Sept. 20, 2012 -- Researchers have revealed a simple trick that may help athletes keep their cool during a game's high-pressure moments. Their advice to avoid choking under pressure: Clench the fist of your non-dominant hand.
The findings appear in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
In the study, right-handed athletes who squeezed a ball with their left hand or clenched their left fist before a competition were less likely to choke in high-stress matches.
Here's why: The left side of the body is controlled by the right side of the brain.
"Increasing activation in the right hemisphere decreases activation in the left hemisphere," says study researcher Juergen Beckmann, PhD.
Choking under pressure seems to be caused by a dominant activation in the left hemisphere, which controls key areas of the brain that help us psych ourselves out when under the gun.
Clenching Technique May Reduce Choke Risk
Brain scans show that a decrease of activation in the brain's left hemisphere boosts performance, says Beckmann. He is the chair of sport psychology at the Technical University of Munich in Germany.
The researchers conducted three studies involving soccer players, judo experts, and badminton players. They tested the athletes' skills during normal practice and during important matches that took place before a large crowd or video cameras. The researchers only tested right-handed people.
The athletes were less likely to choke under pressure when they squeezed a ball in their left hand than when they squeezed it in their right hand.
This technique seems to work best in situations where movements such as kicking a ball are automatic. Overthinking them, however, can impair performance.
"So far, we know that the technique seems to work only with complex motor tasks which have become automated," says Beckmann. "It should not only work with sports but also ... could be helpful for elderly people to maintain balance when they are afraid that they might fall."
Break the Thought Cycle
Beckmann and his team are now studying the technique among expert musicians.
"It might also be useful for surgeons or other professions in which precision, pressure, and highly automated tasks combine," he says. To date, the team has conducted 13 studies, including one with gymnasts. "Whenever the specified conditions were given, the technique never failed."
David Straker, MD, says some athletes start thinking the worst when they step up to the plate in a baseball game or need to take a foul shot on the basketball court -- and then they choke.
"They have likely done this thousands of times. And 99% of the time, they do it perfectly, but still they choke," he says. Straker is an adjunct assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. He often recommends a short course of therapy to help people change how they think and overcome self-defeating thoughts.
"See a therapist and try to work on changing how you think in these situations," he says. "When you start ruminating, take a step back and remind yourself that you have done this so many times and you do it well," he says. "The fist- or ball-clenching technique used in the new study may also help distract people from the negative thoughts."
In the Zone
And performance anxiety is not just an issue for athletes. "We know that elderly people are more likely to fall if they are thinking about it, and people also choke during exams even though they know the subject cold," Straker says. Whatever the scenario, changing the thought process can make a difference.
Sports performance expert Todd Stofka puts it like this: "You think you can or think you can't." He is the founder of Philly Hypnosis Performance in Philadelphia and regularly helps athletes think that they can. "Your confidence dictates whether you do better or worse. It is more than positive thinking. It's desired-results thinking."
He often tells clients to visualize what they want in that high-stress moment. This process starts with breaking the initial connection.
"Think of it as a series of light switches," he says. "You can pull your ear or adjust your shirt or do something to stop the negative thoughts, and from there can move toward visualizing hitting the ball out of the park."
Being calm is also important. "Top performers play their very best when they are relaxed and in the zone," he says. Getting in the zone starts with stopping anxiety-producing thoughts and anticipation.