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Practice Time

by Sigmund Hewett

What's the problem?

You've got your ball, your ready to go, but you just can't get that butterfly to fly. You practice for hours on end with no avail, the ball just wobbles off the end of your fingers and lands with a sickening thump. In the end you pack it away, frustrated. Maybe contact juggling isn't for you. It's too hard. You won't ever be able to do it.

Sound familiar? It's a phase I went through three times... Luckily my desire to succeed outweighted my frustration, and after a short while my butterfly was smooth, my book of tricks started getting thicker and thicker. What secret discovery did I make? Did I just need more practice?

Not more practice, just smarter practice..

Time is precious, most of us have more in our lives than learning to juggle, we need to make the most of it.

James Ernest writes:

"If you are interested enough in what you are learning, you will make time, and it will pass quickly."

I practice for at least three hours a day on average. I set aside 'Juggling time' after work. I would practice more if I could, but for me at least three hours is a good time.

Learning to Practice.

When asked, "Why are you practicing?" The most common answer is "To learn [insert trick here]."

In actuality you're not, you're learning the skills needed to do the trick.. the trick in itself is the outcome.

When you first learn to ride a bicycle you don't just jump on and ride, nor do you leap into a swimming pool and start swimming.. there is a learning process that many of us have forgotten, and need to relearn if we are going to get the most out of our valuable time.

There are three areas we need to address to get the most from our time:

  • Dexterity skills: The hand-eye coordination needed to perform our trick.
  • Motor skills: Getting our body to do what we want, being strong enough to do our trick
  • Reasoning skills: Working out where we went wrong and how to correct it.

I'm not going to get on a zen spirituality chakra thing here. All I ask is that you keep these three things in mind while practicing. People tend to pamper themselves. "My butterfly isn't too bad" "That arm roll is close enough.. I'm only new" We lull ourselves into complacency, and in contact that means a lot of drops. Lets learn to be brutally honest with ourselves as we step forward. Keep a close eye on those mistakes, try and see *why* they happen, and try and come up with ways we can strengthen our weak points.

Starting a session

Before we even pick our ball up we should begin a practice session with a few essentials that are so basic, we overlook them until it's too late.

The practice area: This is a trick I learnt from my toss juggling days. I practice either sitting or kneeling in the center of my bedroom. Why? The nice carpet floor is comfortable, and friendly to my acrylics. While seated I have very little distance to drop a ball, making it easier to retrieve them. Also the body is restricted when sitting, it can't compensate for mistakes. I don't look at this as making tricks harder, simply helping me learn better style. It also makes tricks *easier* when you stand up.

Warming up: take a few minutes to stretch. I do stretches for my hands, shoulders, legs and back. I've found that going through a 'dry run' of the butterfly gets my arms and wrists ready. You will be surprised how much of a difference this will make. We tend to avoid using parts of the body that are uncomfortable, and if we are trying to learn something thats not quite natural, we have more success if we are limber than stiff.

Crystal Ferret Writes:

Most definitely by stretching your shoulders you are:
  1. less likely to injure yourself trying to save a "thrown move" and
  2. your butterflys will be presented to your viewing audience in a more visual aspect.
The butterfly, be it 1, 2, or 3, balls, symmetrical, or asymmetrical should be a little bit wrist (not too noticeable ) and almost all rotary cuff. I use a broom handle to wedge underneath ( and then shortly after, above ) the elbow and then pull GENTLY! with the other hand, the end of the stick. Becoming more flexible takes time. Don't rush into it. It will however increase your range of motion thereby increasing your range of tricks. It also serves to allow you to make a save, out of a "thrown move" more gracefully. Eventually, you can reach a point that your audience will think that you meant to do that. Even though you just screwed up but saved it with enough fluidity that it looked like a transition from one trick to another (just a quick tip here on that note). If you're doing a butterfly or anything else and you screw up but save it, DON'T go a right back to that trick. The sharper people in your audience will know that you made a mistake.

Planning: as you warm up, give some though into what you wish to accomplish this session. Make your goals specific and achievable. Reinforce you ideas positively.
"I'm going to get that wobble out of my back hand transfer today"
"I'm going to palm-back walk for 5 repetitions"
"I'm going to palm spin a pyramid of 4 for at least 5 repetitions"
These are all good goals.
"I might see if I can do a butterfly without dropping it....."
not so good.
Use this time to get a game plan together and stick with it!

Crystal Ferret writes:

Absolutely, We all know what we're good at, and we all know what we're not good at. If you spend too much time practicing what you already know you stagnate. Certainly run through your well-practiced tricks to stay fresh. But you do have to push yourself if you want to get better, enough said.

Time to start!

