A Simple Way to Ease Performance Anxiety and Pressure

For right-handed athletes, squeezing a ball may help you perform better under pressure.

A new study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology says that squeezing a ball in your left hand can prevent choking under pressure. Photograph courtesy of Shutterstock.

Have you ever found yourself frozen in fear before running your first big race? Or maybe you just couldn’t bring yourself to jump into the open water at the start of a triathlon.

It’s likely you suffered from performance anxiety, which often takes hold of athletes and performers in high-pressure moments. But new research shows there’s a less awkward way to ease jitters than imagining everyone in their underwear—and it’s so simple we’re a little miffed we didn’t think of it in the first place.

Research published by the American Psychological Association suggests that simply squeezing a ball in your left hand before a major event decreases choking—and failing—under pressure.

The hypothesis researchers went by was that by activating the right hemisphere of the brain, which controls motor skills and automated performance, athletes could perform well no matter the circumstances. Researchers assumed that squeezing a ball in the left hand would activate the right side of the brain, since the right hemisphere controls movements of the left side of the body.

For the study, researchers put experienced soccer players, tae kwon do athletes, and badminton players in various low- and high-pressure situations to see how they performed. The athletes had to kick goals, kick sandbags, and serve accurately, respectively.

First, they performed the tasks under no pressure. The second time, they did the same task, this time in front of a crowd of 300 people or while being videotaped and judged by coaches or referees. Not surprisingly, researchers found that when the athletes were put under pressure, anxiety levels rose and performances suffered greatly.

For the third time, the athletes were split into groups: one group of athletes squeezed a ball in their left hands immediately before the competition, while the other squeezed in their right hands. Researchers wanted to determine whether it mattered what hand the athletes used to squeeze the ball when it came to performance.

They found that those who squeezed the ball in their left hand performed much better under pressure than the right-hand group. In fact, the left-hand group of athletes actually performed better than all the previous times. The soccer players made more goals, the tae kwon do athletes kicked accurately, and the badminton players served better.

The findings are significant not just for athletes, researchers noted. For example, elderly people who are afraid of falling often focus too much on the movement, “so right-handed elderly people may be able to improve their balance by clenching their left hand before walking or climbing stairs.”

But here’s the bad news: The left-hand squeezing technique will not likely help athletes who do sports based on strength or stamina, such as weight lifters or marathon runners. Researchers said since the experiments were based on performance accuracy, the technique might be more suited to golfers or soccer players.

And more bad news, this time for lefties: The experiments only tested right-handed athletes, since some relationships between different parts of the brain “aren’t as well understood for left-handed people,” the authors said.

The full study was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology