Ankle stability and mobility are both vital for performance and injury prevention. This is of particular importance to volleyball athletes, who are vulnerable to ankle injuries either by improper landing mechanics, off-balance movements, and (of course) landing on another player at the net. Stability and mobility are two terms that are often misunderstood. They must synchronize in such a way to produce optimal performance as well as reduce the risk for injury.
Stability vs. Mobility
Stability is the degree of stiffness of the joint. This is achieved through co-activation of the muscles that control movement of that joint. This prevents the joint from moving into a position where injury may occur. Thus, stability protects the joint from injury.
Mobility is the degree of motion that the joint can actively move in order to produce performance. This involves coordinated lengthening and shortening of the muscles in order to propel that joint in a specific direction.
Therefore, all movement requires not only the range of motion of the muscles that are moving the joint through the intended movement, but the surrounding muscles that must stabilize the joint to prevent movement in unintended directions. Thus, mobility and stability must coordinate together for optimal performance and safety.
Stability Comes First
It is important to know that the body’s instinctual priority is stability. It will attain this at the expense of functional mobility in order to protect the body against the threat of injury. As mobility is sacrificed in the interest of gaining stability (a common occurrence after an injury), it will create compensatory movement patterns that lead to muscle imbalances and a decline in performance. Think of how your body moves when you are walking on a slippery surface; your movement is very restricted. This accomplishes stability, but you have sacrificed a great deal of mobility, which lessens your ability to move quickly and dynamically. This is what happens with weakness at the ankle (or any other joint). It is tough to perform at your best when parts of your body are on movement lockdown.
Who Should Wear Ankle Braces?
The use of ankle braces assists in providing the ankle with the stability it craves, while sacrificing lateral mobility. Athletes with ankle instability and/or previous injury are great candidates for braces, particularly during rehabilitation, as they have compromised stability strength at the ankle. However, braces on healthy ankles will actually decrease strength and mobility and the athlete will become dependent on the braces for stability. If you are an athlete that has been wearing braces for an extended period of time and suddenly played without them, your risk for injury is quite a bit higher as your ankles likely have reduced lateral stability. If you’ve been wearing braces…it would be wise to keep wearing them unless you undergo an ankle strength and stability program.