Ball trick against stress-related dropouts

Amazing effect: Simply squeezing a tennis ball in your hand can help prevent failure in an exam or sports competition, as an experiment confirms. Accordingly, the short-term clenching of the fist provides a relaxation effect that can be read on the brain. This in turn avoids the stress-related blockage of automated processes, as the researchers report in the specialist magazine “PLoS ONE”.

Many people know this situation: You have prepared yourself perfectly, but at the crucial moment your head is empty and you can’t get a word out. This phenomenon of failure under nervous pressure is also called “choking under pressure”. It occurs in exams as well as in sporting competitions: tennis champions then play the decisive ball wide and footballers no longer hit the goal. What they all have in common is that they cannot call up their ability to perform in a crucial situation.

Stress blocks automated processes

But why? Studies on competitive athletes suggest that this could have something to do with a kind of self-blockage of the brain: Normally, movements that have been practiced thousands of times are automated by our brain. As a result, we no longer have to think about the individual partial movements, but the fingers, hands or legs carry out the movement almost by themselves. In the brain, such automated movement sequences require fewer neurons and circuits than newly learned ones.

But when we are under stress, the automatism apparently no longer works properly. We disrupt the process through excitement and wanting to do extra well: “Trying to consciously control the execution of a highly automated skill. disrupts the smooth process,” explain Jürgen Beckmann from the Technical University of Munich and his colleagues.

The tennis ball trick

But there is apparently an effective trick against failure caused by stress: If right-handed people press a tennis ball in their left hand for a short time right before the decisive situation, this should prevent the blockages. “We have already been able to show the positive effect of a dynamic handshake with the left hand in several sports,” reports Beckmann. This trick reduced the error rate in football penalties, taekwondo kicks and badminton.

In the current experiment, Beckmann and his team have the effect of ball pressing on a tennis serve tested. One group pressed a tennis ball with their left hand for ten to 15 seconds immediately before impact, while a control group pressed their right hand together. Then, in a stressful exam situation, it was tested how precise the serves were. The positive effect of ball pressing was again evident – but only with the left hand.

Relaxation for the left side of the brain

But why? Brain wave measurements by Beckmann and his colleagues provided the first indications of this. According to common assumptions, the pressure of the left hand activates circuits in the right hemisphere of the brain and thus in the area that is also responsible for automated movements. But the research team’s EEG readings showed that ball pressing did not increase right-brain activation.

Instead, hand pressure appears to inhibit certain left-brain activities, including anxiety-related activities “Spelling through” the necessary movements. “The left-handed dynamic hand press tends to produce a relaxation effect, a reset mechanism so to speak,” reports Beckmann’s colleague Vanessa Wergin. This can be recognized by alpha waves, which indicate relaxed alertness.

The research team suspects that this relaxation effect eliminates the disruptive effects that block the automated retrieval of movement sequences in the brain under stress. “The advantage of tennis is, of course, that the players already have a ball in their hands anyway,” says Wergin.

Also effective outside of sport

But there is evidence that the ball press trick works outside of sport, as the team explains. At least for right-handed people, it could be worthwhile to have a tennis ball ready before an exam or other stressful situation – and to press it firmly with your left hand for a few seconds. And if you don’t have a ball at hand, you can clench your left fist and press for 15 seconds.

Whether the whole thing also works for left-handers if they press their right hand accordingly is still unclear. So far, the research team has only examined right-handed people because the interactions between the different brain areas are localized more clearly in them. (PLoS ONE, 1371; doi: .1371/journal.pone.0255060)

Source: Technical University of Munich

16. March 2022

– Nadja Podbregar

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