Upfront

Some athletes may improve their performance under pressure simply by squeezing a ball or clenching their left hand before competition to activate certain parts of the brain, according to new research published online in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

In three experiments with experienced soccer players, judo experts and badminton players, researchers in Germany tested the athletes' skills during practice and then in stressful competitions before a large crowd or video camera. Right-handed athletes who squeezed a ball in their left hand before competing were less likely to choke under pressure than right-handed players who squeezed a ball in their right hand.

For skilled athletes, many movements, such as kicking a soccer ball or completing a judo kick, become automatic, with little conscious thought. When athletes under pressure don't perform well, they may be focusing too much on their own movements rather than relying on their motor skills developed through years of practice, said lead researcher Juergen Beckmann, PhD, chair of sport psychology at the Technical University of Munich in Germany.

"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," Beckmann said. "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 research could have important implications outside athletics. Elderly people who are afraid of falling often focus too much on their movements, so right-handed elderly people may be able to improve their balance by clenching their left hand before walking or climbing stairs, Beckmann said.

"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."

—Brendan Smith