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A few years ago, we took a look at a simple technique to prevent choking, that was actually so simple, it didn’t seem like it could possibly work (you can re-read it here).

Essentially, it involved squeezing a soft ball in one’s left hand for 30 seconds before performing a skill.

Wait…that’s it?

The rationale is that paying too much attention to the mechanics of a skill tends to lead to choking. And this unhelpful type of self-focused attention is associated with dominant activation of the brain’s left hemisphere. And because the hemispheres of the brain control the opposite sides of the body1, squeezing one’s left hand seems to increase activation in the motor cortex of the right hemisphere instead. And EEG studies have found that squeezing the left hand not only activates the right hemisphere’s motor cortex, but actually seems to make the brain chill out a bit as well, all in all suggesting a more performance-optimal state.2

There still isn’t much research on this technique, but a follow-up study in 2017 found that this led to enhanced performance among competitive gymnasts, in addition to the badminton players, soccer players, and tae kwon do athletes whose performance was enhanced in the original study.

So how might this simple technique compare with the more involved pre-performance routines that athletes (and increasingly, musicians ) commonly use?

Is this technique as good as a more conventional pre-performance routine? Better, perhaps?

And if each of these strategies is better than doing nothing at all, might a mashup of the two techniques be better than either one alone?

Bowling!

An international team of researchers (Mesagno, Beckmann, Wergin, & Gröpel, 2019) did a comparison of these anti-choking strategies with a group of 36 moderate-to-highly skilled league bowlers.3

Each bowler was given time to go through their normal warmup routine, and then began with a simple accuracy test, in which they were given 30 shots at hitting a target marked on the bowling lane. Their accuracy score was the distance from the center of the target to the center of the ball’s path down the lane. Where lower average “error” scores equals more accurate performance.

Four groups

After completing the test, one group of the bowlers (extensive pre-performance routine group) was coached through the development of a personalized pre-performance routine which involved various techniques like taking deep breaths, focusing their attention on the target, using cue words, etc.

Another group of bowlers (dynamic handgrip group) was instructed to simply squeeze a soft ball in their left hand for 10 seconds – at a pace of about two squeezes per second – before taking a shot at the target.

A third group (combined group) practiced using both an extended pre-performance routine and the ball-squeezing technique. 

While a fourth group (control group) did nothing at all.

After about 10-15 minutes of practice with their new routines, it was time to repeat the accuracy test and see if anything changed.

Another accuracy test – with pressure

The bowlers repeated the same accuracy test – but with a bit of pressure added to the situation. Specifically, the researchers placed a video camera in plain view of the bowlers, and noted that the footage would be used in TV news programs and newspaper coverage. And not just locally, but internationally as well, given that the team of researchers represented universities in multiple countries.

So how did they do?

Well, the three experimental groups didn’t always improve a ton from the first test to the second test, but they maintained their performance better under pressure, and each performed better than the control group (remember, smaller error scores=more accurate throws).

  • The dynamic handgrip group improved from an average error of 26.78mm to 24.69mm.
  • The pre-performance routine group improved from 33.98mm error to 28.51mm.
  • And the combined group improved from 28.41mm to 27.18mm.
  • While the control group went from 33.38mm to 39.38mm.

Which seems like a pretty decent outcome for a short 10-15 minute mental skills coaching session!

As far as which technique was most effective? Well, as it turns out, there wasn’t much of a performance difference between those who used the ball-squeezing technique and those who learned the more traditional pre-performance routine.

And there wasn’t any additional performance benefit to using a combination of both techniques.

So the main takeaway from this data seems to be that having some kind of routine certainly beats doing nothing at all.

But how would things shake out in live competition?

Live competition

To see how these techniques might also affect actual bowling performance, the researchers compared the participants’ average scores from their 12 league games before the study, and the 12 games after the study.

While scores generally improved4, none of the changes were statistically significant. Which is a little surprising, given that previous studies on pre-performance routines have generally found tangible performance benefits in live competition.

Of course, there are a few reasons why this might have happened.

Important factors to consider

For one, the participants didn’t actually get much training time to learn or get comfortable with their new pre-performance routines. 10-15 minutes isn’t a lot of time, so the routines were probably not very well ingrained or internalized as habits. And in the early stages of developing a routine, while it’s still something you have to consciously remember to do, the extra conscious thoughts around a routine could make it less useful – and perhaps even somewhat distracting. In much the same way that having to consciously think about what notes to play next, or how to coordinate a tricky string crossing can be a distraction and result in less fluid and natural execution.

It also seems that the participants weren’t super consistent about using their routines in competition. The researchers asked the participants to rate the degree to which they continued to use their routine after the study, on a scale of 1-10, where 1=did not use the routine at all during the 12 league games after the study and 10=used the routine during all shots of all 12 league games. With an average rating of 6.81, it seems that there were a good number of shots in which they didn’t use their routines.

Take action

So what’s the main takeaway from this study? Well, a couple things come to mind.

For one, it seems that pre-performance routines do need to be practiced to be most effective. So run-throughs, lessons and studio classes, or mock performances and auditions are perfect opportunities to practice making your pre-performance routine a habit not just in the practice room, but in pressure situations as well.

I’m still rather partial to the idea of a more conventional pre-performance routine – that includes breathing, releasing tension, having a clear focus for your attention, and so on. However, if this kind of a routine has always felt like too much to do in the moment, or for whatever reason, it just hasn’t clicked for you, it might be interesting to pick up one of those soft squishy memory foam-like balls (or animals), place it on your stand, and try this left-hand-dynamic-handgrip technique before each excerpt in your next mock audition (note: things could be different if you’re left-handed).

Worst case scenario, you get some raised eyebrows from the friend who’s running your mock, and have an interesting story to chat about afterwards. =)

But do be sure to watch out for left-hand tension, and make sure this strategy doesn’t lead to an increase in left-hand tension as you progress through a list. It might even be worth experimenting with closing and releasing your left hand instead of squeezing a ball (though I don’t know if or how this might alter the effectiveness of this technique). If you do try it, please share your experience in the comments; I’d be curious to hear how it goes!


Reference

Mesagno, C., Beckmann, J., Wergin, V. V., & Gröpel, P. (2019). Primed to perform: Comparing different pre-performance routine interventions to improve accuracy in closed, self-paced motor tasks. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 43, 73-81.

Footnotes

  1. i.e. the left side of the brain controls the right side and vice versa.
  2. Cross-Villasana, F., Gröpel, P., Doppelmayr, M., & Beckmann, J. (2016). Correction: Unilateral Left-Hand Contractions Produce Widespread Depression of Cortical Activity after Their Execution. PLOS ONE, 11(2), e0150048.
  3. The average score of their last 24 games was 192.15, and they ranged in age from 16 to 58.
  4. The dynamic handgrip group improved from an average game score of 190.11 to 196.58, and the pre-performance routine group improved from 181.29 to 185.10. But the combined group stayed about the same – 196.98 to 195.48. And the control group regressed – 189.72 to 184.86.