It’s a sense with the classic property of “you never know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone.”

Want an even simpler proof that you’re proprioceptively aware? Walk with your eyes closed.

Really, that’s all you have to do. People born without proprioception have actually trained themselves to use vision in order to balance their bodies while they walk. Their eyes track the slight up-and-down movements that occur in their surroundings as their bodies move during walking, and their brain then uses that visual information (rather than the proprioceptive information that most people’s brains use) to calibrate the walk.

Proprioception vs Kinesthetic Awareness

Proprioception is a person’s sense of where their limbs are in space. Some coaches will further distinguish between proprioception and a sense known as “kinesthetic awareness” – a person’s sense of how their limbs are moving in space.

This distinction is semantic, not technical. After all, movement is merely a description of how position changes across time. Kinesthetic awareness is a derivative of proprioception (both colloquially, and, literally, it’s a time derivative of proprioception). Treating the two as separate senses would be akin to saying that looking at a picture and watching a movie aren’t both the sense of sight (maybe watching a movie is “kinesthetic observation,” while looking at a picture is the traditional “sight”).

Personally, I don’t distinguish between the two. I refer to an athlete’s sense of proprioception when discussing how it feels to be in a certain limb position, and I refer to an athlete’s sense of proprioception when discussing how it feels to move from one position to another.

How You Can Be Your Best Coach

When a student is working with a coach, the coach uses primarily the sense of sight to assist the student. The coach watches the student’s body, and then makes recommendations based on that visual information. Occasionally, the coach may also use audio information (often at contact) to make recommendations, but, mostly, it’s sight.

You’ll spend much more time internally coaching yourself than you ever could paying someone else to coach you.

If a tennis player is coaching themself, on the other hand, they have a huge sensory advantage – proprioception. A coach can never have access to their student’s sense of where their limbs are in space. A coach can never know what it feels like to be the student, what it feels like as the student moves from one position to another. But the student – they do have that information.

This is why you will always have a natural advantage over your external coach. This isn’t to say that external coaching isn’t useful – it’s extremely useful, but internal coaching, the coaching a player does for themselves, shouldn’t be under-rated. In terms of raw hours, you’ll spend much more time internally coaching yourself than you ever could paying someone else to coach you.

Calibrating Your Proprioception

Your coach has sight, and you have proprioception, but there’s no need for this to be a trade off. With the power of video, you can have both sight and proprioception. Record yourself as you play, and then watch the video back.

Initially, the typical player’s sense of proprioception is not calibrated to reality. Let me explain what I mean by that. After you execute any tennis movement, you should be able to generate an image in your mind of what that movement looked like from the outside. That image is generated from your personal proprioceptive experience of the shot. Using the information of what the movement felt like, you should be able to determine what the movement looked like.

Initially, the typical player’s sense of proprioception is not calibrated to reality.

Again, most players can’t do this. Here’s Ian from Essential Tennis explaining this in the context of rating trolls, the commenters who leave comments like “that’s definitely not 4.5” or “3.5 at best” on tennis videos. These rating trolls misidentify the level of the players in the video because their own sense of proprioception is poorly calibrated.

The rating troll’s sense of where their limbs are in space does not match up accurately with reality. When they play, they feel like their movements are far more crisp, coordinated, and accurate than they actually are. The discoordination between feel and reality is exposed using the more natural sense: sight (when these players watch a video of their play, they can finally see the truth).

Even if you’re not a rating troll, there’s a good chance you still have glitches in your own proprioceptive awareness. By watching video of your own game, you can effectively and systematically iron out these glitches. When you analyze your own video, you are essentially training your sense of proprioception to be more accurate:

  • What did that movement feel like?
  • What do I think it looked like, based on how it felt?
  • What did it actually look like?
  • Adjust

The more calibrated your sense of proprioception is to reality, the more powerful of a tool it is as you practice.

Why We Teach Fundamentals

Our goal at Fault Tolerant Tennis isn’t simply to “make you into a better tennis player.” It’s more specific than that. Our goal is to improve your understanding of tennis such that we make you into a better coach for yourself.

I’ll never be able to take your forehand, from wherever it is now, into an elite stroke in, say, a 1 hour tennis lesson. But what I can do is teach you how to improve at a fundamental level. I can get you to do it perfectly at least one or twice, so that you know what it feels like to do it right. That way, you can coach yourself.

Specifically, my goal is to give you two things:

  1. A verbal understanding of how the stroke works.
  2. A proprioceptive reference point – what it feels like when the stroke is working perfectly.

Once you have those two things, then you can practice on your own for 20 hours, and our 1 hour lesson will have a beneficial effect on all 20 of those practice hours. For those 20 practice hours, you’ll be able to use your own proprioceptive sense to coach yourself, and the more precisely you’ve calibrated your sense of proprioception to reality, the more powerful that self-proprioceptive coaching will be.

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