The Wright Way

The Wright Way

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

What's the Catch?

An interesting bit of by-play at my After School Cricket yesterday was 3/4 minutes helping a lad, one-to-one, improve his catching.

We would all feel that the skill of catching is very basic, innate you might say, yet that which we are born with is in a very raw state rather like a sculptor's piece of stone or a carver's lump of wood. To progress from the innate rawness, we model our parents and older siblings long before any specific "catching coach" might hove into view. The downside of that modelling is that it often comes with the replication of parental modelled quirks - and it is our learning of their quirks that causes our burgeoning technique of catching to go down a particular route.

Of course, in the case of the lad I was working with, he’d gone down his particular route for most of the 12 years of his life, all the while practising, honing and polishing those modelled quirks. The thing about any practice is that it doesn’t “make perfect”, it “makes permanent!”


Now, as with most things, there is no "right or wrong" with catching - however, there are things we can do that will make consistent catching much more possible. We might assume that the whole thing with being a good catcher is hand-eye co-ordination. Yet, if we predicate all our progressive actions in learning how to catch, and catch consistently, upon just what our hands and eyes are doing, then we will be paying no attention to what else needs to be happening.

The other thing about hand-eye co-ordination, like that, is that it has become a linguistic label. The caveat we need to bear in mind with all labels is that they mask some of the complexities involved. 

Here are some simple examples – walking, coughing, talking, watching, holding; and a less simple example – concentration; and then our friend – hand-eye co-ordination.
Now every single label of the few examples above is complex – even the first five, which I’ve described as simple! Some are innate, i.e. they are in our nature and we are born with them, some are fashioned and enhanced from the raw innate, and some are formless and conceptual, viz:- concentration, co-ordination.

I’m not going to dwell on labels per se, since I want to further explore what we need to unpack for catching consistently in terms of hand-eye co-ordination. However, I’d like you to keep in mind the simple complexities of the whole modelling-learning spectrum.

Movement in Time and Space

Catching, essentially, involves securing a hold on a moving object with parts of our bodies. In our general understanding catching, specifically, involves securing a hold on the moving object with our hand or hands, although we can involve other parts of us in the process as well – such as bringing the caught item into our chest to make the catch more secure.

Even if we are still, because the object is moving through space at a particular speed there is now a time element involved. One of the things about co-ordination is about how we are judging the element of time and the derivative factors of speed and space. Without that judgement we could – only by chance – place our hand(s) in the right place, at the right time, in order to encounter the object. Once we start to judge an object’s movement through time and space we can begin to co-ordinate ourselves.

I’ve played loads of ball catching games with children under 10. They can be watching the ball with hands ready, yet when the ball seems to be not quite reaching them they reach out for it. Of course, their feet are set in concrete so they fail to catch it. Their hands and eyes seem to be alive and alert, yet their feet are not party to this hand-eye co-ordination. The mere act of moving their feet towards the approaching ball would have moved their hands near enough to secure the catch.
This is simple logic to us as adults, yet it happens SO often with younger children that simple logic has gone out of the window! Ergo, any work on catching involves learning to be ready with hands, eyes, feet and our entire bodies. We, too, need to control the way we are moving through time and space relative to the ball or object as it moves through time and space.

This is only part of the complexity of hand-eye co-ordination though!


Thus far I’ve not touched on hands, but there is much also to be done here to propel us towards our being consistently able to secure catches.

The first is how we interface with the object – and I call this Hard Hands and Soft Hands. Try this yourself with one hand and test for results with the other. 

Spread your fingers in whichever way you like and then tense all the muscles of your hand. Now push into areas of your palm with the index finger of the other hand. Notice how far you can push into parts of the palm and fingers – this is Hard Hand. Now relax the tension and do that finger pushing once again. Notice how different the palm and fingers feel, and how far you can push into them now. 
This is Soft Hand – as seen with my left hand in the picture!

