Jan 29, 2015A Tale of Two Sides
Most athletes are right-handed or left-handed. No matter what the sport, this simple fact should play a role in designing their training.
By Vern Gambetta
Vern Gambetta, MA, is the President of Gambetta Sports Training Systems in Sarasota, Fla., and a frequent contributor to Training & Conditioning. His daily thoughts on training athletes can be viewed on his blog: www.functionalpathtraining.blogspot.com.
Do you remember the first time you tried to do something athletic with your nondominant hand? For me, it was shooting a layup left-handed as a kid. It was a disaster.
That was my introduction to lateral dominance, and I’m still intrigued by the concept today. Technically, lateral dominance is the preference for one extremity or a half of the body over the other. It is a fancy term for saying someone is right- or left-handed–but it means a lot more than simply identifying which hand a person writes or throws with.
Unless they are ambidextrous, every athlete is more proficient with one side of their body than the other. In some sports, like baseball, the athlete’s lateral dominance is obvious and it plays a big part in the game’s strategy. In other sports, such as basketball and soccer, overcoming a preference to favor one side often leads to performance enhancement. And even in a sport like track and field, lateral dominance can affect performance–think about your throwers and jumpers, or if the third leg of your 4×100-meter relay team wants to hold the baton in her left hand, while the others prefer to use their right.
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?
While lateral dominance may have different implications for different sports, there are several reasons why the concept is important in training all athletes. The most obvious reason is that it can limit performance. In multi-directional sports, the athlete who can move both arms and legs with equal proficiency gains an advantage over the athlete who cannot. Even a right-handed baseball pitcher will benefit from having excellent coordination on both sides of his body while playing defense.
Another clear reason for addressing lateral dominance in training is that if an athlete progresses through their career only using the dominant limb or the dominant side, they run the risk of overuse. Through repetitive stress, a structural or functional imbalance can occur and lead to injury or impaired performance.
But there are also some less obvious reasons why we need to pay attention to this concept. In particular, it is often the nondominant side that performs the function of deceleration. Think about a soccer player trying to maneuver into a position that allows him to strike the ball with his dominant leg. The player’s body may be off-balance as he makes his approach, and his nondominant leg will play a huge role in decelerating and stabilizing his body. If that nondominant leg needs to shift at the last minute to avoid a defender, it needs to be strong and coordinated enough to do so safely and effectively. Otherwise, performance will suffer and, in some cases, injury may result.
There is also the idea that training the nondominant limb may improve performance with the dominant limb. This concept, called bilateral transfer, has not been adequately explored as a potential tool for performance enhancement. It has, however, been used extensively in rehab.
Bilateral transfer refers to the improvement in function of one limb by working its opposite. It’s based on the contralateral function of the brain hemispheres in controlling movement through both cortical and sub-cortical impulses that enable transfer from one side of the body to the other. Early in my coaching career, I read about an injured elite skier who had one leg in a cast, but did strength-training exercises using the non-injured leg to help keep the injured leg strong. For rehab, the positive implications are obvious.
The question is, can it also work for performance enhancement? We are talking about the same body and the same nervous system, so logic tells us that it should work when training a healthy athlete. Unfortunately, no research has been conducted on the concept, but anecdotally, I have found that it can be effective.
An obvious application is to have a right-handed thrower practice throwing left-handed or a left-footed kicker work on kicking right-footed. Janis Lusis, former world record holder and multiple Olympic medalist in the javelin throw, is right-handed, but he used to end each throwing workout with 10 to 20 easy-effort left-handed throws. He said the exercise helped hone his balance and coordination. The more I researched the concept of bilateral transfer, the more examples like this popped up.
When I was the Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Chicago White Sox from 1987 to 1996, we experimented with having our pitchers play catch on the day after they pitched in a game using their nondominant arm. Their dominant arm was usually pretty sore from pitching the day before, so we wanted to work their nondominant arm to make gains using bilateral transfer. The results were hard to measure, but our subjective, anecdotal findings showed that those pitchers who committed to the exercise liked it and felt it helped their dominant arm.
Having used bilateral transfer exercises in several sports, I’ve observed heightened awareness and improved coordination on the dominant side after having worked the nondominant side. Obviously this needs to be studied further (my observations are purely anecdotal), but I am convinced there is merit to the concept.
DEVELOPMENT OF DOMINANCE
To understand the larger concept of lateral dominance, it’s helpful to examine it as it relates to growth and development. In this field, laterality refers to the conscious awareness that there are two sides of the body. Through movement experience during growth, children become increasingly aware of their right versus their left side and develop patterns of dominance. Between the ages of five and seven, these patterns really begin to reveal themselves, although research has shown that a preference for use of the right or the left hand is not permanently established until age nine or 10. Foot preference, however, seems to be established by age five.
Therefore, the ideal period for children to develop bilateral movement is during the so-called “skill hungry years” of ages six to nine. This does not mean that we should train young athletes to be ambidextrous–not at all. Rather, we are simply attempting to develop nondominant limb skills with the goal of enhancing the efficiency of the entire body.
How does this concept work neurologically? In motor learning, as in all learning, the brain needs to receive information in order to learn. The body provides that information to the brain, which processes the data and turns it into signals that trigger the appropriate movements. The brain has two hemispheres: the logical left brain, and the right brain–what I call the perceptual side. These two sides are connected by the corpus callosum, which transmits rapid communication between them. Optimal learning occurs when both sides are communicating. The term for this is cross-lateral control.
