Improving your Accuracy
If you have trouble with the accuracy of your throws (it is common to have to move forward or back occasionally to reach a catch) then you can learn a lot by looking at someone really good - a juggler who does seven clubs or nine balls maybe. The accuracy required for these feats is quite phenomenal and each throw must be identical to the last for the pattern to hold together. If the juggler's arms are in the same position each time he throws, then the throws he has to make will not change. If he changes his arm position, then he will have to make a slightly different throw to compensate. One way to make sure you always throw from the same place is to give yourself a point of reference - let your elbow touch the side of your body just before you make a throw, this cuts down the number of possible arm positions dramatically :
This technique also has added advantages, especially for numbers and endurance jugglers; because it brings your arms in next to the body, it reduces the amount of work which the shoulder and upper arm muscles have to do (try this for yourself, do some juggling with your elbows nicely tucked in and then try it while deliberately holding your arms away from your body, which is easier?). It is possible to do a lot of juggling without ever moving your upper arms away from your body, and in this way you use the absolute minimum of energy. Many people who are starting to learn club juggling, or indeed any new trick, find that it tires them very quickly - I've often heard people say something like
These clubs are much heavier than balls, my arms always get tired when I practice. Usually however it is not the weight of the clubs which causes fatigue, but poor juggling technique and tensed up muscles. Look at the angle of your shoulders and neck in a mirror when you juggle, if it looks unnatural then you are using unnecessary energy by keeping them tense.
I have always found that relaxed muscles can work longer and more accurately than tense ones. Endurance juggling is a test of technique as well as strength, for example the current world record for continuous 5 club juggling is over 50 minutes, to accomplish a feat such as this it is not enough simply to learn five clubs and then lift weights for a year or two to build up your strength, you have to be able to relax completely, any tense muscles will begin to ache after 5 minutes, let alone 50. Jugglers who break records such as this usually work with much higher numbers of objects in practice, enabling them to relax much more easily when doing comparatively 'simple' things like 5 clubs.
Pick up 3 balls and start juggling a simple cascade, relax as much as you can and then start to concentrate on the way you are standing. Place your feet a comfortable distance apart and make sure that they are level, not one in front of the other. Try to distribute your weight evenly between them. Bend slightly at the knees and push your pelvis forward so that the upper half of your body is tipped back fractionally. I find this to be the most comfortable position to stand in when I juggle, as well as feeling natural, it has the added advantage of moving your torso and head away from the objects being juggled, stopping them getting in the way (this is more of a problem with clubs than with balls) and it also tilts the head back naturally, helping you to remain focused on the peaks of your throws. Once again the best method is the one that feels most natural for you, and the only indisputable rule as far as posture goes is - relaxed juggling is easier.
When you have found a comfortable standing position and your body is relaxed, start to take note of where you are looking as you juggle. Almost without exception, juggling moves are easier if you watch the objects as they peak, rather than as they ascend or descend. When you throw a ball straight up in the air it leaves your hand at a certain speed and then instantly starts to decelerate as gravity pulls on it, as the ball peaks it slows right down, stops for an instant, and then picks up speed again as it drops - this means that the ball is moving much more slowly near the top of the throw than near the bottom. So, watching the peaks of the throws makes it a lot easier for your brain to work out the path the ball will take.
Don't focus your attention on individual balls in your pattern, I have seen some learners moving their heads or eyes continuously from side to side watching each object. Doing this disorientates you and also concentrates your attention too much in a single place. Rather, try to see the whole pattern at once using peripheral vision, and keep your eyes fixed on the peaks. This technique allows you to spot mistakes early on rather than only noticing when it's too late, it also gives you a better idea of the shape of your pattern, alerting you to any asymmetries or other problems.
