Thursday, 20 July 2017



                I was listening recently to a discussion between Jonathan Agnew and Simon Hughes on Test Match Special. They were discussing the fact that more and more top batsmen are left-handed. Five of the top ten run-makers in Test cricket of all time are left-handed - Cook, Border, Sangakara, Lara and Chanderpaul – and eight out of the top twenty. Yet only 10% of the general population are left-handed. The percentage of top baseball batters being left-handed is at least as high.
Scientists have discovered that the corpus callosum – the bundle of nerves that connects the two halves of the brain – is thicker in left-handed people than in right-handers. They speculate that because this may allow the two halves of the brain to work faster and more efficiently, left-handers have faster reaction times. Specifically, they have more time to make late adjustments to their bat when playing fast deliveries or deliveries that deviate shortly before arrival.
   That’s interesting, because there have been studies which have shown that elite cricketers do not have especially fast reaction times in general, but have more time to play their shots because they are better able to anticipate where the ball is going to be than lesser players. It may be, however, that there is a difference in reaction times when more complicated actions are required, such as playing a cricket shot, than making a simple reaction to a sound, such as pressing a button.
  The discovery about the corpus callosum refers to people who are completely left-handed, whereas many of those who bat left-handed are actually right-handed – they bowl, throw and write right-handed. One answer, discussed in the program, is that when they bat left-handed their right hand is at the top of the bat guiding the stroke, and this could lead to cleaner hitting than when the dominant hand is at the bottom of the bat. Sachin Tendulkar, the great Indian batsman, is left-handed but batted as a right-hander, giving him the same advantage.
      Another point discussed was about eye dominance. If you are righthanded and right-eye dominant, you need to have a more square-on stance to face the bowler, whereas batting left-handed has your dominant eye with a good view of the bowler even with a side-on position. Apparently, Alastair Cook is left-eye dominant, which may explain his more open stance.
                I thought one of the most interesting comments came from the former South African captain Graeme Smith. He is right-handed but was a left-handed opening batsman. He says that normally he feels more comfortable using his right hand, but if he is using the two hands together, such as when batting or playing golf, it feels more comfortable left-handed. 

                “Aggers” wondered if you have a young batsman, whether you should establish their eye dominance at an eye examination, and I would, of course, say that would be a good idea. But I wouldn’t be too prescriptive. Encourage the child to experiment batting both right-and left-handed so they can discover what feels best for them. And if they can do both, they’ll be great switch-hitters.  

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Colour deficiency problems in cricketers.

Yorkshire and former England cricketer Gary Ballance is in the form of his life, having already scored 1,000 runs in all competitions this season. However, his hopes of an international recall this summer are reduced because England are playing three day-night tests with a pink ball in the next 11 months.

The problem for Ballance is that he is colour deficient (a better term than “colour blind” because he can see colours, but sometimes can’t distinguish between them), and has particular difficulty distinguishing between pinks and greens. The pink ball would probably be quite clear against a white sightscreen, but may be very hard to pick up when it bounces. It may also disappear when he’s fielding as the ball could get lost against the background of a crowd in the stands.
There are tints that can enhance certain colours. For instance, clay-pigeon shooters find a light purple colour can enhance the orange of the clay against a background of trees. But there are also tints designed specifically for those who are colour deficient.
                One such is the Chromagen contact lens. In 2000, an experiment was done to test the effectiveness of Chromagen lenses in real life for 14 colour deficient volunteers. 13 out of the 14 expressed interest in wearing the lenses on at least an occasional basis, though only two were prepared to pay the full cost.  I remember fitting these lenses many years ago to an electrician who had difficulty distinguishing red wires in poor light. He found the lens useful for that specific purpose: I suppose he was highly motivated not to electrocute himself.
   For a cricketer, a contact lens is likely to be better than a spectacle tint because spectacles are often impractical under a helmet. The vision will seem strange initially, so it will be a question of trying it for a time to see if it helps.

 Colour discrimination isn’t just a problem for cricketers. A number of top snooker players - Mark Allen, Peter Ebdon, Mark Williams and Stephen Lee – are also colour deficient. Their biggest problem is usually distinguishing the brown ball when it’s amongst the reds. A red-enhancing tint may help, but it seems that these players generally get round the problem by asking the referee if they can’t see where the brown is.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

How to become great at just about anything

  This was the title of a podcast I was listening to recently.

 It featured Professor K Anders Ericcson, Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, Tallahassee.
 His main idea is that what we call talent depends on many hours of “deliberate practice”; that even someone considered to be a child prodigy, such as Mozart, actually only became a genius thanks to starting very young and training long and hard. As he says, “If you compare the kind of music pieces that Mozart can play at various ages to today’s Suzuki-trained children, he is not exceptional. If anything, he’s relatively average”.  This is, in part, because standards in most areas of human activity have risen over time. To stand out as a genius today requires a higher standard than it used to. This is particularly noticeable in sports where achievements can be measured, such as athletics.  Ericcson is the originator of the idea that you need to practise for 10,000 hours to become great at something. He was studying the most accomplished musicians at German academy, and found that, on average, they had practised for more than 10,000 hours by the time they were 20.

