It’s often said that timing is everything.

Yes, people are typically referring to life or business when they say this, but it appears that the same could be said for athletic and musical endeavors as well. After all, space out for a moment in orchestra, and you could very well end up playing a solo that nobody saw coming.

But on an even more fundamental level, whether we’re hitting a tennis ball (bounce…hit ), driving a golf ball (tick…tock ), or nailing a particularly difficult shift, there are indications that rhythm may be a critical (but underappreciated) factor in the successful execution of complex motor skills.

Ok, but isn’t rhythm naturally built into everything we do already?

Well, not necessarily. Let’s take a closer look…

Rhythmicity

Many everyday activities have a natural rhythm or flow to it. Whether folding laundry, chopping broccoli , or mowing the lawn, we often fall into natural rhythmic patterns as we engage in repetitive movements. In fact, next time you’re at the gym, put on some music with a strong beat, and deliberately try to avoid cycling to the natural rhythmic flow of the music. It feels awkward and takes some real effort. Hence the existence of apps like PaceDJ, which help you find music that matches (and assists in maintaining) your ideal pace.

And this is not just some app developer’s zany idea for reducing boredom on long runs, but actually somewhat relevant from a performance perspective. There are studies which suggest that we all have an internal pace or rhythm that we naturally gravitate to, which represents the most optimal and efficient combination of speed, stride rate, and stride length. So when we walk or run at this cadence, we expend less effort. And if any changes to these variables are forced on us (as happens when we run with a partner who insists on a different pace), our oxygen consumption goes up significantly.

So having good rhythmicity (or more accurately, a rhythm that suits us) when jogging is an indication of optimal or peak efficiency. Where our motor movements are operating smoothly and effectively and producing the optimal result.

Poor rhythmicity, on the other hand, represents our bodies being slightly out of sync, our muscles operating in a less coordinated and efficient way.

Rhythmicity and performance

Which reminds me of something a tennis coach once pointed out. He observed that I was running around the court kind of lazily, but when I got to the ball, furiously whipping my arm at it like I was trying to smash it to bits. Meanwhile, when you look at the pros, or any half-decent player, they run quickly to where the ball’s going to be, and their swing seems to almost be in slow motion. It’s fluid, smooth, and looks effortless, yet the ball seems to jump off the strings.

The coach told me to forget about hitting the ball so hard, and instead focus on slowing down my swing and making it feel easy. That once I could do that, my timing would be better, I wouldn’t wear myself out nearly as quickly, and ultimately, the ball would actually travel with more pace and spin.

Indeed, great tennis players are fun to watch because their strokes themselves are a thing of beauty. There’s a certain grace and elegance in their body movements, which belies the tremendous power they are hitting with. And as beautiful as great athletes’ movements are, it’s not just eye candy. The smoothness and unhurried appearance of these movements are indicators of how efficient and biomechanically sound their strokes are.

Rhythm and basketball

The same principle seems to be true for basketball players, who often speak of getting into a rhythm, or being a “rhythm shooter.”

The idea being, players tend to miss more if they are rushing their shots, or conversely, taking too much time to get set up.

Rhythm and golf

Rhythm is a concept that often comes up in golf as well. Following Phil Mickelson’s 2013 Open Championship victory, coach Butch Harmon recounted “All we spoke about was the rhythm of his swing and that was phenomenal all day Sunday.”

Ok, so anecdotally, we see and hear a lot of evidence for the importance of cultivating good rhythm in complex motor skills. But are there any studies which have looked at this more deeply?

Long jumpers

A team of British researchers conducted a study of 6 international-level long jumpers and triple jumpers. All were, or had recently been ranked in the top 8 in the world, so these were some of the highest-level competitors in the world.

Each athlete performed a series of long jumps or triple jumps, where their run-up to the jump was videotaped and analyzed. Specifically, the researchers were curious about the jumpers’ footwork and the rhythm or pace at which their feet made contact with the ground relative to their takeoff. They theorized that the less variation (i.e. more rhythm) in the pattern of footfall variation, the better the athlete’s jump would be.

Indeed, the athletes’ longest (best) jumps were associated with the run-ups which were more in rhythm. The run-ups which had more footfall variation tended to result in shorter (worse) jump distances.

Javelin thrower

Another study compared the performance of an elite javelin thrower with sub-elite javelin throwers and found similar results. In fact, the elite thrower reported that rhythm was one of the things he focused on before throwing, explaining “I have to hear the music,” in reference to the footfall pattern he engages in before throwing the javelin.

Basketball free throw routines

Yet another study, this one involving basketball players shooting free throws, found that disrupting the rhythm of a players’ pre-free throw routine disrupted their shot.

Take action

So what does all of this actually mean in practice?

Like every other instrumentalist, I had to take piano lessons in grad school. I had a very thoughtful student-teacher who observed that I had a tendency to play at a tempo which matched the most well-learned sections of the piece. So when I was playing parts that were comfortable for me and felt secure, I sounded great (not “great” in the literal sense, but you know, passable, for a non-pianist who practiced maybe 10 minutes the night before the lesson). But when I got to the sections which were less secure, I’d often fumble around in a panic or even flat-out stop while I organized my fingers for the next phrase. And even if I got the general rhythm of the music ok, played the notes mostly at the right time, and kept things going, the rhythmicity of my movements was off.

He acknowledged that it’s fun to hear ourselves playing the good parts in tempo, but encouraged me to put my ego on hold, and play at a more sustainable tempo, based not on the best-learned sections, but on the weakest passages. So that when I played through the piece, I would be able to comfortably play the most difficult parts without feeling quite so rushed and frantic when I got there.

To be clear, this is not about practicing with a metronome per se. Because you can still play in time, but with herky-jerky shifts that have poor rhythmicity. The idea, is that if faced with a difficult shift (as an example), it’s probably not enough to just practice the movements involved in the shift, and functionally getting from note A to note B. If we really want to maximize consistency and accuracy, we may have to practice the rhythmicity of the shift as well. So that whether we are practicing slowly, at tempo, or even above tempo, the rhythm of the shift is itself a target of our practice efforts.