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Spatial awareness

Your legs and feet must be trained to move your body in space in the way you wish for complete spatial awareness.

Gifted and elite athletes all have one thing in common: spatial awareness. It's a quality that's almost like a sixth sense. It allows an athlete to know where his or her body is in space, giving a "feel" about whether legs, arms, shoulders and torso are in the right position to make a desired move.

Good spatial awareness allows the athlete to play with the head up, seeing and being aware of everything in the field of play. For example, a basketball player with good spatial awareness would immediately be able to judge the distance to the hoop and notice if there's a hole in the other team's defense that could allow a shot. A ski racer with that same awareness would be able to judge exactly how close his or her skis and body can get to the gate without looking down and without the risk of hooking a ski tip and falling.

That kind of awareness allows an athlete to make decisions quicker, and quicker movements follow naturally. You can train yourself to make better sense of what's happening in the space around you simply by improving your aim.

Start with an empty waste basket and a tennis ball. If you stand two or three feet away, you can easily throw the ball into the basket. Now back away five feet. Is it still as easy to toss the ball so it falls into the basket? Continue backing up until you begin missing throws. Keep practicing from that spot until your muscle memory actually learns where that basket is in space. It may take minutes, it may take hours or an entire day, but soon you'll memorize how much force is required to get that ball into the basket from where you are standing.

Next, put the basket on a cleared-off table so that its opening is about chest high. Repeat the same routine, backing up until the point where you start missing shots, and practice from there until your muscle memory learns where that opening is in the space where you are.

Don't practice only with your dominant hand. Use both hands to toss the ball, which will train your less dominant side to also obtain better spatial awareness. Athletes who are only good on one side of their body don't get very far athletically.

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The same goes for the lower part of your body. Yes, your legs and feet must also be trained to move your body in space in the way you wish for complete spatial awareness. For this kind of training, use about a dozen tennis balls. Place half of them two or more feet apart against a wall with no nearby obstacles such as a lamp or end table.

In fact, it's better to do this kind of training outdoors or in an empty gym. Keep the other six balls by your feet, after backing up about a yard. Select one of the wall balls with your mind's eye. Kick one of the balls at your feet toward the chosen "wall ball." If you didn't hit it, move closer and try it again. Gradually increase your distance away until your muscle memory fixes the distance of those balls in space.

To train your legs for height awareness, select a mark outside, such as a chalk mark on a pole or a certain brick in a building, and practice the same technique to condition your legs and feet to know where your target is in space.

Yes, this kind of training may be a workout. But as an athlete, gaining spatial awareness is definitely worth the work.

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Wina Sturgeon is the editor of the online magazine Adventure Sports Weekly, which offers the latest training, diet and athletic information.

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