How to improve an athletes agility and coordination

Bilateral Co-ordination Training

How many youth coaches systematically attempt to improve the non-dominant side of their athletes? None, in my experience, yet this is the starting point for every music teacher. My nine-year-old daughter has better bilateral co-ordination than most world-class soccer players. This is not as amazing a claim as it may sound and the reason is simple: she plays the piano. We never ever hear about pianists who are brilliant with their right hands, but who can't manage a note with their left. This is true of players of most other musical instruments - but not of players of sport.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that people who learn a musical instrument later in life can achieve a high level of bilateral competence or two-handed dexterity. If they can do it, surely so can £25,000 a week footballers - or top class cricket and rugby players?

In cricket, ambidextrous fielders make shot selection difficult, leaving batsmen unsure as to whether to aim shots to their right or left. It is very noticeable (when you start looking) how many world class players take right hand catches with ease and drop much easier left hand ones; and how many lose time switching the ball from one hand to another to throw it in.

In rugby, right-handed players like to pass the ball from right to left more than from left to right. Apparently, in rugby union it is very hard to get players to practice moves involving left to right passing. In rugby league it is customary to put weaker defensive players on the left hand side (the opposition's right) because fewer balls move this way in a game

Developing bilateral co-ordination

Video analysis of lateral preferences has a significant impact on sport tactics. For example, it is well known that forcing a soccer player with a good right foot and a weak left one onto the left will hamper his effectiveness. But surely the time has come to take the tactical game one stage further - to eliminate weak left feet by transforming prevailing thinking about hand/foot/eye domination? Research into musical competence suggests that it is possible to develop bilateral coordination in sport.

For example, Christman (1) tested a hypothesis that it was easier for 'mixed-handed' or ambidextrous people to play keyboard instruments. His analysis supported the hypothesis without showing if handedness affected the selection of a particular instrument, or if playing a keyboard helped to develop bilateral competence. But Jancke and colleagues (2) showed this to be the case in a study of the manual dexterity of both the left and right hands of three groups. These comprised non-musicians, keyboard musicians and string musicians. The non-musicians were found to have the largest asymmetry, or discrepancy, between their hands; the string musicians a smaller asymmetry; and the keyboard players, the smallest discrepancy of all.

The most exciting finding of all in the study was that reduced asymmetry was related to the age of the children. The earlier they started playing the higher the degree of mixed-handedness. It seems that early manual skills training interacted with development of hand-motor dominance, leading to improved performance of the non-dominant hand. Sports coaches and early-years educators should take note that this is exactly the experience of my daughter and thousands of other musical students. All it takes is a few minutes' practice each day.

To this end, my colleagues and I have developed a curriculum pack for teachers of children aged five to eight, which is to be launched early in 2001. It describes 'multi-firing exercises' to open up neural pathways, encouraging sensory motor development and promoting bilateral coordination. These exercises are easy and a lot of fun. Some examples:

* Simple throwing and catching using both hands, then the right hand alone, then the left hand alone
* Simple kicking/short-distance passing with the dominant then non-dominant foot.
* Rhythmically touching left knee with right hand, then right knee with left hand (repeated to music).
* Slightly older children will enjoy fun games of football/basketball etc, with everyone having to use their non-dominant hand/foot.

Are such potential benefits restricted to the very young? What about those in their thirties or fifties or even beyond? All the indications are that most of us have the potential to improve our bilateral co-ordination. Take that international soccer star who fluffed his shot for want of a good left foot. He could start by kicking a ball against a wall with his left foot and then aiming - again with his left foot - at targets on the wall. Dribbling with his left foot around cones or other obstacles could help to ring the changes. But he may have such a good right foot that any initial fumbling with his left may discourage him from persevering. Top class performers, just like young children, need constant motivation and encouragement to develop bilateral co-ordination This may not be forthcoming because most coaches (and many psychologists and sports scientists) under-estimate the significance of the relationship between lateral preference and sporting achievement.

Dominance and the lopsided ape

This significance extends far beyond whether we are right-handed or right-footed. Michael C. Corballis, professor of psychology at the University of Auckland, and author of The Lopsided Ape (OUP, 1991) has pointed out that in sport, it is important to look at dominance with respect to hands, feet and eyes; and he has shown that it is possible to have dominance for all options on the right or on the left, or to have a mixed combination. Corballis made the simple yet compelling point that the physical structure of both hands (and feet or eyes) is the same, so the differences must be neurological. Most of us have a dominant brain hemisphere, further magnifying the complexity of these options. Stanley Coren, author of Left Handers (John Murray, 1992), and Clare Polac, his research collaborator at the University of British Columbia, tried to establish if 'sidedness' could predict any aspects of a person's sporting success. They began by measuring the handedness, footedness and, to coin a new word, eyedness of 2,611 people active in 15 different categories of sport. The first question they asked was: does right- or left- handedness make a difference? Their work dismissed as a myth the popular idea that left-handers dominate baseball. They showed that (with the exception of pitchers) 14% of all baseball players were left-handed, exactly the same proportion as men in the general population. In contrast, 26% of pitchers were left-handed.

Coren commented: 'This high percentage of lefties suggests that the people who hire major league pitchers believe that left-handed pitchers have some advantage over their right-handed colleagues. However, to take this analysis one stage further, we looked at the overall performance of left- and right-handed baseball players. We don't find any difference in baseball proficiency related to handedness.'

Winning edge of boxing lefties

The study did establish that left-handed boxers, or southpaws, had an advantage over their right-handed counterparts, probably because left-handers throw punches from different directions and angles. It is also true that, with left-handers accounting for only 10% of boxers, right-handers don't see many of them in the ring.

