By Ross Enamait – Published in 2007
In a past article, I discussed how an inexpensive jump rope could be used to enhance athletic qualities such as coordination, agility, quickness, and endurance. Contrary to what many Internet gurus may suggest, these skills can be enhanced with nothing more than a $5 rope. Within this article, I will discuss another low-tech, inexpensive drill that will enhance qualities such as hand-eye coordination, ambidexterity, peripheral vision, depth perception, visual reaction time, and neuromuscular balance.
It may sound too good to be true, but you can perform this drill anywhere, with nothing more than a few tennis balls. You can practice this drill as long as you want without risk of overtraining or soreness.
So, what’s the secret drill that has been hidden to the masses?
That’s right… juggling three or four tennis balls is an ideal addition to any athlete’s weekly plan. At first glance, you may think I am joking. Teaching a group of athletes to juggle may seem ridiculous, but it is actually something that I highly recommend. So many athletes search high and low for training advice, but often overlook the obvious. Everyone wants to become stronger, faster, and more powerful, but what good are these qualities if you lack the coordination to use them?
Take a moment to review your weekly training plan. How much time do you spend working to improve qualities such as hand-eye coordination, peripheral vision, and visual reaction time?
Many athletes will answer this question with a big goose egg.
They don’t spend any time working to improve these attributes. They are either working to become stronger or working to improve endurance. Clearly, strength and endurance are important, but nothing can replace the need for coordination.
And in addition to the athletic benefits, juggling will also improve your brain. In a recent experiment (2004), University of Regensburg neurologist Arne May and colleagues found that juggling can increase grey matter within the brain.
As quoted within the report:
“The juggler group demonstrated a significant transient bilateral expansion in grey matter in the mid-temporal area and in the left posterior intraparietal sulcus.”
Researchers went on to conclude the following:
“This discovery of a stimulus-dependent alteration in the brain’s macroscopic structure contradicts the traditionally held view that cortical plasticity is associated with functional rather than anatomical changes.”
In layman’s terms, plasticity is the brain’s ability to remodel itself (i.e. to reorganize neural pathways based on new experiences).
It was not long ago that scientists were convinced that the brain was hardwired early in life. Deterioration of the brain was seen as inevitable over time. The ability to rebuild and/or improve the brain was considered impossible. Fortunately, modern research suggests otherwise.
As quoted within a past edition of The Journal of Active Aging:
“Scientists now know that the brain remains plastic (or malleable) throughout life. At any age, the brain has the ability to revise its processing machinery – for better or for worse – in response to stimuli and activities. Just as the brain can deteriorate, it can also grow. Gray matter can thicken, trunks can remyelinate, and neural connections can be forged and refined, reinvigorating cognitive abilities.”
Juggling is one of many ways to revitalize the brain. One reason for this phenomenon is that juggling takes you out of your comfort zone. Most of us are not juggling experts. The average person cannot juggle their daily workload, never mind three of four balls.
When you are challenged with a new task, you must concentrate and remain relaxed to successfully develop the skill. The concentration and effort required to develop the new skill is clearly beneficial for the brain.
There is nothing magical about juggling, yet this simple activity will lead to considerable improvements if you remain consistent with your efforts. There are countless juggling variations, ranging from easy to extremely advanced. You don’t need to be a circus performer to benefit from juggling.
Start with the basics, and gradually strive to improve, as you challenge yourself with more advanced patterns and tricks. When first starting, limit your juggling practice to just a few minutes. It is important to be fresh and alert when mastering a new skill. With just 5 minutes of juggling per day, you’ll notch up over 30 hours of juggling in one year. A five or ten minute investment each day is not too much to ask.
Aside from the scientific data presented thus far, there are obviously other benefits to juggling. Think about it…
To successfully juggle, you must remain relaxed, as you visually track objects in space, and then physically react to the constant (mobile) stimulus. If you are tense, you will never succeed at juggling. The ability to remain relaxed is vital to any athlete, particularly a combat athlete.
Think of yourself sparring for example. If you are tense, you will always struggle with defense. A tense fighter will be as elusive as a snail. Consider all-time defensive masters such as the great Willie Pep, or more recently Pernell Whitaker. These men could stand directly in front of their opponents and avoid incoming punches like a magician. One reason for their success was their ability to function in a relaxed state. These individuals also had tremendous reactions, hand-eye coordination, peripheral vision, etc. (attributes that can all be enhanced with juggling).
Clearly, juggling won’t turn you into the next Willie Pep, but it can improve many of the physical and mental qualities that are required to become an elusive fighter. You must remain relaxed as you react to objects that move up and down, and on each side of you.
Now, think of an opponent who is throwing kicks and punches in your direction. You must see these incoming blows, and then react accordingly. Any drill that enhances this ability is worthy of your time.
Summary and Further Reading
In summary, juggling offers both physical and mental benefits.
- Inexpensive (any balls will work)
- Convenient (you can juggle anywhere)
- Effective (physical and mental benefits)
- Not physically stressful (juggle as often as you wish)
If juggling is new to you, a quick search will offer more information than you can digest in one sitting. There are countless tutorials floating around the web. I recommend starting with a basic three-ball cascade (the most common form of juggling). Don’t limit yourself to this variation however. As with any type of training, you must progress to more difficult variations.
One of the better tutorials (that I could find) is linked to below. The site includes video demonstrations of several juggling techniques. You will never run out of ideas or challenges with the information contained within this link:
1.) Draganski, B., Gaser, C., Busch, V., Schuierer, G., Bogdahn, U. and May A. (2004). Neuroplasticity: changes in grey matter induced by training. Nature, 427:311-312.
2.) Merzenich, Michael. (2005). Change Minds For The Better. The Journal of Active Aging.