Exclusive: Renowned psychologist discovers cure for choking under pressure during tennis matches
An eminent German sports psychology professor has now identified a simple technique that he has proven will relax the part of the brain that causes tennis player’s performance to fail in high pressure situations, otherwise known as choking
It’s a tennis player’s nightmare scenario. You are edging towards victory in a closely fought match when suddenly your brain starts to go into overdrive and your whole game changes as the situation of the match overcomes your emotions and ability to play as you know you are capable.
The tactics and technique that have brought the winning line within your grasp are now failing and your heart rate has gone through the roof as you start to lose your winning position. Oh no! You are choking!
Now Professor Jurgen Beckman from the Technical University of Munich has identified a technique that is so simple it could completely cure the problem.
A dynamic left-hand squeeze helps to optimize performance
Research on a variety of sports including badminton, beach volleyball, soccer, golf, tae kwon do and gymnastics shows that squeezing a ball dynamically with the left hand is effective for right handers to prevent choking.
“We’ve already succeeded in showing the positive effects of dynamic squeezing with the left hand in several sports,” says Prof. Beckmann. “Our idea was to transfer this technique to tennis. Accordingly we requested the participants in our study, 17 to 18-year-old male squad athletes, to dynamically squeeze a tennis ball with their left hand immediately before serving.”
“In the current study we investigated the accuracy of the tennis serve, which was to be placed as closely as possible to a specified target,” explains Dr. Vanessa Wergin, researcher in the Sport Psychology working group and co-author of the publication.
The study split the participants into two groups. One group performed the dynamic squeeze with the left hand using a tennis ball for ten to 15 seconds immediately before serving, while the second group actively squeezed the racquet grip with the right hand for the same amount of time.
Then the two groups made eight serves each with a specified target in a first round without pressure, followed by another eight serves under pressure. In the group which had squeezed a ball with the left hand, accuracy remained stable for both series of serves. In contrast, the distance of the serves from the target increased for the second group when under pressure, indicating a drop in performance.
At Tennishead we were fascinated by these findings so we interviewed Professor Beckman to find out how all tennis players can benefit from utilising his research.
Firstly we asked if choking actually exists, because to cure a problem you first have to identify it as a problem?
Straight away Professor Beckman referenced a past study of basketball players who were set up in a test to shoot a number of free throws but then a pressure situation was artificially introduced which caused certain kinetic movements within the players throwing action to fail.
“When a beginner is learning their skill a lot of neurones are activated across the whole brain, then over time as the skill becomes more automated the number of activated neurones during the activity is reduced. Eventually, for example during a tennis serve, you see only the neurones in the pre-frontal cortex (initiation), in the motor cortex (actual performance of the serve) and some in the occipital cortex that controls spacial orientation and that was it, during the highly automated execution of a skill.
“For this basketball exercise, one of the two groups was instructed to focus on the previously defined nodal points of the free throw and thus was thinking about the technique during execution of the skill. The other group was instructed to “just throw” and therefore not thoughts about technique were induced.
“During the basketball test, once we introduced the pressure to the exercise, the results showed an activation of the neurones in the front left cortex of the brain. This brain activity caused the players to unwillingly think about their technique and created changes in the kinetic movements during their throwing action.” In other words their technique had changed due to the pressure situation.
The Professor then went on to define choking as “the moment when athletes are not able to perform to their potential during pressure conditions
“Debbie Crews is a sports psychologist in America who discovered whilst testing golfers putting that, under pressure conditions, there was an increase in activity in the left brain hemisphere, which is where verbal representations of skills are located. So the left brain hemisphere is where you hear the voice of your coach telling you how to hit the shot. You then start to think about your technique which completely ruins your neuro-efficiency because you are adding additional control mechanisms to the execution of your shot. This in turns increases kinematic variance because the smooth flow of the shot is lost.
“So under pressure the player will start to think about what the coach said which is bascially the problem with choking.”
So what can be done about it?
“We wanted to know if choking could be eliminated by encouraging more activation of the right brain hemisphere. Some researchers had already tried the left hand clenching technique to activate the right brain hemisphere. It’s known that our upper extremities, such as our arms and hands, are completely connected to the opposite side of the brain. Research has previously proven that if you activate the left hand then this in turn activates the right hand cortex of the brain.
“After several studies we in fact found that clenching the left fist did not increase activity in the right brain hemisphere therefore reducing activity in the left brain hemisphere, which was our original assumption. What we found actually happened was that clenching of the left fist increased ‘high alpha’ which is similar to a relaxation effect on the brain, and that spread from the right brain hemisphere across the whole cortex. That meant that the representation of the verbal cortex was eliminated and inhibited. From then on we referred to it as a kind of ‘reset effect’ which allows you to get back to the automated activity with high efficiency and this was represented in the electro cardiogram results.
“What is important to note is that complete beginners in any sport will have no neuro efficiency so this method can’t help them. A player needs to be a certain expert level to experience the choking.”
Does this technique only work for right handed tennis players?
“We don’t know because we haven’t yet researched it but it’s less likely to work for left handers. The issue with left handers is that the use of their brain isn’t exactly reversed from what we see with right handers. Some left handers use the same sides of their brain as right handers whereas others use the reverse.”
Have you researched if this cure can be effective in the long term or will its effects gradually be reduced over time?
“We don’t know for sure but we think it’s a relatively robust technique because we trust so far that this is a subconscious brain mechanism which can’t be controlled. The brain primarily controls activity through opponent processes that inhibit inappropriate neuronal activity.”
Is there an amount of pressure that you need to exert on the clenched fist for this technique to work?
“You need a certain resistance and a tennis ball is just about right. It’s need to be a dynamic movement like pumping for it to work”
Now watch the full interview with Professor Beckman:
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