What’s wrong with the right side? Build muscle memory to excel in what you love

Launching and landing kayaks at a river such as this one near Kuala Lipis, Pahang, can be challenging because of the current.

I groaned as I approached land.

The riverbank was such that when my kayak landed, I needed to get out from the right side, and I really hate that.

I flounder like a clumsy oaf every time I must alight from the right side.

The left side of the kayak has been where I have been getting in and out since day one.

It doesn’t help that getting out at a riverbank is a slight hassle; once we line up with the bank, we need to alight quickly before the river current pushes our kayaks out of the ideal position.

To add to the complication, our legs tend to become a bit stiff after sitting in the kayak for hours, so bolting upright is no easy feat.

Some paddlers’ legs even fall asleep. If that happens, move your legs to decompress the nerves a couple of minutes before landing.

A kayak fisher placing his fishing rods on the right side of his kayak before boarding it from the left.A kayak fisher placing his fishing rods on the right side of his kayak before boarding it from the left.

After my recent ungainly, artless riverbank landing, the question of why I detest getting in and out from the right side kept popping up in my mind.

Then I realised parallels.

People mount horses from the left side too. Motorcyclists invariably get on from the left. Cyclists climb on from the left as well.

The kickstands of every motorcycle and bicycle are also on the left.

I went on the chat groups and asked around.

Tens of kayak-fishers told me they instinctively get into their kayaks from the left, whether they are right- or left-handed. Only two paddlers said differently; one said he could get in and out from either side as needed and the other chose the right side because his kayak has a rudder and the steering toggle is on the left, getting in the way.

I went on cycling chat groups too, and something like 99.999% of cyclists climb on from the left.

But Sonia Tan, a Penangite who is both a mountain biker and road cyclist, said that she had been climbing onto her bikes from the right for as long as she can remember.

Her first bike was a small kiddie bike with dual trainer wheels. She climbed on from the right when she was seven or eight and has been doing so ever since.

“Friends saw me getting on my bike from the right and asked, ‘How come?’. Only then did I realise that everyone else climbs onto their bikes from the left,” she chuckled.

After much reading, I learned that this global left-side tendency is centuries old.

About 90% of the world population is right-handed and so, cavalrymen wore their swords on the left hip to do a cross-draw with their right sword arm.

This made them favour mounting from their horses’ left, swinging the right leg over the horse.

If they were to mount from the horses’ right, swinging the left leg up could result in their swords entangling with the saddle or their legs.

There were exceptions.

The horseback warriors of Alexander the Great were spearmen. The saddle had not been invented yet and these men vaulted onto their horses using their spears, preferring the right side of the horse to favour their stronger right arm while vaulting.

Nonetheless, swordsmen on horseback became the regular warring strategy for thousands of years to the point that today, recreational horse riders might find their horses getting skittish and confused if riders try to mount them from their right.

But those who enjoy long-distance cross-country riding are said to train their horses to get used to being mounted from either side, in case of emergency.

If the rider’s left leg is injured, for example, it will be necessary for the rider to plant the right leg into the stirrup first. And, despite myself, the same should go for kayaking and many other outdoor activities.

In case of emergency or just to be efficient, I need to be able to get in and out of my kayak smoothly from either side.

It is a matter of building muscle memory: keep practising something until new neural pathways in the brain and spinal cord develop.

Once my brain builds the new neurons and pathways, the new motor skills will be handled by the brain’s “auto-pilot” features. Then I will finally be able to get in and out of the kayak from either side like a pro.

And while reading up on muscle memory development, I realise how important it is for people to master new physical activities.

In two experiments, test subjects spent six weeks learning how to juggle. Scientists at Oxford University studied detailed magnetic resonance imaging of their brains before and after their training and discovered that the subjects acquired new connective fibres (white matter) and neuron cells (grey matter) in their brains after learning juggling.

Among musical instrument players, mastering new musical pieces resulted in the forming of new white and grey matter in the brain too.

Learning new motor skills that change how the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) connects with muscles makes the brain form new cells.

This is why when retirees pick up activities like tai chi or dancing, they feel rejuvenated; the mental process of mastering new physical activity refreshes the brain.

So go for it. Pick up new skills that build muscle memory.

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StarExtra , Outdoors , kayaking


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