Are lefties better at sports?

By: Robert Lamb  | 
Left-handedness has long been associated with awkwardness and evil, but does it also portend amazing athletic ability?

Key Takeaways

  • Left-handed athletes face unique challenges in sports.
  • They often adapt differently due to the prevalence of right-handed equipment and strategies.
  • Despite these challenges, many left-handed athletes excel in their respective sports.

­Bring up left-handedness in a conversation and the lefties in your midst will inevitably steer the discussion into all-too-familiar territory. Unless you happen to live in a culture where southpaws are still persecuted as witches, you'll quickly find them talking up just how freaking awesome they think they are.

Perhaps this brash pride stems from childhoods full of right-handed scissors and writing desks. Maybe it's all that elbow bumping with righties at the dining table. Whatever their reasons, give them enough time and they'll inevitably bring up some of the notable celebrities and historical figures who share their bizarre physical condition, everyone from Phil Collins to Charlemagne.


If you have to endure a rant from a left-handed sports fan, they'll probably rattle off such superstars as Arnold Palmer, Bobby Orr, John McEnroe and Oscar De La Hoya and Babe Ruth (although the Babe supposedly wrote right-handed). All told, the list of southpaw sports stars is actually pretty impressive, especially when you consider that lefties only account for roughly 10 percent of the human population -- a number that has remained steady for more than 10,000 years [source: Faurie and Raymond].

While the same can't be said for lefties, numbers don't lie. A disproportionately high percentage of left-handed athletes have long dominated the world of sports. So what gives? Do they really have something special going for them, or are cabals of devious lefties merely trying to spin a right-handed world in their favor?

In this article, we'll explore the impact that left-handedness has on the world of sports, as well as brutal hand-to-hand combat. We'll also look at the way in which similar examples of polymorphism, or genetic variation, are expressed in other organisms and how it affects the biggest game of all: survival of the fittest.

Just click on "Next Page," below to the right. We don't have to tell you which side of the computer your mouse is probably on.


Left-Handed Advantage

Was Ken Griffey Jr. merely blessed by Satan (also allegedly a lefty), or is there a scientific reason for his left-handed dominance at the plate? Read how baseball works.
AP Photo/Al Behrman

­As it turns out, there's no arguing with the lefties on the issue of left-handed dominance in sports. In athletic contests that involve competing one on one, such as boxing and tennis, they possess an advantage that has everything to do with surprise and nothing to do with witchcraft.

Obviously, left-handedness isn't a fate anyone chooses for themselves. Some researchers theorize that it can be triggered by birth or gestational trauma. Age also plays a role, as mothers over 40 are 128 percent more likely to give birth to a lefty than younger moms in their 20s [source: ABC News]. But humans aren't alone. Left-handedness or its equivalence occurs in a variety of different animal species and, interestingly enough, many experience some sort of lefty advantage as well.


As hilarious as the mental image may be, sea snails don't play basketball. Yet while these slimy little crawlers don't have hands, their left-leaning tendency manifests itself in the form of shells that coil counterclockwise, or left, as opposed to the more typical clockwise arrangement. Biologists have observed that lefty snails enjoy a distinct advantage against right-clawed predator crabs.

Many species of crab boast a special tool on the right claw to help them break through shells. Think of it as an evolutionary can opener. This adaptation helps the crab crack the more common clockwise-coiling snail shells, but falls awkwardly short against lefties. This variation in design renders the crab's weapon useless.

The crab-snail scenario applies throughout the animal kingdom. Predators adapt to hunt and feed on the majority. In the survival of the fittest, there's no payoff in being a picky eater. For instance, most fish species will favor a given direction and flee that way if threatened. The underwater equivalence of a lefty, however, would swim off in the other direction -- a move a predator wouldn't expect.

­Just as lefties often feel left out, minority-sided fish stand apart from their school. But while the­re's safety in numbers, nature shows us that there's also an advantage in standing boldly apart.


The Left-Handed Fist

Both of these men brandish their swords in their right hands, as 90 percent of the human population would. The left-handed soldier, therefore, is something even another lefty wouldn't be as well prepared for.
­AP Photo/Nader Daoud

­Unlike snails, crabs and fish, humans thrive at the top of the food chain. Yet while they don't have to worry about predators, they've long had much to fear from their fellow man.

Whether biting and eye gouging in the dust of prehistory or crossing rapiers on a fine Victorian lawn, violence has always played a role in human society. The better practiced you were at crushing your opponent in hand-to-hand combat, the better you were at life.


Just as a predator adapts to kill the majority of its prey, so too a soldier trains to defeat the most common opponent: the right-handed fighter. Often this was merely an accident of experience -- patterns of repetition worn into the human mind. If you fought mostly righties and survived, your skills and reflexes would revolve around a right-handed opponent. Therefore, left-handed warriors enjoyed an element of surprise over their opponents. In bloodier times, skilled lefties were often able to cut their way to the top of tribe. In fact, arguably the most brilliant general of all time, Alexander the Great, was reportedly left-handed.

Between 2001 and 2004, a pair of French researchers tested the theory of lefty battle superiority by examining the prevalence of left-handed citizens in areas with high murder rates. In theory, these conditions would allow them a better chance to observe, at least statistically, the lefty survival of the fittest. Sure enough, researchers Charlotte Faurie and Michel Raymond discovered lefty ]population percentages as high as 27 percent in violent corners of the world.

In areas where murder isn't a part of daily life, however, we always have sports to fall back on. The same principles that allow lefties to thrive amid violence allow them to excel in games where one competitor's skills and reflexes are pitted directly against another's. Just as a Roman gladiator trained to battle right-handed opponents, a baseball player boasts more experience against right-handed pitchers. With more combative sports, such as boxing, wrestling and mixed martial arts, the comparison is even more obvious. In fact, if a boxer knows that an upcoming opponent is left-handed, he or she will train against another lefty in preparation for it.

In contests where the slightest advantage can make all the difference, southpaws often wind up with their hands raised in victory. If the percentage of left-handedness were to rise, however, the advantage would slip away proportionally.

Explore the links on the next page to learn more about left-handedness and athletic advantages.


Frequently Asked Questions

Are there any advantages to being left-handed in sports?
Being left-handed in sports can provide advantages such as unpredictability for opponents and better adaptation to certain game situations.
How do left-handed athletes cope with equipment designed for right-handed players?
Left-handed athletes often adapt to right-handed equipment through practice and technique adjustments, although specialized equipment may sometimes be necessary for optimal performance.

Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • Campbell, James. "Lefties celebrate their special day." BBC News. Aug. 13, 2003. (Jan. 29, 2009)
  • Chiu, Ronald. "The Fighting Hypothesis: Stability of Polymorphism in Human Handedness." Science Creative Quarterly. April 2008. (Jan. 29, 2009)
  • Faurie, Charlotte. "Human Life-History Project." University of Turku and Sheffield. (Jan. 29, 2009)
  • Faurie, Charlotte and Michel Raymond. "Handedness frequency over more than ten thousand years." Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B, 271 (1536), S43-S45. 2005. (Feb. 2, 2009)
  • Geoghegan, Tom. "The Left-Handed Liberation Front." BBC News Magazine. Aug. 13, 2007. (Jan. 29, 2009)
  • "Lefties Have The Advantage In Adversarial Situations." Science Daily. April 14, 2006. (Jan. 29, 2009)
  • Onion, Amanda. "The Left-Handed Advantage." ABC News. Feb. 17, 2005. (Jan. 29, 2009)