One book on the subject that really opened my eyes is The Dominance Factor, by Carla Hannaford. This book approaches the concept of lateral dominance from the viewpoint of a learning disabilities specialist, but the implications for sports performance enhancement are intriguing. Hannaford goes beyond just identifying dominant arm–she identifies dominant eye, ear, and foot. She also talks about how these dominance patterns interact to provide information to the brain.
An obvious way these ideas cross over to athletics is examining how a dominant eye affects the way an athlete tracks a ball. A more subtle concept, however, is how dominance patterns affect the manner in which an athlete learns. It can be very helpful to know if an athlete processes information better using auditory cues or by receiving visual cues, or if processing complicated feedback will be difficult.
The book also made me think about how important it is for all areas of the brain to be in sync when processing information. According to Hannaford, “The optimal learning state is one of whole-brain integration. In this state, both hemispheres are equally active all the time, thus accessing all sensory information and effectively communicating, moving, and acting on information.”
As coaches, we know that our most effective practice sessions occur when an athlete is totally focused, with every muscle of their body eager to respond to stimuli. The more we understand how the brain works, the better we can train our athletes. If therapists can teach students to overcome disabilities rooted in certain brain dominances, we can teach athletes to overcome lateral dominance and enhance performance.
TRAINING BOTH SIDES
I am not saying we should train the right-handed tennis player to play left-handed, or devote half our training time to developing the nondominant side–that would be a waste of time. Ultimately, most athletes must perform optimally with their dominant limbs, so everything we do in training should focus on enhancing skills in those limbs. However, I feel that spending a small amount of time training the nondominant side of the body will help achieve this overall performance goal.
The obvious question, then, is when and how much should the nondominant side be trained. The answer depends on the athlete and his or her training and performance goals.
The first step is to assess whether the athlete has major problems caused by lateral dominance. You can do this through observation and testing. Tests should be agility-based and force the athlete to move both right and left.
If deficiencies due to lateral dominance are affecting the athlete’s play, find out why they are better at going in one direction than the other. Is it a strength imbalance? Does a prior injury limit their ability to move to one side? Is it a perceptual motor problem? To remedy this situation, it is necessary to find the cause and then systematically address it. This requires a specially designed program for each individual athlete.
If lateral dominance is not causing major problems but you’d still like to improve an athlete’s nondominant limb proficiency, I suggest adding small doses of nondominant training to their workouts. Most of this training can be classified as remedial work and can be implemented as part of warmup or cooldown. I have also found these types of exercises are good “homework” for athletes to do between practices. Homework exercises can be as simple as throwing and catching with the nondominant hand.
I wrote earlier about getting both sides of the brain to work together. A great way to achieve this is through cross-lateral physical movements. These are movements where limbs coordinate with their counterparts on the other side. The simplest form of cross-lateral movement is crawling, which I include as part of every warmup. I also add a specific crawling module to my core-training workouts. Crawling exercises are done using both hands and both legs. Examples include bear crawls and Spiderman crawls.
For coordination training, I suggest incorporating work that involves the nondominant side in novel tasks, not just the sport skill exercises. I am not seeking a direct transfer with these everyday exercises, but practicing synchronization of movement that heightens body awareness and awareness of the nondominant side. These unrelated movements will open neural pathways and wake up the nervous system. (See “Coordination Drills” below.)
Strength training is where I include the reciprocal type of work that can take advantage of bilateral transfer. Obviously, this is not feasible for every workout, but I use it where it fits. The idea does, however, require a whole paradigm shift on the role of strength training toward enhancing coordination and the efficiency of movement patterns. This type of work does not improve heavy lifting, but it is more functional because it develops more useable strength.
For example, have athletes do an alternate dumbbell press instead of a two-arm press with a bar. Lunges and single-leg squats can be used for the lower body. This will facilitate lateral transfer while also achieving standard strength gains.
In core strength and stability training, it is very important to work both sides of the body in a balanced way. This does not take any extra effort–it just means setting up your drills to focus on both sides equally.
It’s also a good idea to examine some everyday things athletes do that affect their lateral dominance. For example, track athletes always run counterclockwise around the track. To counteract this, simply have them do a portion of their training–such as their daily warmup and cooldown–in a clockwise direction.
Lastly, remember that lateral dominance is not just about training left and right body movements, but also about other nondominant patterns of movement. Therefore, work the following movement combinations into workouts where appropriate:
• Right/Left • Forward/Back • Up/Down • Over/Under • Clockwise/Counterclockwise • Side and Diagonal.
Training both sides of the body will ultimately enhance total movement skills. Doing so doesn’t mean you have to revamp your strength and conditioning program, it just requires thinking about going to “the other side” in your program design. It will open new movement territory, enhance body awareness, and help your athletes explore the body’s potential.
Table: Coordination Drills
Practicing synchronization of movement will heighten body awareness and improve coordination of the nondominant side. Here are some examples of these simple exercises:
• Perform circles with one arm and punches with the other. Quickly switch arm movements after about 10 reps. • Jump forward and backward with both arms overhead moving side to side. • Stand in place and rotate the hips clockwise and the head counterclockwise. • Dribble a basketball with each hand using equal effort. • Dribble two balls with unequal effort–hard with one hand and soft with the other. • Dribble two balls of different dimensions. For example, bounce a volleyball in one hand and a basketball in the other. • Catch and throw with the nondominant arm. • Kick with the nondominant leg.