Hockey has Gordie Howe. Baseball has Sandy Koufax. Tennis has Rafael Nadal. What do these athletes have in common? They’re some of history’s greatest, yes, but they’re also lefties. Sports seem to be one of the few areas where being left handed is an advantage (it’s certainly not when it comes to using scissors or opening cans). The southpaw advantage is more predominant in some sports than others though, as Florian Loffing found out. Florian is a Research Associate at Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg in the Department of Sports Science. He studies handedness and has figured out why it’s right to be left.
From a sports scientific perspective, the strongest explanation for the left-handed advantage comes from the characteristics and demands of the game. In games like table tennis, tennis, badminton, and fencing, a player directly influences their opponent’s next move by where they strike or hit the ball. It seems to be the right handers’ unfamiliarity with left handers that gives lefties a strategic advantage. “On the perceptual level, athletes—as we have found through certain experiments—have more difficulties anticipating what a left-handed opponent is about to do. This might contribute to a leftie advantage in those sports in which you have to decide and act fast,” explains Florian.
That unfamiliarity isn’t just limited to right handers. It turns out that even left handers have difficulty anticipating what another left hander is going to do. That’s because the leftie advantage comes through the unfamiliar visual experience rather than motor experience. That is to say, the fact that a left hander should know how another left hander will carry out an action (like serving) doesn’t make it easier to figure out what they will do next. “You see fewer left handers, which makes you perform worse when you face a leftie and have to predict what they are about to do,” says Florian.
Florian has recently found that the leftie advantage doesn’t apply equally to each interactive sport. He analyzed video of badminton, squash, tennis, table tennis, baseball (pitchers), and cricket (bowlers) matches, recording the time between when one player made contact with the ball and when the other player made contact. Comparing that data with professional ranking, Florian found that sports with a higher time pressure have an overrepresentation of left-handed players at the elite level. While all interactive sports require making automated responses to anticipate the opponent’s next move his research suggests this becomes substantially harder when there’s less time. Think of the amount of time between when the pitcher throws the ball and the batter hits it versus when one squash player hits the ball and the other hits it back. The difference in time pressure between the two sports can be measured in milliseconds, but when facing the unfamiliar visual experience of a leftie that’s all it takes to impact performance. As a result, 30.39% of MLB pitchers are left handed compared to only 8.7% of professional squash players.
The next step for Florian and his group is to test their time pressure hypothesis on athletes directly. Their results could be used to help design training programs and techniques to overcome potential disadvantages elite players’ may have against left handers. Perhaps players should practice under increased time pressure so they are no longer disadvantaged against lefties in real competition. Florian cautions that more evidence is still needed before further recommendations can be made.
As for the amateur athletes getting beaten by left-handed opponents, perhaps switch to a slower sport and demand a rematch.