3 Ball Gurus: Part 1 – Andrew Olson

Some jugglers are known for being jacks of all trades. They try to learn to be somewhat proficient at a very wide array juggling skills. Others concentrate on one or two props and rarely if ever mess around with anything else. A few make it their goal to concentrate on one very specific type and number of prop and expand what is possible with their area of expertise. After thousands of years of juggling, you might think that everything that could possibly be done with 3 ball juggling would have been discovered, but that is not the case. A number of jugglers, including Andrew Olson and Dan Jahvorsky, are pushing the boundaries of 3 ball creativity and creating an incredible number of new patterns and tricks. Both Dan and Andrew agreed to share a bit about themselves and the work that they’re doing with 3 ball creation. In part one of this series, we’ll get to know Andrew Olson and learn about his journey.

1. Can you please tell our readers a bit about your background?

Andrew: I studied art and computer science at Iowa State University, and my current occupation is in the area of computer software research and development. Since I was a child, I have had a strong interest in artistic applications of mathematics and technology.

My extended family mostly resides in the Midwest region of the United States. Currently I live in Kansas City, on the Missouri side, and am married to a brilliant, beautiful human. We have three very fluffy cats – Simone, Ursula, and Oliver.
2. How and when did you learn to juggle?

Andrew: In the early years of high school, I taught myself to juggle for no specific reason that I can remember, besides being generally fascinated by the physical and mental challenges of it. The learning process was basically just persistently attempting to cascade three tennis balls in my bedroom for hours, until the mechanics finally clicked. Juggling eventually became an avid hobby, or perhaps a bona fide addiction, and I soon progressed to four balls and then clubs. After joining Iowa State’s juggling club a few years later, I learned how to pass clubs and a handful of three ball patterns like the Box and Rubenstein’s Revenge.

Around mid-2010, I started attending the Kansas City Juggling Club. This passionate, vibrant community provided the inspirational sparks to begin exploring juggling much more seriously. Since then my interest and activity level has remained high.
3. Besides creative 3 ball juggling, do you enjoy or specialize in any other types of juggling and object manipulation?
Andrew: Yes, I like working on four ball patterns sometimes, usually uncommon siteswaps. Also I enjoy passing clubs with friends on occasion.
4. What drew you to 3 ball juggling?

Andrew: Initially I was drawn to juggling for the same reasons as I suspect most jugglers are – the joy of learning something new and difficult, the mesmerizing beauty of the geometry and mathematics, and the endless possibilities for exploration as both an expressive art form and a structured scientific field. Compared to some competing interests like songwriting, painting, and chess, juggling possessed an intrinsic sense of tactile physicality and multidimensional connectedness that elevated its appeal. Although ephemeral, the accomplishments somehow seemed more satisfying.

While originally fond of clubs, I gradually grew to prefer balls, because I kept finding many more intriguing ideas that I could actually execute with only balls consistently. My skill level with clubs was simply not high enough for the multiplex patterns and non-trivial siteswaps that I was experimenting with. At some point it became apparent that I could achieve these advanced aspirations more quickly if I practiced primarily balls as an intentional specialization, and stopped diversifying with my time split across balls, clubs, and sometimes even rings. The more convenient portability of balls over clubs was probably a subtle influencing factor as well, as I would normally just take balls when going to a local park for practice after work.
My progression from being a ball juggler to a mostly three ball juggler was a slow evolution, for the same natural reason that I chose balls over clubs. I often found myself having ideas for interesting three ball patterns that I could rapidly explore in an iterative feedback loop, without being restricted by technical requirements beyond my capability – which would have certainly been the case with patterns of a similar aesthetic nature, for four balls or more.
Along these lines, a general philosophy of maximizing creativity through constraints has been helpful to have as the guiding theoretical structure for my work. This framework provides sharp focus, accelerating deeper exploration of pattern possibilities by enabling more frequent progressive iterations. From a practical perspective it keeps the degree of difficulty manageable and guards against less productive efforts.
5. What is your process for creating new patterns and tricks?

Andrew: My two main modes of thinking about the pattern creation process are discovery and design. Both approaches can be either artistically or scientifically driven, depending on my mindset at the time.

