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The Science of Slumps

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The next time your jump shot is off, your putts won’t go in, or you can’t buy a hit at your Wednesday night softball games, just be thankful that you’re not the Angels’ new $240 million man, Albert Pujols. Currently batting .196 with one home run and 12 RBIs after 35 games, the three-time MVP is in the worst hitting slump of his career. There is no shortage of helpful advice being shared on how to climb out of it, but maybe some recent research from Rob Gray, a motor control researcher, might help Pujols and the rest of us understand these valleys of performance.

While there has been an abundance of research on the more short-term ailment known as “choking,” a slump is extending that unexpected failure over several games, days, or weeks. The common cure for the choke is to be sure an athlete is not taking themselves out of their learned and subconscious pattern for completing a skill like hitting a baseball. Overthinking the moment and asking your brain to actively supervise all of the moving parts disrupts the automaticity that has developed over years of practice.

"We think that when you're under pressure, your attention goes inward naturally. Suddenly it means so much, you want to make sure everything's working properly," says Dr. Rob Gray, of the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences at the University of Birmingham. “Focusing on what you're doing makes you mess up, but why? How do your movements change? How can we focus on correcting those issues instead of telling you to stop trying so hard?"

In a recent study, Gray compared his own research on baseball hitting with findings from other sports on what happens to athletes when their attention shifts inward. He found that in pressure situations or when a player is underperforming, their actual body mechanics and movements change.

For example, when he experimented with baseball hitters under stress, the angle and speed of their swing was less consistent than under baseline conditions. The same was found in rock climbers and dart throwers whose movements were mechanically less fluid when under pressure.

Even the amount of electrical activity in your muscles changes when you start to obsess about the physical task at hand. Basketball players shooting free throws were less accurate and showed more brain-created, electrical signals in their arms when thinking about their form.

So, when athletes are struggling, how do they avoid the trap of introspection? Gray suggests addressing the issue in practice before it happens on the field.

“The experiments described here identify specific aspects of performance that could be addressed with training to correct the performance of an athlete who has recently failed under pressure or is in a performance slump,” he says. “For example, if the force of a golfer’s grip increases under pressure conditions, a coach could use analogy instructions such as, ‘Imagine you have an open tube of toothpaste between your hands and the contents must not be pushed out’ to both address the specific biomechanical problem and shift attention away from skill execution. Perhaps Pujols, a.k.a. “The Machine,” could use the same advice at the plate.

Dan Peterson reports on the latest cognitive performance research for athletes at Axon Sports, an Elite Performance Partner of Athletes’ Performance. Axon develops cutting edge tools that protect and train the athletic brain. Follow Axon Sports on Twitter and Facebook.

Tags: Stress, Pressure, Focus, Sports Performance

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