Next is the configuration, the shape, of the hands as they prepare to secure the ball.  Soft hands are crucial of course, but if our palms and the soft sides of our fingers are NOT the first contact interface with the ball, or object, then we are asking a lot of our hands to make the catch or to catch consistently.

Here are both my hands, duly softened, in a state of readiness to catch – and notice where I have marked “A” at the side edge of the right palm. When catching with both hands, match the right hand “A” with the same position on the left hand. You might like to just allow the side tips of your little fingers to touch, as a guide to how close the hands need to be. The hands then form a “basket”, a cupped catching shape into which the ball will land if falling from above. 

Now I discovered straight away that my 12 year old cricketer did not get his hands into anything like this position. He caught using what is colloquially known as “crocodile hands”.

Crocodile hands is where our palms close together either from the side (rather like praying) or from top to bottom like the closing jaws of a crocodile. This is SUCH a difficult way to catch because it demands absolute perfect timing of closing the palms as the ball arrives. It is like trying to catch with pincers, or callipers. 
The other downside of crocodile hands is that it usually starts with our pointing our fingers towards the approaching ball – and catching with our bony finger-ends is both Hard and hard!
It is to be avoided before we practice it and make it permanent.

Elbows and Wrists

The next thing we need our bodies to be doing involves two of the joints that connect our Hands to our Torso – notably, our Elbows and Wrists.

Now to soften our hands and manipulate them in the way I have just described, involves a degree of suppleness in our wrists. However, here’s the thing:- our wrists work hand in hand with our elbows, if you’ll excuse the pun! If you don’t believe me try this little exercise.

Imagine catching with wrist braces on, or with your wrists in plaster – it involves getting your hands in the right place by moving partly from the elbows and, most of all, from the shoulders. You can try this by making your wrists rigid and just noticing where your range of movement now comes from. The moment you “unstiffen” your wrists from those imaginary braces, your elbows come more into play and the movement of your shoulders diminishes.

So – a key part of our being able to co-ordinate our hands in order to catch is to have free AND BENT elbows. If our elbows are stiff and straight then we are back to trying to enable movement in our wrists from the shoulders only – which is difficult and cumbersome. 

So part of my coaching approach to the 12 year old lad (with the crocodile hands) was to get him to free up his elbows a lot more, so he freed up his wrists a lot more and this helped him get his (now) softer hands into a much better position. 
So, having crammed all this into 3-4 minutes for him – the rest is for him to go away and use it for himself. The degree to which he is a self-directed learner will have a direct relationship with how quickly he can educate his body to do certain things in a different way. 
For my part, I gave him enough variable types of catch in the last moments of the 3-4 minutes for him to realise he was suddenly catching a lot better, and a lot more consistently. 

At this stage I had said absolutely nothing about the EYE part of hand-eye co-ordination!

The Eyes

When I talked earlier about labels I mentioned watching and concentration as examples. I did this purposefully, because in terms of hand-eye co-ordination the labels watching and concentration become essential factors.

Now I’ve already exposed the hand part of hand-eye co-ordination as being a whole load more than just to do with hands. And the same applies with the eyes.

So I’ll start with a question for you about concentration – if you think concentration is all about the eyes, then how do you think a blind person might concentrate?
Of course the answer is rather the same as for a sighted person – by paying attention to all the sensual data and information that is coming in to their perception. Now a blind person has no visual data coming in to their perception, so they are able to pay more attention to the other sensual information. Their bandwidth of attention is more attuned, and in particular attuned to the primary sense we first experience in the womb – hearing.

Concentration is more about managing our attention, rather than just using our eyes to gather information - which we might call watching. Yet even with watching as we know, we can watch things whilst daydreaming and be paying no attention!

I believe concentration is made up of two elements – 
Attention and Focus

Our Attention is that bandwidth of data and information that is in our perception. Our Focus is how we are handling the workings of that perception – more about the nature of our consciousness! 

