If you watch or play sports, you’re probably familiar with talented athletes who, when the pressure is on, are unable to perform. These athletes don’t lack ability and they perform well under normal circumstances. But at key moments, something changes and they choke.
You may have experienced something like this in your own life. It may be in sports, but it can happen in other situations as well, such as at work in front of a customer, when you’ve got to speak publicly, or when something important is on the line. Under normal circumstances you’re able to perform well.
But under pressure you find yourself thinking about your performance, reviewing each action you need to take, and ruminating about what you need to do.
Over-thinking can interfere with concentration and performance of motor tasks, according to a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Athletes, it seems, tend to perform better when they are able to trust their prior training and their bodies.
Consciously thinking about motor activities — say, thinking about precisely how to kick a ball or the exact placement of your arms during a golf swing — actually interferes with your ability to perform the action.
To improve performance, some athletes engage in habitual activities, such as squeezing a ball or clenching the left hand.
Why the left hand? It’s related to how the brain and body are connected. The left hemisphere of the brain controls movement on the right side of the body and the right side of the brain controls movement on the left.
Previous research also indicates that rumination is associated with activity in the left side of the brain, while automated activity is associated with the right. So, to stimulate the right (automated action) side of the brain and get it working, you squeeze a ball in the left hand. In the study mentioned above, squeezing a ball in the left hand prior to competition reduced the likelihood of choking under pressure.
So, do these findings have implications outside of sports? Possibly.
Lead researcher Juergen Beckmann, PhD, chair of sport psychology at the Technical University of Munich in Germany, suggests that elderly people who are prone to falls might benefit from similar habitual activities. If you are afraid of falling, you may overthink your actions when you’re in situations where falling is a possibility, such as climbing stairs or getting into a tub. As with athletes, elderly people may benefit from activating the side of the brain associated with automated activity.
The authors suggest this technique is most likely to be helpful when you are engaging in an activity that requires accuracy and complex body movements.
Although it may be helpful in many situations, it has not been tested on those moments when we’re ruminating over speaking or a cognitive task and because relationships between certain parts of the brain aren’t as well understood for left-handed people, this technique has only been studied with right handed people.