Sporting skill improved by just a simple squeeze

I very occasionally play golf but I’m rubbish at it really. The fact that I’m an irregular participant and never practice does not help me, but I’ve also noticed just how much my ‘head’ affects how well I play. I’ve sometimes heard it said that golf is a game that is played in the 6-inch space between our temples. I personally believe there’s a lot of truth in that.

One of the problems in a game like golf which requires quite a high level of skill, is that we can ‘over-think’ things a bit. Concentrating too much on technique or one’s last coaching tip can be the very thing that leads to a poorly played shot. Many golfers would do well to quieten the part of their mind that is chattering away and rely more ‘muscle memory’ and intutition. But how?

I came across an interesting study here which suggests that doing nothing more complex than clenching our fist or a small ball may be all it takes to improve our ‘motor skills’. The research, conducted in Germany, was based on the idea that the left side of the brain (the more logical side of the brain) is also responsible for the ruminations that can impair our sporting endeavours, while the right side of the brain is directs behaviours in a more automated and instinctive way. The right side of the brain controls the left side of the body, so the idea was to activate this more instinctive part of the brain by squeezing a ball in the left hand, or just clenching the left fist.

And it worked! The technique was tried with three types of athletes: football (soccer) players, badminton players, and in individuals engaging in a form of martial art known as tae kwon do. Here’s a description from the report I link to above of the results of the experiments:

In the first experiment, 30 semi-professional male soccer players took six penalty shots during a practice session. The next day, they attempted to make the same penalty shots in an auditorium packed with more than 300 university students waiting to see a televised soccer match between Germany and Austria. The players who squeezed a ball with their left hand performed as well under pressure as during practice, while players who squeezed a ball in their right hand missed more shots in the crowded auditorium.

Twenty judo [actually, tae kwon do] experts (14 men and six women) took part in the second experiment. First, they performed a series of judo kicks into a sandbag during practice. During a second session, they were told that their kicks would be videotaped and evaluated by their coaches. The judo athletes who squeezed a ball with their left hand not only didn’t choke under pressure, they performed better overall during the stressful competition than during practice, while those in the control group choked under pressure, the study found.

The final experiment featured 18 experienced badminton players (12 men and six women) who completed a series of practice serves. Then, they were divided into teams and competed against each other while being videotaped for evaluation by their coaches. Athletes who squeezed a ball in their left hand didn’t choke under pressure, unlike the control group players who squeezed a ball in their right hand. A final phase of the experiment had the athletes just clench their left or right hand without a ball before competition, and players who clenched their left hand performed better than players who squeezed their right hand.

One of the authors of the study, Jürgen Beckmann, suggests that his research could have important implications outside sport. For example, elderly people who are afraid of falling often focus too much on their movements, so right-handed elderly people may be able to improve their balance by clenching their left hand before walking or climbing stairs.

The point is made, however, that this study employed exclusively right-handed athletes, because “some relationships between different parts of the brain aren’t as well understood for left-handed people.” That’s not good news for me, as I’m predominantly left-handed. It won’t stop me trying this technique, though (it’s most unlikely to make my golf game any worse).


1. Beckmann J, et al. Preventing Motor Skill Failure Through Hemisphere-Specific Priming: Cases From Choking Under Pressure. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 2012; DOI: 10.1037/a0029852

5 Responses to Sporting skill improved by just a simple squeeze

  1. Manoj 21 September 2012 at 5:45 pm #

    Nice article…only thing is it doesn’t quite say for how long the squeeze should last (5 seconds/10 seconds ???) or how many times the ball (or fist) must be squeezed and should this be immediately before the activity in question or do the effects of squeezing last for sometime …..also i one has to perform the squeeze say before every kick or series of kicks ????

  2. Tim 21 September 2012 at 8:01 pm #

    I wonder if that would work for anxiety as well? Anybody know!

  3. Chris 21 September 2012 at 8:24 pm #

    .. .. with you on the golf, Dr Briffa, hook, slice and divot!

    I’ve been giving some thought to motor control and coordination in sports that require it. The focus of my curiosity links to a young athlete I know of with ambitions of being selected for Rio. His sport is physically and tactically demanding and, … for reasons I wont explain, I wondered if there could be factors, overlooked factors, that could impair top-flight motor control, even in the top-flight athlete. Initially it was an observation about snooker married with something quite radical I’d read about M.S. – and it points towards the idea that background inflammation could reside in the nerves involved in motor control and feed back, and therefore could degrade the signal(s).

    One of the things that struck me from reading Anthony Colpos version of the The Great Cholesterol Con was mention of cholesterol and visuomotor speeds (reaction times triggered by visual stimulus requiring a physical response): Males with lowest cholesterol had slowest reaction times. Matthew F Muldoon has headed several studies looking at lipids (cholesterol and fats) and their possible involvement, or association, with motor response and cognition. I haven’t had time or opportunity to read of his work in detail.

  4. Marianne 23 September 2012 at 5:52 pm #

    Hi, I asked myself the same question as Manoj, as I am interested in what this could mean for performance anxiety in musicians – situation familiar to me – I have learned from Kato Havas, the founder of The New Approach to String Playing, that activating the musical imagination (right hemisphere) is essential to being in the flow of the music. This left-hand squeezing prior to the event could also be a help. I am interested to relate this squeezing to a left hand action described by Kato Havas as the ‘sponging’ in violin playing. In this you use the quality of ‘soft ball squeezing’ as part of your left hand technique, as opposed to rigidly pressing fingers on the fingerboard. All of this she discovered in working with musicians suffering from stage fright.
    Anyway here I looked up the article and found this in the tae-kwon do part of the experiment
    “…they would have to complete a half-minute pre-performance routine prior to beginning
    the kicks. The routine consisted of squeezing a soft ball in
    their hand while closing their eyes and imagining the mechanics of
    their kicking process.”
    The players that did this with the left hand had better performance than the players who did this with the right hand.

  5. Robert 30 September 2012 at 4:39 pm #

    Would be interesting to see this study area taken further, and also see a compilation of interviews from the best performing sportspeople as to whether doing an equivalent thing has been an important part of their success. I note that in rugby union, the current and former highest ever test points scorers, Johnny Wilkinson and currently Dan Carter, are both left footed kickers. Do left handed / left footed people perform better relative to their percentage of the population in high pressure situations?

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