On the Other Hand

August 26, 2013

The science of southpaws

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.

Go Fig

6

World championship gold medals won by Jamaica in the men's and women's 100 meters, 200 meters and 4 √ó 100-meter relay, the first time a country swept those events.

20

Length, in feet, of the python that the Rays brought into their clubhouse last Thursday for luck after manager Joe Maddon learned that this is the Chinese year of the snake.

0--14

The Red Sox' record on Ben Affleck's birthday since the noted Boston fan won his first Oscar, in 1998, for writing Good Will Hunting; the Sox lost 2--1 to the Blue Jays last Thursday, when Affleck turned 41.

$450,000

Value of the oversized armored truck that Knicks guard J.R. Smith reportedly drove to a recent dinner in Manhattan's trendy Meatpacking District.

6

Consecutive seasons Alabama has spent at least one week ranked No. 1 by the AP, after the Tide topped the preseason poll; only Miami (1986 to '92) has had a longer streak.

5

Times that the Cubs were shut out at Wrigley Field in the seven-game stretch ending last Saturday, making them the first team since the 1963 Mets to suffer five shutouts in seven home games.

PHOTOJOHN BIEVER/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (THOMPSON LEFTY) PHOTODAVID LIAM KYLE/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (THOMPSON RIGHTY) PHOTOKIRBY LEE/USA TODAY SPORTS (JAMAICAN SPRINTER) PHOTOWERNER LANG/IMAGEBROKER/CORBIS (PYTHON) PHOTOJEAN BAPTISTE LACROIX/WIREIMAGE (AFFLECK) PHOTOCOURTESY OF TERRADYNE ARMORED VEHICLES INC. (CAR) PHOTOSIMON BRUTY/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (ALABAMA COACH NICK SABAN) PHOTOJAMIE SQUIRE/GETTY IMAGES (CUBS)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)