Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Reading Revisited: The Challenge of Reading Left-Handers in Volleyball

Last year I wrote about teaching the skill of "reading" in volleyball and posited that we coaches need to spend a lot more practice time teaching this skill to our players by (a) creating practice environments that afford the players game-like reading opportunities; and (b) teaching players what cues to look for and what they mean by giving effective feedback.  Here's an update.

Reading Can Be Taught

Whether we call it the "premier skill" in the game (Hugh McCutcheon) or the "most important skill" (John Kessel), it is by now settled that the skill of reading is in fact trainable and not some mystical innate talent.[1]  When we see volleyball players who always seem to be in the right place, it is because they have advanced cognitive perceptual skills developed from proper training.  A player's ability to forecast the future of the game by seeing, interpreting and responding to the visual cues presented by it is borne of deliberate practice with effective feedback in a game-like training environment. 

So why are we re-visting this great subject of reading in volleyball?  Well, the last six months has produced some very interesting research on the subject that can improve our knowledge of the game and help all of us to coach better.

The Lefty Advantage in Sports

In the last decade and a half research has shown that left handed athletes present considerable difficulties for their opponents in interactive sports.[2]  Lefties are overrepresented in many sports (as compared to their presence in the general population) and their left handedness appears to give them an advantage over their opponents.[3]  The "advantage" seems to be their opponents' greater difficulty in predicting the left-hander's behavior.  For example, soccer goalkeepers have been shown to have a more difficult time predicting ball direction for left-footed opponents,[4] and tennis athletes (regardless of their own handedness) have shown themselves to be better at predicting the direction stroke of right handed as opposed to left-handed opponents.[5]  Researchers have supposed that one explanation for this phenomenon is that players have less experience with left-handed opponents and therefore lack familiarity with their techniques and strategies, leaving opponents to act (react) the same as when faced with a right-hander.[6]  The hypothesis is referred to as the "negative perceptual frequency effect."

Reading Left -Handers in Volleyball

So this takes us to the sport of volleyball.  In a game where the premier skill of the players is accurately predicting the action of opponents, do lefties still maintain an advantage by being less "readable" than their right-handed counterparts?  A study recently published in the journal of Attention, Perception & Psychophysics says "yes."[7] 

To test the negative perceptual frequency effect in the sport of volleyball, researchers invited 18 expert and 18 novice volleyball athletes to predict the shot direction of left- and right-handed attacks.  Participants predicted the outcome of attacks using a video-based occlusion model.  To control the amount of advance visual information (and identify its importance to reading) footage of the attacks was occluded at three different time points: (a) 4 frames prior to hand contact with the ball, (b) 2 frames prior to hand contact, and (c) moment of contact.  Consistent with earlier research, participants performed more poorly predicting the shot direction of left handers, i.e., the lefties were more difficult to read.  Moreover, "the left-right bias" was most distinct when participants were required to make reads based on pre-contact cues (before contact with the ball).  According to the authors, "[t]he study’s findings corroborate the assumption that skilled visual perception is attuned to more frequently encountered actions."

Neutralizing the Left-Hander's Volleyball Advantage

So what can we coaches do with this information?  We must train in reality.  As long as left handed volleyball players continue to play the game we must expose our athletes to more left handed attacks.  We must make familiar what is unfamiliar.  If you have lefties on the team, give them a few extra swings and play defense against their attack.  Let the left handed players hit even if they're not your "hitters."  The training will be good for your defensive players and every player on the team, particularly at the junior level, should have a basic proficiency in attacking anyway.

Coach eye sequencing for your defenders and design drills that allow you to coach them while they perform in a pass-set-hit environment.  Do your defenders use the same eye sequence for lefties and righties?  Watch and coach them.  Ask your players what they see when facing the left-handed attack.  Is it the same as for righties?  Engage your athletes in a dialogue and help guide their discovery; you might find that your players are not focusing on the right kinematic cues against the lefties.  It wouldn't be the first time.  An early study from 1983 that examined the visual search behavior of German volleyball players found that participants incorrectly focused on the right arm and shoulder of attackers even when they were left handed.[8]

The available evidence suggests that the key to neutralizing the "left-handers advantage" is to design practices that promote exposure to lefty tactics and techniques.  This makes intuitive sense and is supported by the most recent research on the subject.[9]  Researchers successfully reversed the negative perception frequency effect in a study published in February by exposing participants to a perceptual training program that improved their reading skills against left-handers.  Apparently anything can be learned with the right kind and amount of practice.

One of our many tasks as coaches is to identify and improve weaknesses in our players and teams.  As the skill of reading plays a critical role in achieving success in volleyball, we have a heightened responsibility to guide our players' development in this area.  Coaches who creatively help athletes become better readers against all attackers are being good for and good to their players and also helping to raise the level of the game in all gyms.


[1]  See Farrow, D. (2008). Reading the play in team sports: yes it’s trainable. Australian Institute of Sport Coaching Magazine; Abernethy, B., Wood, J.M., and Parks, S. (1999). Can the anticipatory skills of experts be learned by novices? Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 70, 313-318.

[2]  Grouis, G., Koidou, I., Tsorbatzoudis, H., and Alexandris, K., (2002).  Handedness in sport.  Journal of Human Movement Studies, 43, 347-361.

[3] Lefties Have Element of Surprise in Sport, Discovery News (Apr. 26, 2012) (available at (last visited September 26, 2012).

[4] McMorris, T., & Colenso, S. (1996). Anticipation of professional soccer goalkeepers when facing right- and left-footed penalty kicks. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 82, 931–934.

[5] Hagemann, N. (2009).  The advantage of being left-handed in interactive sports. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, 71, 1641–1648.

[6] See, e.g., Loffing, Hagemann, N., & Strauss, B. (2010).  Automated processes in tennis: Do left-handed players benefit from the tactical preferences of their opponents?  Journal of Sports Sciences, 28, 435-443.

[7] Loffing, F., Schorer, J., Hagemann, N., Baker, J., (2012).  On the advantage of being left-handed in volleyball: further evidence of the specificity of skilled visual perception.  Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, 74, 446-453.

[8] Neumaier, A. (1983). Beobachtungsstrategien und Antizipation beider Abwehr von Volleyballangriffen. [Observational strategies and anticipation during the defence of attacks in volleyball.].  Leistungssport, 13, 5–10 (cited in Loffing, F., Schorer, J., Hagemann, N., Baker, J., (2012).  On the advantage of being left-handed in volleyball: further evidence of the specificity of skilled visual perception.  Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, 74, 446-453).

[9] Loffing, F., Schorer, J., Hagemann, N., Baker, J., (2012).  Human handedness in interactive situations: Negative perceptual frequency effects can be reversed!  Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, 74, 446-453 (participants underwent a perceptual training program to improve their reading skills against left-handers).