A Simple Technique to Prevent Choking under Pressure (Which Sounds Like it Couldn’t Possibly Work)

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 let’s take a closer look…

The theory

The premise behind this technique 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. 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

Admittedly, “choking” might be too strong a word to describe the drop in performance that the right-hand squeezers experienced, but it does appears that some individuals found the left-hand-squeezing technique to be helpful in optimizing performance.

So at the end of the day, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to give this a try…but what do you think? Have you tried anything like this before?

If you’re curious to take a closer look, you can 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’

Want a printable copy? Save this article as a PDF.

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  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

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27 Responses

  1. I can’t find any mention of how much time elapsed between the squeezing and execution of the task. Any ideas?

  2. Always found it strange that — at least in my experience — it’s always been people who identify as “right-brained” and thus not interested in rigid binary categories who cling most tightly to the idea that people’s brains come in two mutually exclusive flavors. We have one brain, and even the existence of the corpus callosum demonstrates that the hemispheres cannot function well unless they function as one.

    I admit that a lot of times I have disliked the idea of left- and right-brained business also because I really dislike treating half of me as an enemy that needs to get squashed down before I sit at my instrument. I can’t get behind the idea that half of the organ that makes me me needs to get switched off, tamped down, or otherwise put in its place. It can’t be healthy to regard half of one’s mind as out to get one.

    1. Let me recommend a wonderful book to you that really gets at the core of this [http://www.amazon.com/The-Master-His-Emissary-Divided/dp/0300188374] Whilst the left right trope is a overly simplistic the individual hemispheres do have particular functions although both sides are always activated. One of the basic findings of the book is that the left hemisphere is incapable of reflection and therefore has a predisposition to perpetuate it’s particular state/bias. Increasingly we live in a left dominant world and this book is a call to give serious attention to the artist and not so much to the emissary.

  3. Great Blog post! I will be trying this today!

    One thing: in the sentence, “Anytime something seems to good to be true, it usually is…” the first “to” in that sentence should be spelled “too.”

  4. As an experienced soloist, I have found that well chosen images work more quickly to invigorate the right brain, thus increasing performance and reducing anxiety. I play trumpet, and imagining my airflow carrying the sound to an eager listener triggers the simple joy of sharing music with people. That joy transcends little mistakes and sees the bigger purpose of why I am there.

    1. Hi Steve,

      Yes, this sort of image, and deliberate pre-performance mindset makes sense to me and is in line with what other top performers describe. Specifically choosing where to direct our attention, focus, and thoughts, in such a way that results in greater right-hemispheric activation and less left-hemispheric activation seems to be what elite performers do. That seems like a much more direct way of enhancing performance than an external manipulation like squeezing a ball…

  5. When I was in college, I would build up a lot of nervous energy for recitals, so I would always make sure I went running or something early in the day so I was basically “too tired” to be nervous. I knew of a teacher who has clarinetists play their long tones while riding an exercise bike. I recently came across a teacher who recommended squeezing your big toe into the ground when you had a difficult entrance coming up because it transferred the tension away from your embouchure and fingers. I imagine the ball squeezing thing is along the same line — a way to transfer the energy created when one is nervous. Ball squeezing has been around for years, and it’s cheap and harmless, so I don’t see any reason not to try it.

  6. Dr. Kageyama:

    I am currently working on similar research, geared specifically to the singer (I am Director of Opera Studies at Texas State University). I am using primarily Beilock and Carr’s model of Explicit Monitoring. I would love to discuss your work at your leisure!

  7. Thank you, Noa, for another interesting post. Hey, it’s worth a try, right?

    But I have to say that I’ve been somewhat skeptical about several of the studies you’ve cited in these posts simply because of the extremely small sample sizes involved. In this example, taking a one-time result from a group of 18 badminton players and trying to find general applicability for a wide range of physical activities (including music) seems kind of tenuous.

    But thanks again–I’ll still keep reading, and I’ll give this idea a try.

    1. Hi Allan,

      Good point – the generalizability of a study’s findings is an important factor for all of us to consider when looking at research. Relatively little of the literature is conducted on high-level performers, let alone musicians, so it’s wise to take much of what we read with a grain of salt.

  8. It seems probable that the results one gets depends on whether one is right-handed or left-handed. It is
    likely that for those left-handed people might get the best results if they put the ball in their right hand.
    And those who are right-handed would do better to hold the ball in their left hand. Perhaps you could
    check this out?

  9. Perhaps at some point you can write about preventing performance choking with breathing techniques? I find that in situations equivalent to the beginning of the Wieniawski concerto you mentioned, counting while I exhale (similar to Zen meditation) can thwart distracting thoughts which interfere with successful playing. Anyway, I always enjoy your posts! Thanks so much!

  10. Hi Dr. Noa,
    Thanks for another great post. I really enjoy reading your blog every week, and in the fall I’ll be starting at Juilliard…so I’m excited to get to meet you in person!
    As a string player I’m not sure how I could incorporate this on stage…soft balls don’t really fit anywhere in my concert dress, ha!

    1. Ha, yes, squishy balls would seem a little out of place on stage. For what it’s worth, one could simply squeeze one’s hand into a fist, though that might just result in a sweaty, tense, trembling, claw of a left hand…

  11. Check out this great book on the subject of left and right hemisphere.

    The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World
    by Iain McGilchrist

    A wonderfully comprehensive book on the subject. Essential reading.

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