FRIDAY, Oct. 5, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- Simply squeezing a ball or clenching their left hand can activate certain parts of the brain that may help some athletes boost their performance in high-pressure situations, new research indicates.
For the study, German researchers tested the skills of soccer players, judo experts and badminton players during practice and then in stressful competitions before a large crowd or a video camera.
Right-handed players who squeezed a ball in their left hand before competition were less likely to choke under pressure than right-handed players who squeezed a ball in their right hand, according to the study published recently online in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
For skilled athletes, movements associated with their sport become automatic with little conscious thought. When they fail to perform well under pressure, it may be because they are focusing too much (ruminating) on their movements rather than relying on their motor skills developed through years of practice, explained lead researcher Juergen Beckmann, chairman of sports psychology at the Technical University of Munich.
"Rumination can interfere with concentration and performance of motor tasks," Beckmann said in a news release from the American Psychological Association. "Athletes usually perform better when they trust their bodies rather than thinking too much about their own actions or what their coaches told them during practice."
It is already known that the right hemisphere controls the left side of the body while the left hemisphere controls the right side. And previous research found that rumination is associated with the brain's left hemisphere, while the right hemisphere is linked with superior performance in the automatic movements of skilled athletes.
Beckmann and his colleagues theorized that squeezing a ball or clenching the left hand would activate the brain's right hemisphere and reduce the risk of an athlete choking under pressure. The investigators tested only right-handed athletes because some relationships between different areas of the brain in left-handed people aren't as well understood, they noted in the news release.
The findings could prove important beyond athletics. For example, elderly people who are afraid of falling often focus too much on their movement. Right-handed seniors may be able to improve their balance by clenching their left hand before walking or climbing stairs, Beckmann suggested.
"Many movements of the body can be impaired by attempts at consciously controlling them," he added. "This technique can be helpful for many situations and tasks."
Although the study found an association between clenching the left fist and better performance in right-handed athletes, it did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship.
The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons offers guidelines for preventing falls.