Righty? Lefty? Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert came to his basketball skills with a two-handed approach

The French big man writes and eats with his left hand, but for shooting and anything else that requires strength, he’s a right-hander.

(Eric Walden | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert signs some autographs for school children at the All-Star Weekend Jr. NBA Day event at Navy Pier in Chicago on Friday, Feb. 14, 2020.

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Rudy Gobert has more in common with LeBron James than you might think.

Both are primarily left-handers in their everyday lives: They write left-handed, sign autographs left-handed, open doors left-handed, and so on. But on the court, both are primarily right-handed shooters.

For Gobert, that’s not all he does right-handed.

“Everything that, like pingpong or boxing, everything that’s strength, I usually do right-handed,” he explained. “Everything that’s kind of a little more finesse, like writing, or eating, I do with my left. I’ve been doing that since I was a kid and I’m a little weird, but apparently there’s a few people that are the same, so I’m not the only one.”

Gobert’s right — he’s not alone. Doing different behaviors with different hands has a few different names in the scientific literature: “mixed-handedness,” “cross-dominance,” or even the slightly maligning “hand confusion.” But some of the most successful sports figures work in the same way, seemingly higher than the rate in the population as a whole.


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Like Gobert and James, Larry Bird, Russell Westbrook, Paul Millsap, Gary Payton and Danny Ainge all worked with their left hand in everyday life, while shooting with their right hand on the basketball court. Former Jazzman Trevor Booker is exactly the opposite, while Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons is mostly a lefty at everything on and off a basketball court except for shooting the basketball, which he does right-handed.

Gobert’s teammate, Mike Conley, shows near-true ambidexterity. In his everyday life, he’s mostly a right-hander, but shows the ability to shoot with both his right and his left on the court — a talent he used to great effect to win the pandemic-inspired HORSE contest on ESPN last summer.

Handedness turns out to be something that’s been pretty heavily researched. Early in the 20th century, there were a lot of studies that showed how left-handers were different than right-handers somewhere in various skills, but other studies didn’t show much of a difference. Why the disparity?

Psychologist Stephen Christman from the University of Toledo did research into the topic, and believes he’s found the answer. In particular, in his research, he found that strict left-handers shared most of the same characteristics as strict right-handers. But he found significant evidence of disparities in the mixed-handed — people who used their left and right hands for different tasks, like Gobert, Conley and James. It turns out that more left-handers have some degree of mixed-handedness than right-handers, explaining some of the earlier research.

To test handedness, researchers use the Edinburgh handedness test, to put respondents on a scale of left-handed, right-handed or somewhere in the middle. You can even try it yourself.

The Edinburgh handedness test puts people on a spectrum from left-to-right handed, or somewhere in between. (https://images.newscientist.com/wp-content/uploads/2005/11/13115745/handed-list.jpg)

The burgeoning field of mixed-handed research has found a dizzying list of advantages and disadvantages to being mixed-handed. Those with mixed-handedness have better memory in nearly every category — with early childhood memories, everyday memory, memories of their own dreams, and even human faces. Mixed-handers are better at learning foreign languages, more open to persuasion (and relatedly, more gullible), more likely to have stronger placebo effects when taking medicine, and are better at taking others’ perspectives into account.

We’re not done. There are lower levels of right-wing authoritarianism in mixed-handers, and higher levels of risk-aversion. They are less likely to be loyal consumers than strong left- or right-handers. Heck, they’ve even found that mixed-handers are more likely to have musical preferences for obscure genres than others.

In sports, mixed-handedness can have both obvious and subtle advantages. Everyone knows how useful the ability to switch-hit can be in baseball, but in tennis, mixed-handers also can have advantages in vision compared to others, because they have an increased ability to see opponent position with one eye while keeping the other eye on the ball. Manny Pacquiao’s ambidexterity was partially responsible for the success of his boxing career, he said, and volleyballers frequently have to be able to make plays with either hand.

For Gobert, he says his basketball ability to finish around the rim depends on the hand used. “I always felt like my left hook was better than my right. But finishing through contact with my right is better,” Gobert said.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) is surrounded by defenders as he gets off a right-handed shot in the Utah Jazz's game against the Brooklyn Nets in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 24, 2021.

His coach thinks that his versatility has improved, too. “I don’t think he’s as dominant with one hand or the other around the rim, the way he definitively is in signing his name and and shooting free throws,” Quin Snyder said. “But he’s really been working on his balance, his pace and his pivoting so that if someone does take one shoulder away, it’s a pivot, step through and use the other hand. That’s something I think that’s that’s helped him.”

For what it’s worth, the statistical evidence seems to support Gobert’s talent around the rim with either hand. When he’s finishing on the left side of the hoop, Gobert has scored 1.28 points per possession when rolling to the rim, according to Synergy Sports. When he’s finishing on the right side, he finishes at 1.23 points per possession — nearly as good. That being said, when he’s finishing on the right side of the rim, it’s usually because it’s left-handed Joe Ingles passing him him the ball, whose pick-and-roll assists tend to be pretty spot-on.

So while he’s pretty good, Gobert admits that he’s still pretty jealous of Conley’s true ambidextrousness.

“Mike can actually shoot with both hands. I’m not on that level,” Gobert said. “If we’re going to take a jump shot with my left, I mean, there’s probably like a 5% chance that I make it. My right is much higher.” Just from watching Gobert in practice, he probably makes a third to half of those open jump shots with his right.

So, no, two hands aren’t always better than one for every task. But for Gobert, James, Conley and others, the multi-handed approach seems to be the right one.