Hey Athletes: Ever Choke Under Pressure? Try This

You can perform better at sports like golf or basketball with one simple trick, says a new study. Read on to find out what it is—and why it might work.

Let’s think about some recent examples of major sports choke-age: There was that darling little American gymnast, Jordyn Wieber, who was supposed to dominate the medal stand in London—but brought back mostly tears and disappointment . Oh, and remember how Penn State’s kicker missed an embarrassing four field goals in their 17-16 loss to Virginia a couple of weeks ago?

Well, according to new research, there might be a simple way to help prevent such soul-crushing instances of disgrace under pressure. German sports psychologists recently ran three experiments with experienced athletes, finding that right-handed athletes who squeezed a ball with their left hand before competing were less likely to choke.

What’s the connection, you ask? When athletes don’t do well in a clutch situation, it’s often because they’re too focused in on their movements (kicking or driving the ball, for example), rather than simply relying on their motor skills, which have been fine-tuned through all those hours—hell, years— of practice. And while the ball/performance connection is tricky, it makes sense. Read carefully:

  • Thinking too hard, or “rumination,” is believed to occur in the left side of your brain; automated behavior, on the other hand—like those aforementioned fine-tuned athletic skills—are thought to be dominated by the right side.
  • Each side also controls the opposite side of the body’s movements. (So your right brain controls your left hand, for example.)
  • By squeezing a ball with your left hand, you’re activating the right side of your brain immediately before go time, which researchers theorize can help you shut down all of that left-brain overthinking that kills your concentration.

So clutch to be clutch: Invest in one of those squishy little stress ball things, give it a squeeze, shoot that free throw…and never let your basketball buddies blame the game on you ever again. 

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