Later, at the same After School Cricket Club, I got the attendees into three small groups and they were to all practice throwing at a target set of stumps about 12 metres away – with their eyes closed. There were chuckles and comments, notably based upon
“No way will be able to hit them with our eyes closed.”
“Just do it and see what happens,” I said. “You may well surprise yourselves.”
Of course, this was a two-edged sword I was using – one edge was to allow them to improve their throwing technique, and the other edge involved their individual bandwidths of Attention. After giving them demonstrated reminders of the “best” throwing technique I left matters in theirs and my other coaches’ capable hands!

The outcomes were pretty much as I expected – and they did, indeed, surprise themselves!  Some were so successful with eyes closed throwing that they couldn’t believe how less successful they became when I got them to throw with eyes open once more.

This, here, is a crucial part of how we tend to manage our Attention when our eyes are open – which is very much the way we are in every waking moment of our lives. We manage our Visual data by giving it priority over our other senses. If you want to experience it for yourselves check out what something tastes like, sounds like or feels like, when your eyes are closed. It is as if another world of perception is opened up entirely.

Pulling the Focus

To draw the business of catching to a conclusion, just remember that “watching the ball” is very important in terms of Attention – FOR HOW LONG you are watching the ball is even more important as it is Attention across Time – EXACTLY HOW you are watching the ball is the MOST important factor of all.

This EXACTLY HOW is about the nature of our Focus.

There are various types of Focus from detailed and microscopic right up to a Focus of infinite focal length, such as when we gaze into a cloudless night sky.
Now we can watch an approaching ball with a view to catching it, in the same variety of ways. However, not all of these will give us the range of data we might think, or that might be most useful for us. If we watch the ball approaching in a narrow, almost microscopic way – say by trying to identify a feature or a mark on the ball in flight – then we may quite possibly succeed in gathering THAT data. But we will lose out in gathering all the data relating to the ball moving through space and time that also gives us its speed relative to us. We need to open up our Focus in order to garner the space/time/speed information.

Ball players sometimes say they “lose” sight of the ball in the background, or “lose perspective” of where the ball is exactly. They might say “I saw it late,” or use some other such description. The thing is, if they are looking with a narrow Focus then their perception of it will be different than if they are looking with an open, or softer, Focus.

And here is where I‘ll draw a focal parallel with Hard Hands and Soft Hands
With a softer Focus on the ball we’ll keep the greatest amount of relevant visual data coming in to our perception. 

If you aren’t sure then here is an exercise to try with a friend or colleague:
Stand about 5 metres apart and throw a ball underarm at catching height between each other. Take turns with your partner at doing a narrow then an open Focus. The narrow Focus person is to microscopically study the ball in detail as they make the catch. The open Focus person is to look over the shoulder of their partner all the while they are making the catch – in other words they are NOT closely following the flight of the ball but they will perceive it in their peripheral vision. Swap roles every thirty seconds. Then speed up the throws and notice what happens – plus put in some poor quality throws and notice what happens.
A variation of this is involves 3 people and 2 balls – the catcher; plus throwers 1 and 2 each with a ball. Thrower 1 starts and throws a catch to the catcher who throws it back to 1. As he throws to 1, thrower 2 throws him his next catch. The catcher then returns it to 2, and as he does 1 throws him his next catch. And so it continues. If he watches each thrower in narrow focus his attention will switch from 1-2-1-2-1 etc. If he watches in open focus by looking softly at point between 1 and 2 then he’ll find it a much easier and more successful exercise – especially when the process is speeded up.
This focussing softly on a mid point is rather akin to what jugglers do. If you aren’t sure what I mean then watch the juggler’s eyes and it will all make sense!

So there you have it – Hand-Eye Co-Ordination in a nutshell!

And if you ever needed an example of state of the art catching, then check out this amazing bit of artistry from Aussie cricketer Glenn Maxwell. You may just notice his calm attention, his sense of time/space/speed, his athleticism, the shape of his hands and his bent elbows!

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