We've primed ourselves for a good practice session, but the best laid plans can go out the window. Here are some steps to get our good mental start and put it to good use:

  1. Break tricks down into component parts: Mr Ernest covers this in his contact juggling book to learn the butterfly. Lets apply that to every new trick we try and learn. Here we are addressing the Dexterity part of our training. Teaching the body to this new strange movement. Break everything down into easy to learn parts. The butterfly is broken down into toss and catch exercises, armrolls become placing the ball and rolling it longer and longer distances. An old saying 'you learn to crawl before you walk' comes into play here. Learn the simple steps and then one by one put them together. You will find the time you spend is far outweighed by how much you will waste trying to do the entire trick at once. And don't forget your reasoning, observe and analyse your mistakes on each part as well as your successes.
  2. Learn your tricks 'circularly': Is that butterfly too wobbly on one hand, or both? It's getting frustrating, or worse still boring doing the same thing over and over? Try doing a simple palm to palm transfer then go into your other hands butterfly. Now you are learning three tricks at once, and the nice circular pattern puts you right back where you started, looping forever. Any string of tricks can be learnt this way as long as it puts you in the same start position, such as arm roll to elbow - elbow to palm - 1 complete butterfly and around again. This has the added bonus of teaching you ways to get into and out of tricks, making freestyling much easier. Going from trick to trick becomes second nature.
  3. Learning tricks 'reversibly': A similar concept, only each and every trick you learn on one side, you mirror on the other. For most people one hand with any particular trick will dominate. You will learn it easier, faster and smoother. It is tedious but very necessary to be able to do each and every trick with both hands, and in both directions. If not your juggling will quickly become lopsided. This is a mistake that I personally made and had to work very hard to correct. Better to start with a good habit than to unlearn a bad one.

Crystal Ferret writes:

If you can't do the trick with both hands, you are literally half the juggler you think you are.
  1. Smoothing a trick, making it second nature: No real tips here, simply doing the trick over and over until it's as good as you can make it. Fighting boredom is the key here, and if your doing things circularly and/or reversibly you can string a lot of tricks together. For palm spinning I put two or three balls in my hand and start watching television or reading a book. Try and *feel* the balls in your hand and check on them during a commercial break, or change hands.

Crystal Ferret writes:

I will however throw in an add-on that I sent to Kae as well, get a piece of cloth, cover your eyes, go outside onto grass or dirt and practice not just your palm-spins, but your butterflys and arm-rolls (what I call, "shortwalks" (off the elbow)and "longwalks" ( off the shoulder ) BLINDFOLDED! By doing so you will increase your ability to feel your tricks and become more fluid.

For the record, I tried it. Although I couldn't get arm rolls happening I managed all my transfers and butterflys blind, and it did improve the fluidity. However this is something for the advanced juggler.

  1. 5. Upsize your tricks: I found the best way to get two ball palm spins smooth was to practice with three. For getting three ball, try spinning four. Your three ball spin will be tighter when you go back to it. Try a two handed butterfly instead of the single, then go back again. Just remember to keep sight of what your initial practice goal was and stick to it.

If you get tired or frustrated at making the same mistake over and over STOP. Have a coke / coffee / smoke whatever relaxes you. Now sit back and think over where your problem spots are.. Try and picture EXACTLY where your tricks are messing up and develop exersizes that will strengthen that part. Don't be afraid to go back to basics.. You're not moving backwards, you are strengthening what you can already do, and will be a much better juggler for it.

Crystal Ferret writes:

Very good point, If you're getting frustrated with anything your doing, STOP DOING IT ! Go to an easier trick or stop all together and mentally assess what you're doing wrong AND what you're doing right. Get something to eat, watch a half hour program on T.V. Then go back to it. Frustration is your most powerful block. Learn how to over come it.

By the same token, if something hurts, STOP immediately. Your practice should be considered over for the day. Even if later the discomfort goes away, resist the temptation to return for now. Any new movement will use muscles you never knew existed in normal life. The shoulder for butterfly, the forearms for palm spins. These muscles must slowly get used to these new movements and build accordingly.
Remember the motor skills section? Your body needs to slowly adjust to accomodate these new skills.

This is not time wasted, overdoing it and spraining a wrist or ligament will waste weeks of time as opposed to the single day you take now. Not only does your body need time to build, but so does your mind. The subconscious will process all these new things as you rest. This is a proven phenomenon and not some zen master rubbish, try it for yourself.

Lastly the end of the session:

You've worked hard through a few hours of practice, so why not remind yourself what all this is for? This is the part of the session I always look forward to, set aside five to ten minutes near the end and put on some music. Go over any and all tricks you know well.. try and freestyle and get them to run together. Just do the stuff you feel comfortable with, and any of your pet favorites. Above all, have fun with it.
You will walk away feeling your are pretty good, and it can end what may have been an ego-destroying session on a positive high note.


Contact Juggling is an arduous undertaking. It can take a long time to get the initial tricks down, there is hardly anyone you can go to for help (in my case anyway) And it will seem that everyone you meet will be better than you (this was definately the case for me) Rather than let this get you down, ask the person how long they've been juggling.. ask for advice. Every contact juggler I've met without exception has been more than helpful, and very enthusiastic to have another practitioner join the fold.

Happy Practicing.

Siggy