The gifted New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. is spending a lot of time doing things with his left hand. I don’t mean catching footballs, I mean he is doing many of his normal daily activities left-handed. His reasoning is pretty simple. Mr. Beckham figures if the overall dexterity of his left hand improves it will let him make even more spectacular fingertip catches in tight situations.
I think Beckham is on to something and here are some of the reasons why:
1. One of the most effective ways that physical and occupational therapists have helped patients recover from strokes is to literally tie up their “good” limbs so they are forced to do as much as possible with their “weak” sides. This is called Constraint-Induced Movement Therapy, and it works. For many years this approach was not exactly mainstream but it has really taken off over the last ten or so years and the results are good. Both stroke patients and Beckham are tapping into the ability of the nervous system to make new connections and remodel even in adulthood. That adults have the ability to rewire their brains is one of the biggest new ideas in science since I started medical school in the early 1980s.
2. Back in the 1960s, off-season conditioning for elite athletes used to be much less formal than it is now. However, one of the most popular games was handball. It is a sport that requires good players to become ambidextrous. NBA star Blake Griffin tried the two-walled version earlier this year and let’s just say he might be a believer. Old school training also used to include things like hitting the boxing speed bag.
3. When it comes to doing novel drills to improve balance and coordination on both sides of the body, one of my favorite examples is the skier Mikaela Shiffrin. She does things like juggle while walking over unsteady terrain. There are also reports that she juggles while riding a unicycle. The great Soviet hockey coach Anatoli Tarasov adapted drills from traditional Russian dance and ballet moves to the ice on skates to improve the footwork of his players. It used to be common for college athletes to take dance classes of various sorts as part of 1950s and 60s style physical education.
All of this tells us that people like Odell Beckham Jr. and Mikaela Shiffrin are using training techniques that are on the cutting edge of medical science. They are also channeling old school ideas about the need for athletes to develop and refine a general set of motor skills in practice for use later in competitive situations. What they are doing also makes me wonder if we should be encouraging kids to do a wider variety of activities versus less specialized practice in an effort to help them reach their fullest potential. It also probably makes sense for the rest of us to follow the example of Beckham and Shiffrin and get out of our athletic and workout comfort zones and try new things, or perhaps old things like jumping rope.
Finally, how far can all of this go? In 1948 and '52 the Hungarian pistol shooter Karoly Takacs won Olympic gold medals. He shot left-handed. In 1938 his right hand was essentially destroyed by a defective hand grenade and he retrained himself to become a champion left-handed. So in some future big game when Odell Beckham Jr. makes a clutch catch left-handed remember he is channeling Karoly Takacs, which is not a bad idea for the rest of us either.
Michael Joyner, is an expert in human performance at the Mayo Clinic, these views are his own. You can follow him on twitter @DrMJoyner.