Now bring on the haters, I guess.
Why People Argue That You Should Juggle
Drop into any thread online and you will find very passionate people arguing that juggling is the be-all-and-end-all of increasing athletic performance.
They will argue that juggling improves hand-eye coordination, focus, and the ability to manage multiple things at the same time. They will argue that it increases the size of your brain (sort of) and that it teaches you how to overcome adversity.
Some people will argue that it even improves your ability to read!
And some folks who don’t even know all that, rather lethargically will often resort to, “Well, it’s better than playing video games!” (Which isn’t true.)
They will then argue that “the BEST” athletes (usually goalies) know how to juggle and that if you want to be good like them then you should juggle too.
There is an entire field of “hand-eye” coaches willing to take your money who will tell you that “hand-eye” training is really important to athletic performance and that you should work on it..right now. Not always true.
Now if you are in favor of juggling, you’ll be happy to know that: juggling does, in fact, do some of these things.
Research has been shown that juggling improves grey matter in the brain but it also improves white matter. Grey matter is where nerve cell bodies are contained. White matter, on the other hand, is where densely packed nerve fibers conduct impulses from cell body to cell body.
In that same study, research showed that after six weeks of juggling every day for thirty minutes a day, white matter grew in the areas of the brain related to vision and movement. Pretty cool.
And…it didn’t matter how well they could juggle…the white matter grew anyway! Pretty cool!
Where The Argument For Juggling Breaks Down
But while there are cool benefits to juggling, the truth is that juggling isn’t the ONLY thing that makes those improvements.
In fact, it seems like just about ANY complex, activity causes the brain to rewire itself.
In this article, a quote from Dr. Frank R. Wilson, author of the book “The Hand”, says, “It doesn’t matter if we learn juggling, flower arranging or motorcycle repair.” he says, “The desire to learn is reshaped continuously as the brain and hand vitalize one another…”
In this article about a similar study, Arne May of the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf says that learning a NEW skill is more important than exercising a skill you’re already good at. The brain wants to be “puzzled” and learn something new.
But where these research teams fall flat on juggling is that there is no real connection between juggling and say…using a hockey stick, or saving a lacrosse ball. Nothing that says that juggling actually impacts swinging a tennis racquet or swinging a baseball bat.
It is assumed that just because juggling improves grey matter that there is a carryover, however…I have met athletes who can juggle who aren’t great athletes. I have also met great athletes who can’t juggle. Which shows to me that they aren’t really causative.
My Biggest Beef With Juggling
No matter what sport you are involved in, we can all agree that there are MANY aspects that you require to be successful in your sport.
Every sport has physical, technical, and tactical demands as well as psychological factors around life skills as well as belief in one’s self that directly affects the things you’re trying to do when it matters most.
No amount of juggling is going to help you get out of the way of an oncoming forecheck in hockey. Even if juggling was PROVEN to improve stick skills (which it isn’t), you still need to be able to get out of the way. If you can’t put yourself in a position to express your improved hand-eye coordination then it’s a waste of time.
The same goes for tennis. You may be able to juggle AND it may in fact improve your contact with the racquet, but if you can’t bring that racquet back fast enough OR you’re too overwhelmed by the experience that you psych yourself out…juggling isn’t helping you.
You can look at any sport and see multiple opportunities where an athlete needs to make decisions to perform well.
Many of those decision points have NOTHING to do with hand-eye coordination.
When you hear “experts” in hand-eye coordination talk, even they, rather quickly point out that there are many things that impact an athlete’s performance outside of “hand-eye” coordination.
The question then is, where should it fit into my training…if at all?
Just Because You’re NOT Good At Juggling Doesn’t Mean Your Athlete Should Be
To the layperson, juggling looks incredibly complex. Just try to pick up three of anything and try to start juggling and you will surely struggle. This doesn’t mean that it’s all that hard, it just means that your first experience with juggling was difficult and you chose not to pursue it.
Juggling has an easy barrier to entry. ANYONE can pick up three “whatevers” and try and toss them into the air and try to catch them. So since it’s so easy to start then why wouldn’t you do it?
The simple argument is that juggling looks more complex than that thing you’re trying to do, so if you master juggling…that thing you do should get easier.
As I’ve pointed out…that’s not really true.
Resources: Time, Energy, Money
Every athlete is confronted by scarce resources. It doesn’t matter if they are the highest-paid athlete in the world or a U10 hockey goalie in Michigan.
You have to make choices on what you do based on the resources that you have AND the priority of what you need to work on. And those priorities are NOT the same for a young athlete or a professional. Just because you’ve seen a professional athlete doing a drill doesn’t mean you should be doing that drill.
And vice versa.
For a young athlete, who is already playing their sport at a rather high level, you can probably argue that they don’t need to be spending time on juggling.
No, in fact, there are probably a dozen other activities that athletes could be working on to help improve their performance so they can win at their level.
I saw a quote from a coach who said, “We make our athletes do thirty-minutes of juggling every day”. Really? Why?
Their answer was to improve hand-eye coordination.
My question is, why? Do your athletes have trouble seeing the ball? Are they flailing away?
And why would you prioritize thirty minutes of juggling over a whole host of other activities you could be doing?
I worked with a family a few years ago who had a young hockey goalie who was, supposedly, having trouble seeing the puck. It turned out that wasn’t the problem at all.
The coach of the goalie was frustrated that this goalie couldn’t catch anything. At 12 years old, he thought the goalie was having trouble seeing the puck when in fact the problem was her hands were so weak relative to the glove she was wearing she couldn’t lift her arm fast enough to actually snag the puck. And once the puck was in the glove, she didn’t have the strength to close her hand around it and hold on.
