One of my favorite violin concertos – the F# minor concerto by Henryk Wieniawski – begins with a 10th in 5th position.

That’s enough of a challenge as it is, not to mention when you’re nervous and your hand is cold and stiff and claw-like.

But in his infinite wisdom, the composer decided to craft a lengthy intro (about 20% of the length of the entire movement) which is a nice enough bit of music, but forces the performer to just stand there in front of the audience and stew for almost exactly 3 minutes, which allows wayyy too much time to second-guess one’s finger placement about a dozen times and agonize over the uncertainty of whether the first note will be epically awesome or embarrassing.

It’s the sort of situation where we are prone to “choking” – that phenomenon where we are eminently capable of nailing the opening of a piece, but wilt under the pressure and end up falling on our face or sounding like some frustratingly mediocre-er version of ourselves.

We’ve all experienced it, and know how rotten that feels, so what if someone told you that this could be prevented? And that all you need to do to ensure a more optimal performance is squeeze a soft ball in your left hand for 30 seconds before you began playing?

Sounds totally ridiculous, right? Suspiciously like all those “one weird trick“ ads you see everywhere on the internet.

Anytime something seems too good to be true, it usually is, but this strategy recently got a lot of press in the media when researchers found that it reduced the incidence of choking among athletes in soccer (penalty kicks), tae kwon do (kicking for accuracy), and badminton (serving accuracy).

So I figured, what the heck, let’s take a closer look…

The theory

The premise behind this weird trick has roots in a few different areas of research.

Self-focus theories of choking propose that under pressure, we tend to turn our attention inward, and either pay too much attention to the minutiae of our motor movements, or try to exert too much conscious control over these movements, either of which can disrupt the automaticity of these complex motor patterns. If you’ve ever felt self-conscious walking in front of a crowd of people who were watching every move, you know how awkward this can feel and how awkward-looking it can make you appear.

Researchers have also found that certain brain-activation patterns seem to be connected with high-level performance, which are consistent with various theories of learning and performance. Though this notion of our right-brain and left-brain having distinct functions has been oversimplified, research does suggest that high-level performers’ right-brain activity – from elite marksmen1 to golfers2 – tends to be greater right before executing a skill3.

Lastly, research on brain hemisphere “priming” has found that we can increase activation in one of our hemispheres by contracting the muscles in the opposite-side hand4. For instance, squeezing a ball with the right hand, increases left-hemispheric activation, and vice versa. The activation that results from this isn’t particularly precise, of course, but the authors suggest that this might be an easy enough way to consistently get a desired half of your brain preferentially fired up.

So, given all that, the idea is that by squeezing a ball in your left hand, you activate the right hemisphere of your brain, which will increase the chances of your achieving a mental state that is more conducive to performing well.

Das federball!

A team of German researchers thus recruited 18 league-level badminton players, and tested them on their ability to serve, and accurately hit a target under pressure.

There were three phases to the test:

Phase 1 (assess baseline performance)

The first phase was to gauge the athletes’ baseline level of performance. Athletes were called over to the test court one by one, given a competitive anxiety assessment (to gauge how anxious they were feeling), allowed 2 practice serves, and then given 10 opportunities to land their serve in a specific target area on the opponent’s court. The accuracy of the serve was rated on a scale of 0-10, with 10 being a perfect hit and 0 being a serve that hit the net or landed completely outside the target area. The further away the serve landed from the optimal target area, the fewer points the athlete earned.

Phase 2 (performance test #1)

In the second phase, athletes were randomly split up into two teams that would compete against each other for small prizes. To increase the pressure and make them more self-conscious, they were also videotaped, told that their serves would be analyzed and evaluated by their coach, and instructed to pay close attention to their serving technique. Each athlete retook the anxiety assessment, and then the competition began. The athletes alternated turns between teams, and were encouraged to verbally support their teammates and actively root against each other, so presumably, this phase resembled something more akin to a real competition.

Phase 3 (performance test #2)

In the last phase, athletes once again competed against each other under the same conditions, except this time half of the athletes squeezed a soft ball in their right hand (for ~30 seconds) right before their turn, while the other half squeezed a soft ball in their left hand prior to beginning their turn.

Ok. Ok. Wait, what?!

On average, the athletes performed best on the baseline performance test (when there was nothing at stake).

And, as expected, they generally performed poorer in the first test phase, when the pressure was kicked up a few notches.

And in the last phase, the folks who squeezed a ball in their right hand continued to perform poorly (Baseline performance=49.11; Test #1=44.67; Test #2=38.67). Meanwhile the athletes who squeezed a ball with their left hand improved their performance, returning to the level of accuracy they demonstrated in the baseline test (Baseline performance=47.00; Test #1=38.33; Test #2=49.22).

Take action

I have to admit that I remain a bit skeptical of this for a few reasons which probably go beyond the scope of this post, and “choking” seems like too strong a word to describe the drop in performance the right-hand squeezers experienced, but it does appears that some individuals found the left-hand-squeezing technique to be helpful in optimizing performance.

And at the end of the day, I suppose it doesn’t hurt to give this a try…but what do you think? Have you tried anything like this before?

If you’re curious, do download the complete published article, which includes the soccer and tae kwon do studies as well.

Additional goodies

VIDEO: Psych prof Ben Ambridge debunks 10 popular psychology myths in his TED talk (the right/left brain part starts at 6:28)

ARTICLE (long-ish, but reveals interesting nuances): The Truth About The Left Brain / Right Brain Relationship

ARTICLE (short and sweet): Despite what you’ve been told, you aren’t ‘left-brained’ or ‘right-brained’

Footnotes

  1. Cognitive processes during self-paced motor performance: An electroencephalographic profile of skilled marksmen.
  2. Electroencephalographic measures of attentional patterns prior to the golf putt.
  3. especially in experts – more here
  4. And interestingly, seem to make us more persistent