You know your favorite player has sunk that shot thousands of times before, but for some reason tonight it’s brick after brick. What gives?
According to a study published in The Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, it’s not because their opponent has gotten in their head—it’s because they can’t get out of their own heads.
In the study, researchers had semi-professional soccer players perform six penalty shots in practice. The next day, they had those same players perform the penalty shots again, this time in front of a crowd of 300 people. Some of the players squeezed a medicine ball in their left hand before taking the shots. The result? Those players who squeezed the ball performed the same as they had in practice. Those who didn’t missed more shots than they had previously.
Here’s the science: The right side of your brain is linked to automated functions (like kicking a soccer ball) while the left side is responsible for rumination and anxiety. By squeezing the balls in their left hands, the players activated the right side of their brains, diminishing the possibility of anxiety interfering with their actions.
“You’re basically reminding yourself that you have skill—left hand, right brain,” says Dr. Kate Hays, Ph.D. “That’s the brain path.”
That reminder keeps you from getting overly focused, which only creates anxiety. While the medicine ball squeeze works best with activities that are deeply ingrained, the premise has other applications. “The same general principles apply to things that affect [most guys],” Hays says—including a big date, presentation or any other high-pressure situation. “If you’re asking your boss for a raise, before the meeting when you’re feeling most tense have some method of separating out all those worries. The answer might be squeezing a medicine ball in your left hand.”