Coren concluded that handedness was of limited use in predicting sporting prowess, except in boxing and fencing. But being a mixed-hander or consistently one-sided may be important in some sports. Overall, being mixed-handed may be better for sports like basketball, ice hockey and field hockey which require an ability to respond to either side. The good basketball player can dribble the ball with either hand; and receive or pass the ball with either or both hands. The hockey player has to shift his grip on the stick rapidly to power a shot from right or left, as needed. Moreover, the very act of swinging a hockey stick requires co-ordination of both hands.

In contrast, racquet sports like tennis, squash and badminton favour dominant-handed players. Although, as in hockey, the player must respond to either side, the racquet requires only one hand to guide and power it. In addition, while the grip shifts in hockey, the racket grip remains constant: only the arm movements and the body stance changes.

Being strongly and consistently one-sided may help in rifle and pistol shooting, archery and bowling because the dominant eye is used for sighting. The dominant-eyed person always uses the same eye in sighting and aiming: the mixed-eyed person sometimes sights with one eye and sometimes with the other. People are not usually conscious of which eye they use for aiming.

Hand-eye relationships in sport

Like Corballis, Coren highlighted the important relationship between different aspects of sidedness. For example, right-handed and right-eyed people are known as 'congruent hand-eye sided'; and those whose dominant hand and dominant eye are on opposite sides as 'crossed hand-eye sided.' Cross and congruent hand-eye relationships are advantageous in different sports.

Congruent hand-eye preference is associated with better performance in racquet sports. When the dominant eye and hand are on the same side, Coren explained, the larger field of vision covers the area where most of the action occurs. If, for instance, a player is left-eyed and right-handed (cross-sided), the hand swinging the racquet is invisible from the dominant eye for most of its swing. The right side view is partly blocked by the bridge of the player's nose. Because aiming is done with the dominant eye, any small corrections in the racquet's swing would come quite late. If the player is right-eyed and right-handed (congruently-sided), the racquet appears in the field of vision earlier in the swing, leaving time to make minor adjustments to improve overall accuracy.

Balancing the centre of gravity

Individuals with crossed hand-eye preference seem to be much better at sports like gymnastics, running and basketball. When the dominant hand and the dominant eye are on the same side of the body, its centre of gravity shifts towards the dominant side. In sports such as gymnastics, activities like tumbling, vaulting and swinging from the rings or high bar depend upon equal action from both sides of the body. A shift in the focus of the weight to the dominant side will add a slight tendency to twist to the body. Any such twists away from perfect alignment, if large enough, mar performance, resulting in lower scores. Additional strength and skill is needed to correct such tendencies. A person with a better-centred weight focus does not need to be so concerned about this problem. Generally, people with crossed hand-eye preference seem to have the centre of gravity closer to the midline of the body, giving them better balance and hence better performance in gymnastics.

Coren commented that the same balance factor probably affects basketball players who shoot straighter if their centre of gravity is centred in the body - they do not have to compensate for twists towards their dominant side. This also explains why people with crossed hand-eye sidedness are better at track events. In congruently sided runners, the weight is focused more towards the dominant side of the body, producing a tendency to veer slightly from the chosen running line. This must be compensated for, either by expending more effort to run straight, or by taking one or two steps sideways or diagonally to correct for the drift. Such corrective movements waste energy and move the competitor from side to side. This can make a decisive difference in a 100m races won by fractions of a second - and waste motion in longer races. For the crossed-sided runner, with the focus of the body weight more directly centred, the need for such sideways correction is greatly reduced, enabling him or her to concentrate all effort on advancing forward.

Coren found that baseball players with crossed hand-eye preference tend to do considerably better than others, perhaps because of the batting stance. A right-handed batter generally stands parallel to the home plate with his left side, and hence his left eye, towards the pitcher. The bat is held to the right of the body, ready to swing around to the left. This is the perfect stance for the right-handed and left-eyed (crossed-sided) player. As the dominant eye is usually used for sighting and aiming, having the preferred eye towards the pitcher should be an advantage. As a Briton, let me point out that the same holds true for cricketers.

I'd like to finish as I began - by asking you to compare the bilateral co-ordination of young pianists with that of sports internationals. Music teachers have been hitting the winning keys for many years. When are coaches going to follow their example and narrow the chasm between left and right?

We hope our new curriculum pack will fill this vacuum for the five to eight age group. But I would like to reiterate that the potential benefits of bilateral coordination are not restricted to the very young. Most of us have the potential to develop bilateral coordination. Exercise regimes in the 'Quantumcoaching Curriculum Pack' are based on research suggesting that specific physical activity can change physiological and mental 'stuck' states. The secret is doing brief stand-up movements that cross arms or legs over from one side to the other. These work by forcing the left and right hemisphere to interact vigorously with each other. For example:

* Stand and take a deep breath.
* Reach across your body and take a deep breath.
* Switch hands and pat the other side of the back.
* Next, stand and reach behind your body and touch your opposite heel as you lift it.
* Alternate, switching to touch the opposite heel.
* Next, stand and touch or pat the opposite thigh. Then alternate.

These activities should be incorporated into every coaching session. The emphasis should be on small incremental steps to take athletes towards the desired standard.

The ultimate aim in cricket coaching may be to train players to throw powerfully and accurately with the left hand. The first session may be limited to picking up a static ball and hitting the wicket from 5m with the left hand. The final one may involve picking up and throwing a static ball and hitting the wicket from 30m, using the left hand 90% of the time. An initial soccer session may involve players tapping a static Brazilian weighted football into the goal from 5m 100% of the time. This may be followed with practice with the left foot from 15m - with the aim of hitting the target 90% of the time.

Paul Morgan

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