Study: Athletes Perform Better Under Pressure When They Make a Fist With Their Left Hand


From the Journal of Experimental Psychology, a simple way to activate the part of your brain that lets you stop worrying and just be the ball.


PROBLEM: Thirty percent of penalty kicks in professional soccer are missed, as are 20-30 percent of NBA free throws, despite practice scenarios in which those numbers are notably lower. Studies have suggested that the reason is primarily psychological -- they fail not from lack of focus, but "because attention is directed toward the execution of the action" -- since most perform better at these rote but accuracy-dependent aspects of the game (which they've nearly perfected from a mechanical aspect with thousands of hours of practice) in low-pressure situations. So, like so many of us, they're always looking for ways to get out of their heads

According to the researchers, freaking out is primarily associated with the left hemisphere of the brain, while the right hemisphere deals more with mechanical actions. Meanwhile the cortex of the right hemisphere controls movements of the left side of the body, and the left hemisphere controls the right side of the body. So they figured that if you can purposely activate the right hemisphere -- in this case, by making a fist or squeezing a ball with your left hand -- it will improve physical performance and draw focus away from the ruminating left hemisphere.

METHODOLOGY: In three experiments, German researchers had athletes perform their respective sports -- soccer (penalty kicks), tae kwon do, and badminton -- in casual environments. They then put them in front of large audiences or cameras to create "high-pressure environments" and measured the change in performance. Some of the athletes made fists with their left hand (or held a small ball in their left hand), and some made fists with their right.

Of note, only right-handed athletes were involved.

RESULTS:  Athletes who made a fist with their left hand did better under pressure than when they made a fist with their right hand -- and often as well as in the low-pressure practice scenarios.

CONCLUSION: "Hemisphere-specific priming" appears to discourage over-thinking in high-pressure situations. Activating the right hemisphere of the brain by doing a simple action with the left side of the body (making a fist, in this case) appears to negate context-related declines in complex motor performance.

IMPLICATIONS: Lead researcher Juergen Beckmann, PhD, put it pretty profoundly: "Consciously trying to keep one's balance is likely to produce imbalance." Simple (brain-hemisphere-dependent) tasks that activate motor portions of the brain while drawing activity away from the ruminating portions can help experienced athletes perform (in terms of accuracy and complex body movements done from muscle memory) without being messed up by nerves. "Just let it happen; be the ball." 

Will all the professional soccer players be making fists with their left hands next time they take a penalty kick? Yes. They should, at least.

Let's all try it, too. Even if you don't play soccer (or badminton or tae kwon do), it should apply beyond sports, to other rote activities that have to be done under pressure. Like when you end up bagging your own groceries, and everyone in line is staring at you, and produce is flying down the conveyor belt, but you need to keep the bread on top. And the bottles on the bottom. And the bread on the bottom. No, that's wrong! Breathe, clench your left foot, and just let it happen.

The study, "Preventing Motor Skill Failure Through Hemisphere-Specific Priming: Cases From Choking Under Pressure" will be published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology

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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic.


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