  Ericcson distinguishes between “purposeful practice”, where you train on one particular aspect of your performance that you want to improve, and “deliberate practice”. The latter is based on proven techniques to improve skills that have previously been established, and involves specific goals to improve some aspect of the performance. Feedback is also important, so you can tell what adjustments you need to make.

 Another key component of deliberate practice is that it requires the student to push themselves so that they are constantly trying to achieve things that are just beyond their current abilities. As Ericcson says, “It demands near-maximal effort, which is generally not enjoyable”. It relies on the fact that you’re making errors, and then finding ways to eliminate those errors.But Ericcson stresses that 10,000 hours isn’t a magic number. That number of hours will make you more experienced, but will not necessarily take you to expert levels without the other elements of deliberate practice.

Dr Ericcson’s research seems to be focused on individual activity, and I think that in team sports the evidence is slightly different. We know, for instance, that someone who has played many different sports in their youth needs far fewer hours to reach expert level in a different team sport.

It also seems that in many team sports, “deliberate play” might be a better description of what’s required. Many elite team players will describe having spent many hours of their childhood playing games such as football with their friends or relatives, often in a nearby park. They will often imagine that they are their favourite team or player. And I’m sure they would describe those times as anything but “not enjoyable”. 

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Tackle laws 2017

 World Rugby have ramped up the punishment for high tackles, that is tackles above the line of the shoulder.  It’s expected that there will be a spate of red and yellow cards in the next few weeks, making it even more important for players to have the right technique when tackling.
When people think about aiming in rugby, they tend to think about kicking, and maybe passing, but often forget that aiming is also a crucial part of tackling. One of the reasons for high tackles is that the tackler has not aimed at the target area sufficiently accurately.
The target area is usually the thigh, although some might aim for the chest in order to dislodge the ball. But human beings naturally look at another’s face, so the tackler often doesn’t get in position early enough, and may just instinctively stick an arm out, catching the ball carrier in the head.
Whilst averting the eyes to the target, it’s essential to keep the head up. Another mistake made by tacklers is that they drop their head so they’re looking at the ground, misjudge the movements of the ball carrier and end up with concussion themselves due to a knee to the head. As the tackler enters the tackle, they should focus past the ball carrier, and this can help to keep their head up.
As with all aiming, the more accurately you aim the nearer to your target you’re likely to be. At international level, at least, the shorts tend to have an emblem on them which would be at about the right height for the tackler to aim with their shoulder. Otherwise it could be the pockets.
Video is always helpful, so the coach can ensure that tacklers are keeping their heads up, making small steps and continuing to drive through the tackle. The key is to make sure that youngsters have the correct, safe technique from the start, minimising the risks to themselves and to others.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Rugby World Cup 2015 - Back Row

All rugby players need to be able to tackle, but the back row probably put in more tackles per game than most other players. So it seems reasonable to talk about the visual requirements in tackling for back row players. These would also be largely the same for other players, though the backs might be more likely to find themselves isolated in a one-on-one situation.

Some of the most common mistakes made in tackling include: planting the feet; not getting close enough; not driving in with the shoulder; tackling too high; and getting the head in the wrong position.

The tackler will take responsibility for guarding a channel, so will be looking out for potential ball carriers running into that channel. Once that ball carrier has been identified, the tackler should immediately switch their focus to the ball carrier’s core area (around the stomach), because where the core goes, the player goes. The tackler might also start visualising the tackle.

“Visualise” in this sense means much more than imagining what something will look like: it’s more about imagining the feel of the shoulder making contact with the target area. An early switch of focus to the core means that the tackler will be able to react to a change in direction from the ball carrier, but the initial visualisation might for instance involve the right shoulder driving into the right thigh of the ball carrier level with the bottom of the shorts. This clear preparation should ensure that the head is safely to the side of the ball carrier, “cheek to cheek”. If the tackler drops their head, or gets it on the wrong side, serious injury could result.

We are all naturally drawn to look at other people’s faces, and this is why tackles are often attempted too high. So in training, it’s important that players make sure that they make this early switch in focus and visualisation each time, whilst ensuring that they do not drop their head.

At non-elite levels, you often see players planting their feet quite wide apart, sometimes stretching their arms out to the side, supposedly making themselves a more difficult target to avoid. But it’s very difficult to get any power into the tackle from that position, and it’s also very difficult to react to any late movement from the ball carrier. The tackler often ends up having to dive to make a tackle. This is likely to be ineffective if high, and runs the risk of their head getting in the way of a stray boot if the tackle is low. The tackler is also vulnerable to the hand off if the ball carrier runs straight at them because they are in such a weak position.