Discoveries happen mostly by exploring variations of existing concepts. The discovery process can be whimsical, mindlessly and randomly messing around with spontaneous mutations, or methodical, meticulously identifying and evaluating all possible options within a given set of parameters, in search of standalone gems. It is something like a creative fishing expedition.
Designs are built by combining simpler parts into a more complex construction. Apt analogies would be building phrases out of words, assembling chords out of musical notes, or forming chemical compounds out of elements. With some of the best designs, the overall cohesion is strong enough that the individual pieces are seamlessly blended and lose much of their original identity. Naturally, similar fragments usually mix well. Sometimes contrasting components can complement each other nicely, but at other times their conflict is not visually pleasant or kinetically reconcilable. Intuition for selecting which combinations to pursue is important, to streamline the process, and that grows with experience.
Of course, like most things in life there is not always a black and white distinction between discovery and design. These are complicated topics. They can overlap with grey areas in between, or there could even be additional layers of metacognition involved, like trying to figure out what the optimal ways are to discover designs or design discoveries.
6. Who else besides yourself do you view as the leaders in creative 3 ball juggling today?

Andrew: There are many different styles and specialties in three ball juggling, as well as many aspects of creativity, along with many dimensions of expertise and leadership, making this a really tough question to answer. However I will try to formulate a succinct response.

In no particular order, and not based on any objective criteria, here are some of the people I would say are solidly established as current leaders in this space – Mike Moore, Dan Barron, Quinn Lewis, Michael Karas, Ryohei Kimura, Lauge Benjaminsen, Alex Rozanov, Kotaro Fukuda, Matan Presberg, Taylor Glenn, Wes Peden, Stefan Thaler, Lou Duncan, Dan Jahvorksy, Bridger Williamson, Zach DeLong, Jake Hart-Predmore, Josh Mermelstein, Lucas Adverse, Daiki Utsumi, and Alberto Hernandez. Most of these individuals have a substantial sphere of influence including both heavy social media presence and active festival attendance. Beyond merely conceptualizing and demonstrating an abundance of new ideas, many of them have dedicated their time to producing tutorial videos and teaching instructional workshops, which are greatly appreciated and highly influential.
There are a number of others around the world that I could have mentioned, with so many amazing people significantly contributing in their own unique way. I do not believe a listing can be fairly narrowed to just a few key leaders, because it truly is a global collective.
7. Do you have any advice for other jugglers who want to push their creative boundaries technically?

Andrew: Start with first getting comfortable with the core fundamentals and all of the popular variations. Having a robust foundation spanning a wide vocabulary of components is vitally important for creativity to fully thrive. As with playing a musical instrument, in order to be able to fluently improvise, a baseline proficiency is needed. Similarly, like being able to read sheet music, understanding siteswap is not essential but can be beneficial.

Establish some constraints to guide your explorations and creations. By setting these fixed invariants in place, you will have more cognitive cycles available to think about how to adjust and arrange the remaining variables.
Compile a catalog of video clips, and routinely observe your progress from that perspective. In my experience, fresh epiphanies are eager to unexpectedly materialize during these regular review sessions. An organized collection of previous ideas is frequently useful for future reference.
Do not hesitate to seek out inspiration from others doing similar things. Your creative output when integrating and expanding on the work of others will be far more potent than if you were to only develop a collection in isolation without any external influences.
Follow your instincts, carve your own path, and slowly develop your own style. While some common ingredients are inevitably going to be shared, there is a vast frontier of still unexplored territory. Find the things that are most fulfilling and meaningful to you, and branch off from there.
Let’s take a look at some of Andrew’s amazing 3 ball work.

David Cain is a professional juggler, juggling historian, and the owner of the world's only juggling museum, the Museum of Juggling History. He is a Guinness world record holder and 15 time IJA gold medalist. In addition to his juggling pursuits, David is a successful composer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and singer as well as the author of twenty three books. He and his children live in Middletown, OH (USA).

Comments 1

  1. “Establish some constraints to guide your explorations and creations. By setting these fixed invariants in place, you will have more cognitive cycles available to think about how to adjust and arrange the remaining variables.”

    This is so important. It will unlock so much more creativity than having a more diffuse focus. These invariants don’t need to be lifelong, either: I find my golden period to be about 3-4 months on a specific project.

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