Could a Stress Ball Cure Choking? – The Science of Choking Part 2

In my last post I discussed a common reason people choke at physical skills: when the pressure is on they can become self-conscious about their movement, causing a shift from the ‘automatic’ motor processing of an expert to the sloppy, ‘talking yourself through it’ of a novice. I also discussed research describing the change in brain activity responsible: a shift from the spatial processing of the right hemisphere, to the more linguistic-based processing in the left hemisphere (please revisit the post if you’re dissatisfied with this over-simplification!). Can we use this knowledge of brain activity to prevent choking? One recent study[1] endeavored to find out…

Their big picture idea was that ‘priming’ (i.e., increasing the activity of) the right hemisphere of the brain prior to a high-pressure situation could reduce choking behaviour. Their rationale was, that since a shift from right-to-left hemisphere brain activity causes athletes to become overly conscious of how they’re moving and thus to choke, maybe increasing brain activity in the right-hemisphere would hedge against this shift?

In this study, soccer players performed penalty kicks in either a low-pressure or high-pressure condition (pressure was evoked by the presence of an audience of peers). Prior to the penalty kicks in the pressure condition, half of the players squeezed a stress ball with the left hand, and half with the right hand. This simple act of squeezing a ball ‘primes’ either side of the brain: squeezing with the left hand primes the right-side, and squeezing the right hand primes the left-side of the brain. Amazingly, they found that players who primed the right-side of their brain performed just as well in the presence of pressure, while those who primed the left-side of their brain ‘choked’. These researchers then repeated a similar study with Tae Qwan Do athletes, and found similar results.

While this is interesting, it doesn’t imply that the right-hemisphere priming prevented choking, as it could have been that left-hemisphere priming actually caused people to perform worse under pressure than they normally would. To get to the bottom of this, they repeated the study again, this time measuring badminton players’ serving accuracy. Again they used two groups—a priming group that squeezed a ball with the left hand, and one that squeezed with the right. The design was similar to the soccer study, except this time there were three conditions: first they performed with low-pressure, then with added pressure but no priming, and finally with pressure and priming.

“As strange as it sounds, clenching your left fist for 30 seconds just before performance may be the most cutting-edge remedy to choking out there”

With no priming, both groups choked—their performance decreased from the no-pressure to the pressure condition. As expected. However, when they then primed either the left or right hemisphere prior to performance, they found subjects who primed the right hemisphere showed an increase in performance, while those who primed the left hemisphere continued choking, but did not get even worse than without priming. From this the authors concluded that the left-hemisphere priming was not causing athletes to choke more than if left to their own devices. From these results, it seems that left ‘hand squeezing’—right hemisphere priming—was responsible for the increased clutch performance in these athletes.

While this study is simply a first step, and will need to be replicated and built on, it suggests a wealth of new choking-prevention techniques may be around the corner! We are very excited to see how the scientific and athletic community follows up on these results, and will keep you up-to-speed. For the time being, as strange as it sounds, simply clenching your left fist (priming the right motor cortex) for 30 seconds prior to performance may be the most cutting edge remedy to choking out there!

[1] Preventing Motor Skill Failure Through Hemisphere-Specific Priming: Cases From Choking Under Pressure