Why Everyone Should Master: Juggling

Written by Daniel Hines
Published on Sunday, 16 August 2009

Why everyone should master: Juggling

‘Cuz it’s totally awesome. Duh. But seriously, while muscular strength and endurance are factors in parkour performance, neurological coordination (the ability for the right neurons to fire at the right time) is the most important aspect of the physiological side of parkour (or anything). Coordination at the neurological level is reflected by efficiency of movement. For example, David Belle expends less energy doing a precision (or any technique) than your backyard free runner, even though David Belle is a lot stronger (there are several reasons for this, but this blog is about parkour, not sports science, so I’ll spare you the lecture) Coordination is responsible for what we call “flow.” Good coordination also allows one to perfect techniques faster.

Coordination is expressed in seven abilities (according to the Science of Sports Training by Thomas Kurz):

  1. Kinesthetic differentiation (e.g throwing objects precise distances, landing different precisions)
  2. Spatial orientation (Perception of body in space, “air sense,” judging the distance of a precision)
  3. Reaction to signals (Exploding out of the starting block on the whistle, “hmmm, I should roll now”
  4. Balance …well, yeah
  5. Synchronization of movements in time (Rubbing your stomach and patting your head)
  6. Sense of rhythm (Juggling to a metronome, taking the right number of steps for a vault or jump)
  7. Movement adequacy (Choosing the right techniques for the situation in the most efficient manner, very important for parkour)

Unfortunately, most of us have missed the age at which coordination can be maximized, which, for most of these abilities, is around 8-10 years old. But don’t worry, coordination is definitely still trainable, and should be developed like any other ability.

One beautiful thing about coordination is that it’s not nearly as specific as other abilities (speed, endurance, etc.). For instance, a sprinter might suck at swimming (as speed is movement specific), but a baseball player might learn juggling really quickly (as coordination is not as specific). Thus, to improve your coordination, you can start with movements that don’t resemble parkour at all, but that hone the basic abilities listed above (eventually, like most things in training, you’ll want to get more specific by first incorporating skills necessary for parkour, then using actual parkour techniques).

Another neat thing about coordination is that learning new skills improves coordination, and coordination improves the rate at which you learn new skills. As such, when training general coordination, you want to change what kind of skill you’re working on fairly frequently, aiming for general proficiency, not perfection.

To develop coordination there’s a generally a progression in difficulty through the speed and conditions the activity is performed with. For example, one might learn how to shoot a free throw, taking all the time in the world to make sure they get it every time. Then, the might practice free throws as fast as they can. Next, they might practice free throws with another person blocking them. In this way, you can continually progress with a skill by making the conditions harder.

The chapter on coordination mentions various simple activities to improve general coordination, such as jumping rope, performing asynchronous exercises like punching with one hand and swinging another, playing acrobatic Frisbee on a trampoline (ok it didn’t really say that, but wouldn’t that be cool?!?). These are just a few, and all of them would work (be creative; the sky is the limit, unless you have a rocket), but what caught my attention and what I’m going to share with you today is juggling.

Juggling is such an interesting skill. It requires you not only to know where your hands are at any given moment, but your brain has to process throwing one object with precision, predicting the parabola of another object, and catching another object while preparing to throw it again, all at the same time, while adjusting for errors in real time. And that’s only 3 balls. Imagine more.

That’s another plus to juggling. It’s cyclic, and is relatively easy to imagine. One thing that separates ok athletes from elite athletes is “blind spots” in their technique. If a technique looks sloppy at a certain phase every time, it’s likely that the athlete isn’t really in total control during that portion of the technique. And what they’ll find is that if they try to vividly imagine everything that happens during that technique (body position, spatial position, sights, sounds, sensations, etc.) the part that they mess up on will be fuzzy, unclear, or lacking detail. When you start juggling, imagining where all three balls and both hands are at the same time (a necessary part of learning) is like an introduction to getting rid of the blind spots. As you get better, this skill will get easier, and eventually, you should be able to vividly imagine every technique you know, parkour or otherwise. If you can’t, there’s something wrong with your technique, and you should go back and make sure you really know and can do every thing you need to correctly perform the technique. This has really helped me with my martial arts techniques and basic break-falling.

So, now down to business. Get yourself 3 objects you think you can juggle. I started out with square beanbags. Hacky sacks would work nicely. Any thing would work; use your imagination.

Next, watch this video. Just watch it. Then watch it again, but pause it periodically so you can do what it says.

That video should talk you through everything you need to know. All the basics and fundamental techniques are there. After a month or 2 of working at it (and not very hard, mind you), I can now get 300+ continuous throws and catches with the 3-balls, and 50+ catches juggling 2 with 1 hand (I followed the video’s progression until about 20, and then I found I could get 50 catches, then a week later 100, 150, and so on). I have noticed that when my brother throws things at me, I’m more likely to catch it, which I will be so bold as to attribute to my juggling progress.

When you’ve mastered juggling 3 balls, you have several choices. You can apply the concepts of coordination from the first half of the post by making the act of juggling three balls more difficult, by, for example, juggle while running forwards, sideways, or backwards, juggle while hopping, or bouncing on a trampoline (very difficult, very fun). Juggle objects of different weights and sizes, juggling while traversing obstacles or doing basic tumbling/acrobatics, etc, (be creative). Or you could just pronounce the juggling skill done, and move onto other activities in your quest for coordination. Or, if you enjoy juggling like I do, you could continue juggling by learning all the variations of 2, 3, 4 balls and beyond.

So that sums it up. You now know a little about coordination, how to develop it, and how to juggle, should you so desire. Work smart, work hard, and in the words of Bao, get paid. But most of all enjoy your training, because that’s what it’s all about in the end.

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