Do you hit bank shot after bank shot in your driveway but toss up nothing but bricks when playing hoops with the guys? Run like the wind every morning but have lead legs in an actual 10K race? You're not alone. Plenty of guys practice like pros, but then completely cave when others are watching or when a prize – or personal pride – is on the line.
Here's why: "Many athletes choke under pressure because they attempt to consciously control a motor skill that has become completely automated," explains Jurgen Beckmann, chair of the Institute of Sport Psychology at the Technical University of Munich. In other words, while popping off a jump shot might be second nature to you, when swooshing it really matters, you fixate too much on the motion, which ends up throwing you off your game. "Focusing on the verbal representation of an activity interferes with the smooth flow of that activity," Beckmann says. "This results in a performance that's below the athlete's potential."
According to Beckmann's recent research, if you want to stop cracking under pressure and become more clutch, you should squeeze a small ball or clench your fist before the big game or race. His team found that right-handed athletes who did this with their left hand prior to a high-pressure situation performed better than right-handers who did so in their right hand. Beckmann says this is because the upper extremities are usually controlled by the opposite side of the brain, meaning the right hand is connected to the left hemisphere and the left hand to the right hemisphere. Therefore, when you're overly focused on a task at hand – and you're right-handed – the left side of your brain is most likely activated. To counter this and bring you back into balance, Beckmann says you want to increase activation of the right hemisphere. "Clenching the left hand does the job by stimulating the motor cortex of the right hemisphere," he explains.
Beckmann came to these conclusions by examining right-handed semi-pro soccer players, judo experts, and experienced badminton players first during practice and then in simulated pressure situations, such as taking penalty shots in front of a large, cheering crowd and being videotaped for coaches' evaluations. Before each experiment, the researchers had some athletes squeeze a ball in their left hand or clench their left fist for 30 seconds and asked the others to do so in their right hands. In all three tests, the left-hand squeezers played better in the big event than the right-hand clenchers, and in some cases they even outdid their own practice performance.
"We think this technique should prevent choking in technically complex sport activities," Beckmann says. "But we're currently studying its effects on musicians and the elderly who have problems maintaining their balance. For all these activities, an automation should result in smoother and better performance."