20 May 2016

Wrong Footing the Opposition: The Advantages of Ambidexterity

Daniel Gallan

Here’s a question: would you rather have Lionel Messi’s left foot or Cristiano Ronaldo’s right? Tough choice, so why not both? Ambidexterity is a rare ability that few possess. Being able to perform equally well on both sides of the body might be a handy trait in everyday life but is a massive competitive advantage in many sports. Elite athletes who possess this gift stand out. But is it something they are born with, and if not, how can you train it? CONQA Sport explores. 

South Africa's AB de Villiers reverse sweeps against New Zealand.  Image supplied by Action Images.

South Africa's AB de Villiers reverse sweeps against New Zealand. Image supplied by Action Images.

Another week, another prominent football figure giving his opinion on the eternal question: who is the better player, Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi? This time it was Sir Alex Ferguson who weighed in his thoughts.  

“Now don’t get me wrong, Messi is a fantastic player, it’s like he’s wearing slippers when he controls the ball,” Ferguson told a 2 000 strong crowd last week as a special guest on “An Evening with Rory McIlroy” at the Dublin Convention Centre. “But here, for me, is the difference. Messi is a Barcelona player.”

Ferguson signed Ronaldo as an 18 year old from Sporting Lisbon for a then record fee for a teenager for £12.24 million pounds in 2003. He pointed out that shining in a team like Barca, surrounded with superstars who play for the collective, is much easier than in any other team. He went on to suggest that Ronaldo could play for Stockport County and score a hat-trick. “He has everything. He can shoot with both feet, head the ball, he’s as brave as a lion,” the plaudits continued to gush.

Of course Ferguson is somewhat biased, but one point he raised is worth mentioning. Ronaldo’s ability to unleash thunderbolts with both feet is a rare gift. Even by today’s standards, where modern day footballers are expected to be somewhat ambipedal, the Portuguese phenom is something of a rarity.

Not counting headed goals so as to focus on feet, Ronaldo has 390 for club and country with either foot while Messi has 331. Of those goals, Ronaldo’s left has contributed 82 at 21% and Messi’s right has bagged him 56

A 5% disparity might not seem astronomical, but a 26 goal difference in this titanic battle is telling.

Ambidexterity in sport is obviously a huge advantage. By being able to kick, throw, punch or catch equally well with both feet or hands opens up a range of possibilities that one sided opponents can’t match.

That is why sport is an industry where lefties flourish. According the American Psychological Association, only 10% of all humans are left handed yet we see a much larger amount of southpaws in elite sport.

A third of all Major League Baseball pitchers are left handed. 8 out of the top 20 pitchers in the league, according to ESPN’s pitching stats, throw with their left. Of the top 20 run scorers in this year’s Indian Premier League (IPL), 25% are left handed batsmen, with a few of them, including Aaron Finch, bowling left handed.

One other theory is that left handed people, in general, are more creative than their more orthodox compatriots.

A 2007 paper in the Journal of Mental and Nervous Disease found that musicians, painters and writers were more likely to be left handed. Increased creativity flourished in brains with more symmetrical hemispheres compared to the lop-sided, left hemisphere-heavy brains in right handed people. This results in more varied and unpredictable cerebral activity which, in theory, can lead to unpredictable and exciting plays on a sports field.

Either way, left handed or footed athletes offer something different which makes them enticing to coaches and selectors. Ambidextrous athletes are all the more appealing.

Being able to maintain performance on both sides of the body is a skill that sets certain athletes apart.  Ambidexterity is often the difference between a place in the starting team or a spot on the bench. It could also mean the difference between winning and losing.

Lionel Messi takes aim with his right foot.

Lionel Messi takes aim with his right foot.

But how do you train it? The answer is simple in theory: repetition.

Charisma Coertzen is an occupational therapist at Netcare Rosebank Hospital, a private hospital in the upmarket northern suburbs of Johannesburg. She helps patients recover from physical and cognitive disorders including the motor loss of a limb either through physical trauma or through neurological implications. She says that training a weaker hand or foot comes down to motivation. “It all depends on how much work you put in,” she says. “Stimulation, repetition and practice is the only way to improve.”

Coertzen works with patients who have suffered strokes that have caused damage to one hemisphere. Each hemisphere controls the opposite side of the body – left hemisphere controls the right side and vice versa.

If you are right hand dominant and your left hemisphere is affected, you are going to have to relearn basic motor functions. “Helping patients write their name is a big challenge sometimes,” Coertzen says. But through dedicated practice, most patients adapt.

It’s called neuroplasticity: the brain’s ability to form new neural connections that allow neurons to compensate for injury and disease by adjusting their activities in response to changes in their environment.

Whenever a footballer trains his left foot, he is opening up new pathways in the brain much the same way a stroke patient does.  

Like most things, developing neuroplasticity is best done at a young age - pre-puberty ideally. As children develop, a neurological foundation is formed and built upon. In prepubescent children, that foundation is not entirely built up. Think of an urban planner operating in an open field compared to one who is trying to gentrify a city. Once it starts getting crowded, there’s less space for new additions.

That is why it is imperative to start young. Elite athletes must constantly work on all areas of their game but if ambidexterity is to be a potent weapon, it must already have been worked on.

Jonty Rhodes is currently the fielding coach with the Mumbai Indians in the IPL and reiterates to CONQA Sport how difficult it is to train this skill in athletes who have already developed. “I see some of the best players in the world in their prime, but only for a few weeks [an IPL season lasts for 7 weeks],” Rhodes says. “Trying to train them to throw the ball from the boundary with their weaker hand is just not going to happen.”

