Don't Choke Under Pressure

Beat stress of competing by squeezing left hand

(RxWiki News) When the pressure's on, the mental aspect can be tough for competitors. But dealing with it may get easier as researchers have found a way to help athletes deal with pre-game stress before they begin play.

Squeezing a ball or clenching your left hand (yes, the left) before competing can trigger certain parts of the brain to relieve the pressure of performing, a new study has found.

"Keep a stress ball handy."

The study, led by Juergen Beckmann, PhD, chair of sport psychology at the Technical University of Munich in Germany, was conducted in three parts.

He said that when athletes under pressure don't perform well, they might be focusing too much on their own movements instead of trusting their body's motor skills from years of practice.

“While it may seem counterintuitive, consciously trying to keep one’s balance is likely to produce imbalance, as was seen in some sub-par performances by gymnasts during the Olympics in London," Dr. Beckmann said.

The first experiment included 30 semi-professional male soccer players who took six penalty shots during a practice session. Half the players squeezed a soft ball in their right hand, and the other half in their left.

On the second test day, the players attempted to make the same shots in an auditorium packed with an audience of more than 300 university students waiting to see a televised soccer match.

Throughout the experiment, researchers recorded how anxious the athletes felt during the practice sessions and the actual test.

Before each of their turns, athletes squeezed the ball again for about 30 seconds.

In the second experiment, 20 judo experts, 14 whom were men, performed a series of judo kicks into a sandbag at the Olympic training center in Dachau, Germany.

Each of the participants squeezed a ball with their eyes closed and were told to visualize the mechanics of their kicking.

Again, half the participants had the ball in their left hand, and the others in their right.

Immediately after the practice session, their kicks were videotaped and evaluated by their coaches.

And in the third experiment, 12 male and six female badminton players completed a series of practice serves.

They were divided afterwards into teams and videotaped competing against each other to be evaluated by their instructors.

Across all three experiments, researchers found that the participants in the right-hand squeezing group choked while those in the left-hand group significantly improved their performance.

With the judo athletes, those who squeezed the ball with the left hand also performed better overall during the competition than during practice compared to those with the ball in the right hand.

They also found that athletes who clench their left hand without a ball before competing performed better than players who squeezed their right hand sans ball as well.

Beyond athletics, the findings could help elderly people improve their balance by clenching their hand before moving.

Some elderly who may be afraid of falling tend to focus too much on their movements, Dr. Beckmann said in a press release.

“Many movements of the body can be impaired by attempts at consciously controlling them,” he said. “This technique can be helpful for many situations and tasks.”

The authors note that the ball-squeezing technique probably wouldn't help weightlifters, marathon runners or athletes who rely on strength or stamina.

Further, the authors had told athletes to pay extra attention and focus on their technique during the experiments, but the extent of that attention may not be realistic in actual competition.

More research needs to be done on how exactly triggering the right side of the brain affects performance under pressure and how the technique would affect left handed people.

The study was supported by grants from the German Institute on Sport Science.

The study was published online September 3 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General by the American Psychological Association. 

Review Date: 
September 20, 2012