A simple way to avoid choking under pressure

Researchers have found a technique that might help athletes perform better when the lights are brightest.
Written by Tyler Falk, Contributor

Sure, we watch sports to see other humans perform impressive feats. But one of the most intriguing aspects about sports is that sometimes athletes, who normally perform at high levels, mess up. They're human. Sometimes, under peak pressure, a professional baseball player makes an error -- that would be surprising for a little leaguer to make -- in the World Series; a future MVP basketball player misses a free throw when the championship is on the line; or a golfer misses a putt he's made time and again when standing on the 18th green.

But there might be a simple technique that could help athletes perform better under pressure.

A new study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that the simple act of squeezing a ball in their left hand or clenching their left fist before a stress-filled competition could activate certain parts of the brain to improve performance of athletes.

In situations where a lot of pressure is put on one specific action -- making one free throw to win the game, for example -- athletes think too much about the action they're making instead of letting their bodies go through the learned motions they've developed through years of practice.

The left hemisphere of your brain thinks about the gravity of the situation and focuses on the movement of your body, while the brain's right hemisphere helps your body perform automated behaviors.

"Rumination can interfere with concentration and performance of motor tasks. Athletes usually perform better when they trust their bodies rather than thinking too much about their own actions or what their coaches told them during practice," said the study's lead author, Juergen Beckmann of the University of Munich. "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."

And because the left hemisphere controls the right side of your body and the right hemisphere controls the left side, the researchers hypothesized that squeezing a ball with your left hand or clenching your left fist would activate the right side of your brain and make it less likely that you overthink your motor actions when you're under pressure.

To test this, the researchers got together a group a semi-professional soccer players, judo experts, and badminton players. With each group, the researchers had the athletes perform a typical ability used in the sport under stress-free conditions. Then the athletes repeated the same skill in a setting that put the athletes under more pressure. In some cases the athletes performed in front of audiences or were videotaped and told their coaches would see it. In each sport, those athletes that squeezed a ball with their left hand or clenched their left fist performed at the same level or better than the athletes that squeezed a ball with their right hand instead or didn't clench either hand. Keep in mind, the stress levels were nowhere near what athletes at, say, the World Cup might experience. Still, the experiment provides some form of differentiation.

The technique, the researchers clarify, doesn't work for athletes who focus on strength or stamina (weightlifters or long-distance runners), only on athletes whose performances need accuracy or complex movements.

So, will this be the beginning of the end for underdog victories and mega meltdowns by elite athletes? Don't bet on it, at least if left-handers are involved. The study only focused on right-handed athletes. "Some relationships between different parts of the brain aren’t as well understood for left-handed people," the authors said. Still, it might be worth sending to your favorite team. It certainly can't hurt.

The study also has implications outside athletics. The researchers point to elderly people who are afraid of falling and consequently overthink their movement. For right-handed elderly, a clench of the left fist could help them keep their balance.

And maybe journalists writing under deadline will become adept at typing with their right hand. I'll let you know how it works out.

[h/t The Atlantic]

Photo: Flickr/JMR_Photography

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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