The tackler should aim to get their feet in close to the ball carrier, so it’s essential to keep their feet “active” with small steps. One tip is to imagine a hula hoop around the ball carrier, and if the tackler is aiming with their right shoulder, they should try and get their right foot within that hoop. Another tip when training is to get the tackler to keep their hands in to their chest, and to push against a ball carrier without extending their arms, which again ensures they’ve got in close.

As the ball carrier gets in range, the tackler dips the shoulder (dipping the shoulder too early can expose the head), but it’s still essential to keep the head up. So the eyes focus on the target before contact, and then past the ball carrier when contact is made. The feet must keep moving with small steps to drive through the tackle as the arms close around the ball carrier. If the tackle is made from the side, the ball carrier’s own momentum should cause them to fall over with the tackler on top.

David Donner

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Rugby World Cup 2015 - Props

It is essential for their own safety that props have the correct body alignment before the scrum engages. They can check, for instance, that their back is straight by crouching alongside a mirror, at home or in the gym. They can do this with their eyes closed, and then look in the mirror to see if the correct position has been achieved, and the forces from the players behind will be transferred forward in a straight line.

It can be really helpful to video one versus one scrums, so you can check that they have maintained the correct position on engagement. The players can view it themselves so they can confirm that there sensation of body position matches the reality.

The position of the head and neck are vital as it’s very easy to get into an unnatural position, and serious injury could result. Once the player is in the crouched position, you can get him to stand up straight, but making sure that his head and neck position are unchanged. Do they remain in a natural position? If the neck is unnaturally forward or back it is in an unsafe position.

One suggestion for finding the correct head position is to wear a pair of sunglasses. In the crouched position, you lift your head up until you can just see over the top of them. You check this as before by standing up and seeing if it still in a natural position. 

One technique that can be really useful for props to get maximum power in the scrum is centring. This is a visualisation technique that involves putting the focus on the centre of your body. This makes the player more balanced, and therefore increases power, especially as the focus is on the area where there are larger, more powerful groups of muscles.

Getting into the correct body position is also very important in lifting at the lineout. A common fault is to allow the head to fall forward, so that the arms cannot lift straight up but at an angle, with the resulting loss of power and direction. Lifters also need to make sure that they keep forwards to their fellow lifter. If they look up, they are almost certain to tip back a bit and lose the ideal strong position for maximum lift.

David Donner

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Rugby World Cup 2015 - Hookers

In honour of the rugby World Cup, I thought I’d do a short series on the visual requirements for some of the different positions starting with the hooker.

When people talk of visual requirements, they usually refer to the visual requirements of the player - things like having good visual acuity and peripheral vision. I tend to approach it another way, by looking at the visual requirements of the sport itself.

For a hooker, one of the main requirements is to be able to throw a ball into a lineout in such a way that it can be caught by the intended player on your side, and not intercepted by the opponents. Of course, it’s not always the hooker’s fault when this doesn’t happen, as it’s very much a team effort between thrower, lifters and catcher, and also depends on the ability of the opposition to defend.

One of the main difficulties for hookers is that they don’t actually have a target to aim for. They’re aiming for a space above the catchers head. But if it’s a throw towards the back of the line out, they often have to throw the ball in a parabola to evade the opposition’s catcher in the middle. If that’s someone like Devin Toner, who’s nearly seven feet tall before he’s lifted, that’s not an easy task.

You can get hookers to practise their throwing by aiming at a mark on a post, and that would certainly be better than nothing. But the best way to practise getting the correct trajectory for deeper throws would be to throw the ball through a hoop. The hoop would be set at the height of the opposition’s front jumpers.

I’ve seen this done with a tyre suspended from the cross bar. But ideally you’d want this to be hoop on an adjustable stand, and you’d want a second one set for the height of your tail catcher. The hooker then practises getting the ball through both hoops. This can be done as an individual practice, just with one set of forwards, and as fully contested lineouts.

The hooker should also spend some time throwing whilst blindfolded, giving the brain a chance to concentrate on the kinaesthetic (muscle) feedback with each throw. The position of the hands holding the ball, especially the little finger, must be identical each time (see earlier blogs).

The visual requirements of hooking the ball are minimal, certainly at elite level, because there’s hardly any hooking these days. Put-ins are still as straight as a dog’s hind leg, so it’s more important to push than to hook the ball. I read that Sean Fitzpatrick used to practice with his eyes closed, so he could still hook the ball even if he couldn’t see it because he was pushed out of position by the opposition scrum. Unless or until referees insist on the put-in being straight, I can’t see many people practising that today.

David Donner