Juggling: Causation or Correlation
Where many people go wrong is understanding what causes an athlete to be good versus what an athlete was doing along the way to become a good athlete.
There are stories of good athletes out there who will say that they juggled when they were young and they turned into a good athlete.
But I have NEVER heard an athlete when asked what caused them to be great, say…”I juggled.”
If Juggling Was Really The Key…
If juggling was such a huge factor in improving athletic performance we’d see a heck of a lot more circus acts turning into professional athletes.
It’s Actually “Eye-Hand”
A pet peeve of mine, and others, is that it’s actually NOT “hand-eye” it’s “eye-hand”. We are taking a visual stimulus and turning it into physical action. The eye comes first. Not the hand.
Get Your Eyes Checked
When you use the term “eye-hand” as opposed to “hand-eye” you put the attention on the eye first and not the hand.
When people think of juggling they naturally think of their hands throwing and catching. The eye then is actually secondary which is not what we want. Nothing happens first without the eyes.
When we think of the eyes first, we then ask, “Well what can improve my eyes?”
If the eyes are in fact a problem we’ll come up with things like glasses or contact lenses. We may even think of diet and sleep. Stress is another factor that can alter the shape of the eye and its ability to focus
Sleep is a HUGE factor to improve eye-hand coordination but it’s not nearly as sexy to talk about or to make Youtube videos about.
I mean really, when was the last time you saw a Youtube clip of your favorite athlete sleeping?
But you can probably find a video of some athlete juggling and the kids all go, “Cool!”
Juggling Is a Distraction From the Real Work
When I see an athlete juggling, my mind immediately goes to the opportunity cost of spending that time juggling versus doing something else.
For athletes who have to REACT to something, you must first see what is coming. You must then understand your plan of attack or defense in order to then MOVE. There are a lot of links in that chain and does juggling really affect enough of them? Probably not.
There is a COST to the work being done for a Benefit from that work. And as the saying goes…is the juice worth the squeeze?
In a pretty fascinating study of baseball players, juggling wasn’t used at all. Instead, Eye-Hand Visual-Motor Reaction Time was improved…slightly…by the use of commercially available EH-VMRT systems.
What struck me about this study was that in the multi-billion dollar world of baseball they DIDN’T pick juggling as a tool.
Why not juggling? In my opinion, it’s just not specific enough to the task at hand. In this case…swinging a baseball bat.
But really…is juggling specific to ANYTHING other than…juggling?
And if you are like the mom who said, “Juggling helps you follow multiple things at once!” Why then don’t Walmart managers learn to juggle? Surely they have a lot to manage? Or teachers in a classroom? This argument just doesn’t stand up for me in terms of an athlete, on the field of play, keeping track of multiple players.
For goalies and tennis players alike, there is only one thing to have to focus on…most of the time.
The Final 2%. Not the First 2%
While this discussion has shifted from the rather misguided emphasis on juggling to other eye-hand improvement drills…I am deliberately not going too deep on that topic because these are really improvements in the final 1-2% of athletic development.
In the grand scheme of improving an athlete…these efforts make about a 2% improvement, on paper.
A great study about the University of Cincinnati Baseball team showed that improving eye-hand vision training made a 3% improvement on batting percentage. That’s not a lot.
And while a nice and tidy academic paper can try and eek out 3% improvement…just think of all of the other areas of potential improvement that could improve that athlete. The list would be too long to list here.
The Demoralizing Aspect of Juggling
I came across a fantastic study about the use of “juggling breaks” in elementary schools and how they can do so many amazing things for your learners.
One aspect of the article talked about how kids who were not normally considered athletic could thrive as they learned how to juggle. But there were also kids who were “athletic” who couldn’t juggle.
This, to me, is something that often goes unnoticed by athletes.
In my main business here at AthleteSpecific, I work with athletes in a variety of sports and I can tell you that self-esteem can be quite fragile with athletes.
Little things can create big doubts and one of them is juggling.
If you have an athlete who is struggling with juggling (hehe) stop. Have them do something else. I don’t want your athlete spending ANY time on a task that constantly demoralizes them.
“But Jonathan, juggling teaches perseverance. Growth mindset stuff. Right?”
Listen, if your athlete can get to the gym, go for runs, do the reps needed for their sport, your athlete doesn’t suffer from perseverance.
Again, consider cost-benefit. Is the cost of struggling with juggling worth any sort of benefit that might ultimately come? I doubt it.
Cut your losses and move on to something else.
While there are some definite benefits to juggling, I continue to have a very hard time prescribing juggling to ANY athlete. In my opinion, you can get the same benefits, if not more, in the same amount of time by prescribing other activities. I would much rather have my athlete stick to more sport-specific drills that they will have a better time transferring to their existing sport. We have to think critically when doing ANYTHING that is significantly different than what it is our athletes do in their sport. As research has shown, there are any number of skillful activities that can provide the same benefits as juggling, if not more. I look forward to your comments below. And if you have research that shows better results, please share a link! I’d be happy to continue this conversation.
Olympian Jonathan Edwards
Founder - The Athlete Breakthrough Blueprint
Olympian Jonathan Edwards is the Creator of "The Athlete Breakthrough Blueprint": The world's only mental performance training program for aspiring athletes with big dreams. Over nineteen years he has worked with athletes who have gone on to or competed in NCAA D1, D2, D3, MCLA D1 and D2, the Olympics, NHL, MLL, NLL, NFL, and others. Feel free to link to this article from your blog and share it with an athlete, parent, or coach who would benefit from these concepts.