It seems with most forms of exercise we experience steps of progression. For a runner, it might mean gaining the ability to run for longer distance. When weight training, progress might come in the form of adding heavier weight. With other forms of movement our improvement may result from making the movement more complex. Making the exercise more complex has been the story of my work with the lacrosse ball. My work with the ball began as a dexterity exercise for my left hand. Cerebral palsy has taken its most profound impact on the left side of my body. The disability has challenged both my gross and fine motor skills on the left side most significantly. So, working with the lacrosse ball has helped improve the motor movements of my body. We began by catching the ball off one bounce, similar to a bounce pass, then progressed to bouncing the lacrosse ball off the wall to catch its rebound. Our next step was bouncing the lacrosse ball on the floor, catching it as the ball bounced up off the floor. Receiving the lacrosse ball following its bounce on the floor was challenging to begin with. So, to start the movement catching it underhand would require less reaction time to receive the ball. Once that was performed relatively well, the next step was to bounce the ball with my left hand, catching it off the bounce with my left palm facing down to receive the ball. Then, last week Bernard challenged me with another movement progression using the lacrosse ball.
All the challenges with the lacrosse ball have been done standing in one place. The first challenge when Bernard bounced the ball to me, had me moving just slightly when making the catch. After those were completed, bouncing the lacrosse ball off the wall didn’t require much movement either. Bernard had me standing relatively close to the wall while working on the movement. The closer I stood to the wall, the slower the lacrosse ball would rebound off the wall. The challenge gave me time to react, requiring some movement from side to side, but not much. There was some unpredictability to the direction each rebound would take, but nothing requiring more than a step to one direction. Standing to bounce the lacrosse ball off the floor also had me relatively stationary. We were trying to work on reaction time without concern over moving my body. It was about my left hand releasing the lacrosse ball to the ground, then preparing my hand to catch the ball as it bounced off the floor. This step of the lacrosse ball challenge was about getting ready to catch quickly. First was letting the ball bounce high off the floor. Letting it bounce higher meant my hand could be turned over, giving me more time to make the catch underhand. Once catching the ball underhand was becoming comfortable, it was time to catch the ball with my palm facing down to receive. When my left palm faced down to catch the lacrosse ball off the bounce, it sped up the reaction time to make the catch. I would release the ball to the ground, then catch it immediately on its way back up. The process helped me learn to open my left hand quicker. Therefore, helping speed up reaction time and improve motor movement.
In my mind, the lacrosse ball challenges had reached their peak. It didn’t seem there was much more to work on with the ball. However, Bernard had other things in mind when thinking about the lacrosse ball. Everything we had done with the ball to that point was working on hand-eye coordination that has been hampered by CP. He was also working on the motor connection in my left hand. Teaching my fingers to open and close on command, while being manipulated to grasp a moving object. It was a challenging process for me to learn. When we first discussed the concept of catching the lacrosse ball using only my left hand it brought on anxiety. I can remember telling Bernard that it didn’t feel possible for me to catch the ball using only my left hand. But, like with so many movements, we began working at a basic level. Whatever could be done to begin with was the place we would start. Now, we had progressed through a number of steps and different ways of reacting to the lacrosse ball. The movement in my left hand had improved greatly, allowing us to take another step with the ball. Bernard seemed to desire for me to begin combining the basic movements we had been working on. He caught be off guard with something he wanted to attempt last week with the lacrosse ball. We went into an empty room at the gym to begin another lacrosse ball challenge.
The room has a wooden floor for the lacrosse ball to bounce. There are full wall of mirrors on a couple of the sides, with one wall bare opposite the door. The bare wall would be the spot to work on this new challenge. Like one of our first lacrosse ball challenges, this one would require tossing the ball and having it bounce against the wall. This task would also be done with only my left hand catching the rebound of the lacrosse ball from the wall. However, there would be a difference from the first challenge of bouncing the lacrosse ball off the wall. Bernard had me begin by backing away from the wall a few feet. His requested position placed me back a few feet from where the ball was tossed during the first task. The result of moving back from the wall meant an increase in velocity of the lacrosse ball. The ball would need to be thrown harder to be bounced against the wall. But, the real challenge would be the speed of the lacrosse ball as it comes off the wall. Another factor making this step difficult would be the predictability of the ball as it leaves the wall. The ball would come back in my direction at different distances, heights, velocities, and land at different points on the floor. It was hard to understand the complexity of the challenge until it began.
Body positioning would be a main factor in this progression with the lacrosse ball. Part of body positioning also seems to be concentrating on your body in the space around yourself. When the ball hit the wall, the rebound required me to move quickly, getting my body into position to catch the ball. The similarity that came to mind when beginning this challenge was that of fielding a ground ball, or getting into position to catch a fly ball. Bernard related the activity to positioning himself to catch a punt or kickoff playing football. The activity was a good challenge for me to work on. It required a much stronger throw from my left arm in order to bounce the lacrosse ball off the wall. Placing more velocity behind the ball took a more coordinated movement in my left arm. The more coordinated movement also needed heightened concentration to execute. Following the release of the lacrosse ball, my movement had to be lateral and forward to catch the rebound before the ball hit the floor. Getting to the correct spot on the floor to make the catch was difficult. However, challenging as it was, the task was exciting to attempt. Everything involved in this process was difficult to execute, especially in putting together the chain of event required to throw and catch the ball. The final step of catching the lacrosse ball with my left hand was another difficult task. The ball was moving faster than it had before, spinning at the same time, which made it hard to squeeze with my fingers upon impact with my left palm. With about ten or fifteen attempts, only about three ended up being caught. It wasn’t a great ratio of success, but it wasn’t too frustrating either. It became clear just how challenging this progression was, but it was fun. My experience with Bernard tells me we’ll keep working at it and that ratio of success will get better.
Cerebral palsy can leave us with many challenges to work with. As with any challenge presented to us, it seems important to find thing that help us improve. Before my work with Bernard began, a lacrosse ball would have never entered my mind as a good tool for improvement. It didn’t feel possible for me to catch a ball of that size with my left hand. The struggles with my left side have often felt so pronounced, gaining more coordination in the hand was a dream. But, with the patience and knowledge of Bernard things have gotten better. He broke the movement and dexterity of my left arm to its basic level. Through the slow work we have put into the left side, the movement pathways have become more coordinated. Now, we have improved enough to incorporate full body movements with the fine movements of catching the lacrosse ball. The feeling of improving something that seemed unable to be improved has been an exhilarating emotion. There really isn’t any way to know what else Bernard has up his sleeve and I’ve learned it’s pretty pointless to guess. But, it will likely improve my cerebral palsy in ways that continue to surprise.