Brain games can help your game

Are you a major-league second baseman who suddenly can't throw accurately to first base? A weekend golfer struggling with three-foot putts? Did your high school coach just call you a choker?

Help is on the way. (Unless you're a lefty.)

The American Psychological Association recently published a study, promoting it with the headline, "Simple routine could help athletes avoid choking under pressure."

Too late to help former professional second baseman Steve Sax (known for an inability to accurately throw to first base) lead researcher Juergen Beckmann, chair of sport psychology at the Technical University of Munich in Germany, comes up with a surprising finding: that "righthanded athletes who squeezed a ball in their left hand before competing were less likely to choke under pressure than righthanded players who squeezed a ball in their right hand."

The reasoning is fairly simple, that such an activity would activate the right hemisphere of the brain "and reduce the likelihood of the athlete's choking under pressure." Studies were done with soccer and badminton players and judo experts. Research has shown that the right hemisphere controls movements of the left side of the body, and the left hemisphere controls the right side.

Another finding isn't a new one: Athletes need to find a way to shut down their brains.

"Rumination can interfere with concentration and performance of motor tasks. 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," Beckmann said in the study summary.

"While it may seem counterintuitive, consciously trying to keep one's balance is likely to produce imbalance, as was seen in some subpar performances by gymnasts during the Olympics in London."

The finding on clenching could have ramifications outside sports, Beckmann said, explaining that elderly people who are afraid of falling often focus too much on their movements, "so righthanded elderly people may be able to improve their balance by clenching their left hand before walking or climbing stairs."

The best part about the study: It didn't try to deal with lefthanders. The authors said, "Some relationships between different parts of the brain aren't as well understood for lefthanded people."

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