Rhodes represented South Africa between 1992 and 2003. In that time he was arguably the greatest fielder on the planet. He had a unique approach to fielding that saw him get as close to the batsman as possible to cut down angles. Once there, he would throw himself at anything that was hit towards him, taking spectacular catches and saving countless runs. What he never did was throw with his left hand. He never contemplated developing that skill. Now as a coach, he tries as best he can to help in this regard.

Rhodes believes that cricket is somewhat behind other sporting codes when it comes to utilising both sides of the body, but that it is slowly changing. Many batsmen today play unorthodox shots, reverse sweeping and switch hitting with great effect. Some, like David Warner and Kevin Pietersen, switch their feet and hands so that they’re playing the other way. These shots are normally premeditated and are triggered either just before the bowler lets go of the ball or just after, leaving little room for adjustment.

It is Rhodes’ wish to see dual-handed batting trained in young children. “If it’s turning on day 5 of a Test, and you can go from a right handed batsman to a left handed one to negate the spin, that would be an incredible thing to do,” Rhodes muses, referencing South Africa’s recent horror show in India where some out-of-the-box batting might have prevented a 3-0 drubbing.

Earlier this year, a young Sri Lankan named Kamindu Mendis stunned the cricket world when he bowled with both arms in the same match. Representing his nation at the u19 Cricket World Cup in Bangladesh, Mendis utilised both sides of his body with equal accuracy and guile.

To right handers he used his left arm and to lefties he used his right. A split screen shows how both actions are mirror images of each other. He is not showing off or using this ploy as a gimmick. By possessing this unique skill, Mendis is able to dictate how he wants to bowl to the batsman and set his field accordingly. Like an ambipedal footballer, he is in control of the angles. If a batsman possessed this ability, it would surely change the way cricket is played.

Mendis no doubt honed this ability in his youth. To have the confidence to execute this play in a World Cup indicates that this is something he has done throughout his life. The challenge of creating new neural pathways later in life is not something easily overcome, something US Paralympic swimmer, Mallory Weggemann knows all too well.

In 2008, Weggemann, already an accomplished swimmer, visited her doctor for a routine epidural injection to treat post-shingles back pain. Something went awry and Weggemann was left paralyzed from her waist down.

Mallory Weggemann in action. Her latest physical setback - severe nerve damage to her left arm - hasn't stopped her from doggedly pursuing her dream of competing in Rio later this year.  Image supplied.

Mallory Weggemann in action. Her latest physical setback - severe nerve damage to her left arm - hasn't stopped her from doggedly pursuing her dream of competing in Rio later this year. Image supplied.

She was soon back in the pool and went on to win gold and bronze at the London 2012 Games, overcoming a setback when she was controversially placed in the S8 category, a class for swimmers with less impairment. She showed her grit by winning the S8 50m freestyle event, setting a new Paralympic record.

Weggemann would need to show that grit again when, in 2014, she suffered another injury. While taking a shower, the bench that she was sitting on collapsed under her, causing her to fall on her left arm leading to soft tissue and severe nerve damage. She lost the use of her left hand and mobility in her arm was greatly diminished. “I was out for 5 months,” she says over Skype. “I was afraid I wasn’t going to be the swimmer I once was.”

Weggemann is right hand dominant, so her everyday life hasn’t taken as much of a knock as it would have had she fallen on the other side. However, her swimming stroke has been greatly impacted. “In the pool, my left side was my more powerful side as that is the side I open my body up to take a breath,” she says. “Athletically I’ve had to learn ambidexterity.”

Another obstacle Weggemann has had to navigate is her body’s natural tendency to become symmetrical. Swimming is all about alignment: what the left does, the right must do. Her left arm can’t rotate enough under water or exert as much force as it once could. Subsequently, her right arm tries to mimic what is happening on the other side. “My coach is always reminding me to finish strong with my ‘good’ arm,”

Fighting the body’s natural instinct has taken a significant amount of cognitive rewiring through constant repetition and hard work, but Weggemann is confident she’ll fulfil her dream of competing in Rio later this year: “I’m doing everything I can. I’m so conscious of what my right side is doing and conditioning my left to be stronger than it is. It’s a process, but keeping that symmetry without losing power is crucial.”

Swimming, like other CGS (Centimetre, Gram and Second) sports, such as high jump, weight lifting or running, does not favour left handed or ambidextrous athletes, since keeping a symmetrical position is key. Sports like tennis, boxing, cricket, football and basketball are all about angles and how those angles can be used to outsmart an opponent and therefore favour ambidexterity.

The reason for this is that these sports involve bilateral integration which depends on crossing your midline – the dividing line down the length of your body. Swinging a tennis racquet, throwing a punch or kicking a football involves starting the action on one side of the body and finishing on the other. 

This bilateral integration is one of the earliest skills we develop as children and we still use it in everyday activities like writing on paper or brushing our teeth. When helping patients develop new neural pathways in the brain to train a weaker hand, Coertzen develops bilateral integration. As she says, “The first thing we do is start with midline orientation. Ambidexterity can’t exist without it.”

Training a weaker side is an arduous task; one best started young. That doesn’t mean it can’t be developed later in life. The brain is a computer that can be reprogrammed but needs constant work. Using one’s weaker hand for menial tasks such as using a phone or eating with a fork encourages bilateral integration. 

In skill based sports, ambidexterity is a huge advantage. Athletes who develop this ability stand out from the rest. While some are born with this gift, others work tirelessly to achieve it. What it comes down to is how badly you want it. 

CONQA Sport is hosting our second annual Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town on 5 & 6 October 2016.

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