Is being left-handed an advantage in sport?

What do Roland-Garros master Rafael Nadal, the six-time Ballon d’Or and neo-Parisian Lionel Messi or Manny Pacquiao, one of the most famous boxers of the 21st century have in common? Racket in hand, ball in foot and gloved fist, the three men are the flag bearers of a minority: that of left-handed people, who are celebrating their World Day on Friday, August 13.

Take Phil Mickelson on golf. The American celebrated his 50th birthday with dignity by kidnapping a Major last May. His nickname ? “Lefty”. A little name not very original given in the 1990s, at a time when left-handers were very rare on greens. But a flattering nickname all the same, enough to make the first left-handers envious.

Because in the past, they have not necessarily enjoyed a very good reputation. It suffices to refer to the Latin etymology of the word “left-handed” to get a little idea: “sinistra”, which is similar to … “sinister”. However, if there is one area where left-handed people have nothing to envy right-handed people, it is sport.

While the percentage of left-handed people in the world population varies between 10 and 13%, they are more represented in some sports. This is the case, especially in fencing. Among women, the world top 10 in épée has six lefties. And this is not by chance. Left-handed people are better at certain disciplines, according to a study published in 2017.

The researchers analyzed, over six years, the proportion of left-handed players in the top 100 players in tennis, badminton, squash, baseball, table tennis and cricket. They observed that in some sports, such as table tennis or baseball, the rate of left-handed people is over 25%.

Top athletes are 2.6 times more likely to be left-handed in competitions with the lowest reaction time. Why ? Because left-handed people have a slightly faster reaction time than right-handed people, when the information is visual and spatial. In table tennis, four of the top ten players in the world are left-handed, almost four times the population average.

And this is not just a coincidence. The left hand is linked to the right hemisphere of the brain, which also controls visual and spatial information. That’s why she reacts faster than the right“, notes Jean-Marie Annoni, neurologist and researcher in cognitive neuroscience.

Left-handed people are therefore endowed with a more advantageous nervous system. However, the scientist qualifies: “This difference is of the order of 6 milliseconds. On average, the reaction time is 100 milliseconds. This gives lefties a 2-3% advantage. I feel like the ‘strategy of the left-hander’ is more important than the notion of reaction time, except in some very fast sports where there is a lot to see at the same time. This is the case with hockey, for example.

Fencing is one of those sports where being left-handed has an advantage. Proof of this is that four of the last five Olympic medals in saber have been awarded to lefties: Mariel Zagunis in 2004 and 2008, Kim Ji-Yeon in 2012 and Yana Egorian in 2016. In judo, three of Teddy Riner’s four defeats in 2010 to 2020 were conceded against left-handers. Finally, the French Laura Flessel won five Olympic medals, and being left-handed was no stranger to it.

“I will admit to you that I have won by simply being left-handed. It sometimes confuses my opponents.”

Laura Flessel

to franceinfo: sport

Our opponents were not necessarily used to shooting against lefties. It disturbed them. As a left-hander, it was not uncommon for us to end up being four or five in the finals, to the detriment of the right-hangers.“, remembers the former Minister of Sports. The former swordsman admits having played on this difference:”fencing is a sport of explosiveness, precision, and cunning. If I noticed any discomfort in my opponent, I created a strategy to quickly suffocate him. “

In team sports, too, being left-handed can be an advantage. Matthieu Huard (23) is playing as a left-back in Ajaccio, in Ligue 2. “When I first started football I was one of the only lefties. So we necessarily have an advantage in training, recognizes the Corsican player. The left-hander can be confusing for the goalkeeper as he is more used to receiving strikes or crosses from right-handed people.

But he also admits that a left-handed player is likely to cause him problems as well. “My way of defending is not the same depending on the laterality of the attacker. Psychologically, it can play. There will be a little more apprehension, after I adapt whether he is left-handed or right-handed.

A question arises: if left-handed people had been right-handed, would they have reached the same level? “I am left-handed but behind I was working, I was a perfectionist. I was an insatiable, recalls Laura Flessel. Being right-handed I think I would have been the same. Maybe with less results, but I would have enjoyed it just as much. And that’s the main thing.

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