Jan 29, 2015
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Stress Ball for Improved Performance?

Athletes everywhere dream of sinking a buzzer beater or scoring on a penalty kick to win a game. According to a study published in the September issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, investing in a stress ball–and squeezing it in their non-dominant hand–may help athletes turn those dreams into reality.

Lead researcher Jürgen Beckmann, PhD, Chair of Sport Psychology at the Technical University of Munich, came to this conclusion after conducting experiments with right-handed athletes who compete in soccer, taekwondo, and badminton. He found that when the athletes squeezed a ball with their left hand prior to a stressful competition they were less likely to “choke.”

In Beckmann’s first experiment, 29 semi-professional male soccer players kicked a series of penalty shots at predetermined targets. Points were awarded for each shot based on accuracy. The next day, the players were split into two teams and kicked the same shots in front of 300 people. Before each participant’s turn, he squeezed a soft ball for 30 seconds–one team with their left hands and the other with their right. The players who squeezed with their right hand saw their average score drop by 2.40 points. Those who squeezed with their left, however, saw a lower decrease in their average score–a drop of only 0.14 points.

The second experiment included 19 taekwondo athletes (13 men and six women) who completed 20 kicks on a sandbag. To test accuracy, a point was given every time an athlete hit a specified area on the bag. The athletes were told their next 20 kicks would be videotaped and evaluated by their coaches. In this pressure phase, they squeezed a ball for 30 seconds before beginning. Athletes who squeezed with their left hand saw their scores increase by an average of 1.22 points, while those who squeezed with their right saw their scores decrease by 1.60.

In the final experiment, 18 badminton players (12 men and six women) began by practicing 10 serves. Again, points were awarded for accuracy. To isolate a pressure situation’s effects without the athletes squeezing a ball prior to serving, the researchers divided the group into two competing teams. A video camera was set up and the athletes were told coaches would evaluate their technique. The athletes then completed a second set of 10 serves.

Before a third set of serves, researchers had the athletes squeeze a ball for 30 seconds, half with their right hands and half with their left. The left-squeezing squad saw scores go from 47 pre-pressure, to 38.33 during pressure, to 49.22 after squeezing a ball. Their opponents’ scores decreased from 49.11 to 44.67 to 38.67.

Beckmann chalks the findings up to rumination–focusing too much on movement, which is controlled by the left side of the brain, instead of letting muscle memory take control, a function of the right side of the brain. “Rumination can interfere with concentration and performance of motor tasks,” he told Science Daily. “Athletes usually perform better when they trust their bodies rather than thinking too much about their own actions.”

The left side of the brain controls rumination, while the right side manages muscle memory. When the athletes in the experiments squeezed a ball with their left hand, they activated the automated movement management controlled by the right side of the brain. In doing so, the muscle memory they had developed through years of practicing their sport controlled their movements. Conversely, athletes who squeezed with their right hands activated the left side of the brain, which over-thinks movements. This caused tension, and the athletes choked under pressure.

The study, “Preventing Motor Skill Failure Through Hemisphere-Specific Priming: Cases from Choking Under Pressure,” can be downloaded from the American Psychological Association’s press release, found by searching the study title at: www.apa.org.

Using Treadmills to Gauge Return to Play

Researchers at the University at Buffalo’s Concussion Clinic have been awarded a $100,000 grant from NFL Charities. The research team plans to use the money for return to play research over the next 18 months.

The Concussion Clinic will use treadmill tests on 35 to 50 male athletes from the Buffalo Bills, Buffalo Sabres, and local colleges to help determine a safe, objective return to play protocol. Over the 18 months, when any of the athletes suffers a concussion, he will go to the Concussion Clinic for testing.

During the testing process, the athlete will walk on a treadmill at a slow pace. His heart rate, blood pressure, pulmonary ventilation, and cerebral blood flow will be carefully monitored. Then, the speed of the treadmill will gradually increase. If the athlete can continue exercising to his VO2 maximum capacity–reaching a heart rate of 220 minus age–without exacerbating any symptoms of concussion, he may be ready to return to play. Regular MRIs will reinforce treadmill results, and the concussed subjects will be compared to healthy subjects.

The treadmill tests are groundbreaking in their use of exercise to evaluate concussion, as conventional wisdom recommends physical rest. According to Barry Willer, PhD, co-principal investigator for the grant, exertion tests can be very effective for determining if an athlete should return to play because the data is objective. “An athlete cannot ‘fake’ their results or lie about symptoms,” he says.

With their findings, the team of researchers will formulate a three-step plan for deciding when an athlete can return to play. They hope the plan will give a clear indication of when an athlete is ready to play, and help prevent future injury.

To view UB’s statement on the grant, visit: www.buffalo.edu/news/13660. To view videos of previous concussed athletes undergoing treadmill testing, visit: concussion.buffalo.edu/links.html.

ACL Surgery: Ten Years Later

How well do soccer players who have ACL reconstruction fare in the decade following surgery? In a study published in the September issue of the American Journal for Sports Medicine, researchers from Washington University in St. Louis found that the answer is, quite well.

The researchers interviewed 100 players, 55 male and 45 female, who underwent surgery in either 2002 or 2003. At the time of surgery, the players ranged in age from 11 to 53. Seventy-two of the athletes had returned to play within a year after surgery, and half of those athletes were still playing seven years later.

Although both genders returned to play in similar timeframes and both were still playing at equal rates a decade later, there were differences between the two groups. Overall, male players were more likely to return to play (42 male vs. 30 female), particularly if they had surgery when they were young. Male players who didn’t return were more likely to cite ACL injury as the reason they stopped playing, compared to females who didn’t return.

Twelve of the 100 study participants, nine female and three male, underwent a second ACL surgery within the decade after their initial reconstruction. Athletes whose initial ACL reconstruction was on their non-dominant limb had a higher risk of future injury to their dominant limb, compared to athletes who had injured their dominant side (16 percent vs. 3.5 percent).

To view the abstract of the study, “Return to Play and Future ACL Injury Risk After ACL Reconstruction in Soccer Athletes From the Multicenter Orthopaedic Outcomes Network Group,” go to: ajs.sagepub.com and search the study title.


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