ScienceDaily has an item on a paper by Beckman, Gropel and Ehrlenspiel, Preventing Motor Skill Failure through Hemisphere-Specific Priming – Cases from Choking under Pressure. (here)
Groups of right-handed athletes (soccer players, judo competitors, badminton players) performed with and without pressure. Half of each group squeezed a ball with their left hand before the pressure session and the other half squeezed a ball with their right hand. All the players were right handed. The squeezing was done in order to prime one of the cerebral hemispheres – left hand for right hemisphere and right hand for left. In general, performance under pressure was not as good as pressure-free. There is an element of ‘choking’ under pressure. The results were that squeezing with the left hand gave better pressure performance than with the right hand.
For skilled athletes, many movements, such as kicking a soccer ball or completing a judo kick, become automatic with little conscious thought. When athletes under pressure don’t perform well, they may be focusing too much on their own movements rather than relying on their motor skills developed through years of practice … “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. “While it may seem counterintuitive, consciously trying to keep one’s balance is likely to produce imbalance, as was seen in some sub-par performances by gymnasts during the Olympics in London.”
Previous research has shown that rumination is associated with the brain’s left hemisphere, while the right hemisphere is associated with superior performance in automated behaviors, such as those used by some athletes, the study notes. The right hemisphere controls movements of the left side of the body, and the left hemisphere controls the right side. The researchers theorized that squeezing a ball or clenching the left hand would activate the right hemisphere of the brain and reduce the likelihood of the athlete’s choking under pressure. The study focused exclusively on right-handed athletes because some relationships between different parts of the brain aren’t as well understood for left-handed people, according to the authors.
Conscious thinking is slow and limited compared to automatic action. Here is the abstract:
When well-learned motor skills fail, such as when elderly persons fall or when athletes “choke under pressure,” it is assumed that attention is directed toward the execution of the action. Research findings suggest that this controlled execution and subsequent inferior performance depend on a dominant left-hemispheric activation. In a series of 3 experiments, we tested whether increasing right-hemispheric activation by the use of hemisphere-specific priming extenuates motor skill failure. We compared the performances of a sample of experienced athletes in different sports (soccer, tae kwon do, and badminton) in a pressure-free situation with that performed under pressure. As expected, the hemisphere-specific priming extenuated a performance decrease after pressure induction when compared with a control condition. The results suggest that hemisphere-specific priming may prevent motor skill failure. It is argued that this hemispheric priming should be task dependent and can be understood as a functional regulation of the activation in the hemispheres.