The science of southpaws
This is an article from the Aug. 26, 2013 issue
Athletes make adjustments all the time, tinkering with their form every off-season, if not every halftime. But Tristan Thompson is taking things to the extreme. Last week the Cavaliers forward announced he is switching his shooting hand from his left to his right. Thompson, 22, is a major contributor to the Cavs, but a horrific shooter. He led the team last season with 291 free throw attempts; he made just 60.8%.
Thompson's switch seems desperate, and, well, it is. But based on what I learned as I researched my book, The Sports Gene, the transition might be easier than it sounds. To many scientists who study handedness, there's really no such thing as a true lefty. They speak only of people who are righthanded ... and everyone else, since "lefthanders" are much closer to ambidextrous. "Very few people are as lefthanded as the average righthander is righthanded," says Charles Boklage, a geneticist at East Carolina. "The average lefthander is more flexible in just about everything he does."
Thompson exhibits many signs of ambidexterity. He throws a baseball and brushes his teeth with his right hand, and occasionally used a righty hook or push shot last season. ("I'm still trying to figure myself out," he joked last week.)
So his transition will be much easier than if the ball were in the other hand, so to speak. Success is rare for athletes with a dominant right hand who try to perform lefthanded. A study of every major leaguer from 1871 to 1992 who hit lefty but was a native righty (i.e., those who threw righthanded) showed that the group hit for less power than lefthanded throwers, because they were essentially using a tennis backhand to hit the ball.
And a change in technique could do Thompson good. In Daniel Coyle's book The Talent Code, which features the development of motor skills, psychologist Robert Bjork notes that unfamiliar training can break poor motor habits. He suggested that Shaquille O'Neal should have practiced free throw shooting from 14 to 16 feet to improve his aim from the 15-foot charity stripe. "Until then," Bjork said, "he'll keep being awful."
And a less-awful Thompson would be a boon for the Cavs.
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