Now keep looking in the same direction but instead of watching the balls, focus on something further away - the wall in front of you for example. Many people find this quite difficult at first, but with a little practice it gets a lot easier. Now try looking round the room at different objects, make sure you move only your eyes, don't alter your head position yet; focus on each object in turn staring through and around the pattern. It can sometimes help to use this method when practising numbers juggling - if you are practising 4 or 5 balls for example, try a few runs with your eyes focused in the distance rather than on the pattern, don't look at the balls at any point. It can be hard to resist the urge to have a sneaky glimpse, especially if you make a bad throw or suffer a collision, and this exercise can turn into a test of will power as well. I found this 'far-focus' technique encouraged quick, instinctive reactions when things started going wrong with my pattern; I would make corrections without thinking and not really know what I had done afterwards. Try interspersing your normal practice with some far-focus juggling and see if it helps.
It is also possible to juggle without seeing the pattern at all. Juggling with your eyes closed isn't as hard as you might think, but it does need a little practice. Even attempting this trick and failing completely will teach you a lot about the way that you juggle, and I know of no better way of improving the consistency of your throws and catches. Many people, especially those who don't juggle, simply can't believe that it is possible to juggle without seeing the objects - I have been asked a few times
How can you catch the balls if you can't see them?. The secret is in the throws, juggling is about throwing much more than it is about catching - it is a waste of time trying to guess where the ball will land once it has been thrown, you should know where it's going from the instant it is released. Once the ball leaves your hand you have no control over it any more and the laws of physics take over, it will travel along a certain path and land in a certain place. This means that since you made the throw, you can anticipate the catch as well. When you first practice this trick it is easier to start juggling with your eyes open until your pattern feels solid, and then to try shutting them in mid-juggle. Small throws are easier to catch than big ones (I once heard of a juggler who could throw a ball up to the height of a 3-storey building and catch it again without looking - anything is possible!). I find it easiest to clear my mind completely when doing this, although some people like to try to visualise the pattern in their mind's eye and 'see' the balls in flight. Another benefit of practising blind juggling is that it makes you react very quickly to mistakes, you only have a split second from the time when the ball touches your hand to get a good hold of it, so if it hits your wrist say, or your thumb, an almost instantaneous correction is required to avoid dropping. It may help at first to spread your fingers a little wider than normal when waiting for a catch to give a bigger margin of error.
The previous two exercises - changing focus, and closing your eyes altogether - have the effect of gradually distracting your attention away from the actual pattern, and making you rely much more on good throws than on skilful catches. The only thing that looking at the pattern can help you with is putting right small (or large) errors in your throws. You can only see mistakes after they have been made and the balls are already in the air and so, strictly speaking, you don't really need to watch the pattern at all if you have learnt it sufficiently well.
I have never heard of a blind person learning to juggle, but I have no doubt that it would be possible, and I would guess that their 'handicap' would result in very accurate and regular patterns once a trick had been mastered.
Now you should try juggling with your head tilted at an angle, bend your neck so that your right ear touches your right shoulder (bring your head all the way down, don't cheat by hunching up your shoulder). This contortion may seem a bit strange but it is interesting to try because most people seem to go from not being able to do it at all, to being quite good, in a relatively short space of time. Remember to watch the peaks, this is especially important when doing this exercise - for some reason it makes it dramatically easier. Head position can affect your juggling in some quite mysterious ways, for example if you can do 3 balls with your eyes closed then, in theory, it shouldn't matter which way your head is facing because you can't see the balls anyway, however most people find that they have to keep 'looking' forward even though they can't see anything, and that turning the head to the side, or moving it up and down makes the trick much harder. The important thing to remember at first is to keep picturing the position of the pattern in front of you (although not necessarily the position of each individual ball). Once mastered, the ability to look away while juggling can be used to great effect in a routine, so it is worth investing a little time in this trick.
If you have read through the previous exercises and find them interesting then by all means use them, but do not feel that you must master all these techniques before proceeding to learn other things, it is best to practice them in tandem with the rest of your juggling, doing a little each time you train.