At this point in the MLB postseason, Alex Rodriguez, the Yankees’ third baseman, is willing to try any remedy for his postseason hitting slump. So far in October, his batting average is a paltry .130, well below his season average of .272. Baseball writers and fans have tagged him with the dreaded “choker” label and his manager, Joe Girardi, has already benched him once. A-Rod’s confidence seems to be in a downward spiral with all of the added pressure and attention on him. However, a German sport psychologist could be coming to his rescue with new research on how to distract the brain away from focusing too much on specific athletic skills.
Over the last twenty years, cognitive scientists have been studying how we learn to perform complex motor skills. As a novice, we need to think about every little step in executing the task until it becomes so automatic that the whole process, like riding a bike or hitting a baseball, seems like second nature.
However, when the pressure of competition and high stakes are added to the mix, athletes can mentally leave this state of automaticity and focus back on the individual steps of the motor skill. As we learned from Dr. Sian Beilock’s research on golf, this explicit monitoring can cause poor performance.
When a player ruminates about their performance or learned skill, the left hemisphere of their brain lights up with activity even though it is the right hemisphere that controls these advanced motor skills. “Rumination can interfere with concentration and performance of motor tasks,” said Juergen Beckmann, PhD, chair of sport psychology at Technical University of Munich. “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.”
Knowing that the right hemisphere of the brain also controls the left side of the body, Beckmann’s team hypothesized that if they could force activation of primarily the right hemisphere of athletes during competition, the effect of the left hemisphere’s disruption could be minimized. They asked right-handed athletes in three sports, soccer, judo and badminton to simply try squeezing a small ball in their left hand when they faced a pressure situation in their sport. Activating the right hemisphere by giving the left hand something to do could reduce the left hemisphere’s influence at crunch time.
Their study was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General
In the soccer group, 30 semi-professional players took practice penalty kicks with no pressure to set a baseline of performance. The next day, they took the same shots in front of 300 university students waiting to watch a televised soccer match. Those players who squeezed the ball in their left hand while kicking performed as well as they did in practice while those who didn’t missed more shots.
Similar results were found with 18 experienced judo experts who first took practice kicks followed by a round that they were told were being videotaped and evaluated by top coaches. As predicted, those that activated their right hemisphere by squeezing the ball in their left hand performed even better than they did in practice while the control group cracked under the pressure and did not execute as well.
Finally, similar results were found with 18 experienced badminton players who competed against each other in front of coaches. Teams that simply clenched their left hand during play regularly beat those that did not. The benefit does not come from the ball being squeezed but just from giving the left hand something to do, which draws attention from the right hemisphere.
“Many movements of the body can be impaired by attempts at consciously controlling them,” Beckmann said. “This technique can be helpful for many situations and tasks.”
So, could this help Rodriguez and the Yankees? Obviously, he grips the bat with both hands but maybe if his left hand held on a little tighter, he could quiet his brain’s very active left hemisphere. It certainly won’t quiet the opposing fans when he’s up to bat.