A Hand Squeeze May Boost Athlete Performance Under Pressure

A simple routine not unlike squeezing a stress ball could help athletes avoid choking during a big game, new research suggests.

In the German study, researchers observed experienced soccer players, judo experts and badminton players during practice sessions and stressful situations before a large audience or video camera. The soccer players in the study, for example, took six penalty shots during a practice and then did the same before a crowd of 300 students waiting to see a televised match between Germany and Austria.

In all three groups, researchers found that right-handed athletes who squeezed a ball in their left hand before the high-pressure competition performed better than their right-handed counterparts who squeezed a ball in their right hand. The brain might be behind these results.

Squeezing a ball in the left hand, or just clenching that hand, might help activate the right side of the brain, the researchers said. This is important because the right hemisphere is the seat of automated behavior in the brain and the movements of experienced athletes often become automatic with little conscious thought.

"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," lead researcher Juergen Beckmann, of the Technical University of Munich in Germany, said in a statement. "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."

The study was published online Sept. 3 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. The researchers said they only studied right-handed athletes because some relationships between the brain's regions aren't as well understood for lefties.

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