"Good hands" are a highly prized trait in most sports. Certain players just seem to have a knack for controlling/hitting/catching any ball that is thrown, pitched or hit toward them. Tim Duncan is a marvelous example of such an NBA player. Larry Fitzgerald's "good hands" have helped carry the Arizona Cardinals to an improbable berth in Super Bowl XLIII.
What exactly distinguishes players who have "good hands" from players who bobble the softest pass? In other words, what is the difference in this regard between Tim Duncan and guys like Kwame Brown or Eddy Curry? I asked three-time NBA All-Star Mark Aguirre that question and he told me, "With a guy who is supposed to have bad hands, you can look at him a lot of times and see that he is out of rhythm with the pass. A guy with soft hands is always in rhythm with the pass. A guy with bad hands is always out of rhythm with the pass, so you can try to create a rhythm for a guy--teach him to get in rhythm with the ball and that will help him a little bit." When Aguirre was an assistant coach with the Pacers and Knicks he mentored their post players, teaching them proper footwork. He said of Curry, "What you have to understand is that when I don’t know where my man is I tend to not be able to keep a constant focus on where the ball is coming from. If I post up and I don’t know where my man is, then I take my eye off the ball and try to find him and then the ball is there. When I looked at film of him, I saw that he bobbles the ball if he doesn’t get locked in on the ball. When he sees the ball coming at him then he’s fine. That’s footwork and that’s leverage and that’s learning how to lock the defender. See, once I do those things I don’t have to look at you; I know where you are."
Aguirre's reasoning makes perfect sense regarding post players in basketball but there may be a scientific explanation for "good hands" that transcends the techniques involved in playing any one particular sport. A fascinating Wall Street Journal article by Reed Albergotti reports that cognitive psychologist Dr. Joan Vickers has done extensive research that suggests that "good hands" actually begin with how the mind processes the visual data provided by the eyes. She studied elite athletes in several sports--hockey, baseball, tennis and volleyball--by observing them play while they wore special goggles that contained cameras filming their eye movements. Dr. Vickers identified two traits that are shared by athletes who have "good hands": she calls one trait "the quiet eye" and she calls the other trait "predictive control."
The former refers to, as Albergotti phrases it, "The ability to maintain a level and strong gaze on a distant object for an unusually long period of time, even while moving." Albergotti adds that "predictive control" is "the brain's ability to gather information from the eyes and use it to predict what will happen next."
The photo accompanying Albergotti's article provides dramatic evidence of these traits in action: it shows Fitzgerald catching a pass with his eyes closed! Albergotti writes, "Dr. Vickers believes it could be a textbook case of an athlete using predictive control to know exactly where to place his hands."