Fear and the golf shot by Ashvin Sangoram

    When you throw your hands up in celebration on a 27 footer before it reaches the top of its arc on the way to its destination, THAT is having supreme confidence.  You may think I'm referring to a winning putt by Jordan Spieth or a perhaps delicately holed bunker shot by Phil Mickelson, but I am talking about the regularity with which Stephen Curry celebrates his offerings from beyond the arc during Warriors' games.  There is no fear that interferes with Steph's carefully tuned neural network guiding a carefully cultivated and conditioned grouping of muscles working concertedly towards the inevitable splash of a round ball through the net.  

   But Steph has an amygdala (the neural integration center for fear).  The amgydala has a necessary role in the general functioning of a nervous system designed to survive threats by tamping down over-confidence in real-time... so what gives?   Does he ice down his amygdala prior to games?  Does he use pregame transcranial magnetic stimulation pulses to diminish it's function when he takes the court?  Does he re-up the treatment at halftime to prepare for the inevitable 3rd quarter runs the Warriors use to stamp out the opponent for good?  What's Curry's curry, uh, secret sauce?

   A lack of fear and supreme confidence like that can't always be simply explained.  It is the depressed anxious and fearful patients that often have a more accurate reflection of reality (good and bad) than their non-depressed relaxed confident counterparts who see the world through rose-colored glasses.  This has been borne out by research at several levels.   So then if ultimate confidence doesn't reflect reality, how does it contribute to bending reality into other-worldly athletic performance that didn't initially seem possible?

   In Buddhism, fear and its close cousins anxiety and worry, are considered collectively as one of the hindrances on the path to enlightenment.   The path to freedom from these hindrances is recognition of them as part and parcel of the human condition.  The judo move, they argue,  is to simply recognize fear, anxiety and worry are here with you as you stand over that 6 foot putt, delicate chip, or tee shot with a forced carry and give them the space to exist along side the other reality of you having to attempt the shot.   Redirecting the mental energy from fighting fear to accepting it yields the focused attention to actually execute the shot with a balanced prepared mind.   The athletic equivalent of enlightenment is the flow state and this state is characterized by meeting a highly challenging situation with a high degree of skill.  Fear has a likely place in flow to maintain the state appropriately when sensory stimuli are in actuality perturbing  (you can be in flow fleeing from a predator).  But fear most likely will cause the destabilization and exiting of the flow state.  So we need to practice working with razor's edge of appropriate fear that stabilizes and corrects the way it was designed to do.

   In neursocientific terms, the overfunctioning of the amygdala starts to inhibit the normal functioning of the circuits that are preparing the instructions to carry out the golf shot.   The motor planning cortex, the sensory smartgrid feeding back information, the entorhinal cortex (brain's GPS), and the cerebellum are all kicked into action to plan and carry out the shot.  None of these systems really require any input about how you feel emotionally about the shot.   The emotional content that is ascribed to the state of things around you starts to get amplified beyond what's physiologically useful.  There is no lion that will eat you if you drop that shot in the drink.  There is no venomous snake that will strike when your ball remains in the bunker.  You won't be stampeded by wilderbeasts when the 3 footer for birdie goes astray.  But your amygdala makes your body think that this is exactly what's going to happen.  It has memory of that 3 footer you once missed to win the back nine of your nassau and quite frankly that feeling was AWFUL.  It felt like a lion took a chunk out of your midsection.  Or at least that's how you know remember it because the amygdala is squirting away its neurotransmitters and abundantly bathing the other more relevant circuits in pure unadulterated fear.  Finding a way to quell and quiet this hyperactivity is the focus of an entire field of medicine.  The techniques to do this range from cognitive behavioral therapy, to gradual desensitization (exposure therapy) , to hypnosis, to homeopathy.  I'm not here to argue the merits of one therapy over another, just to point out that there are a variety of them.  It makes sense as there are a variety of sensory inputs into the brain and each stands a chance of actually altering the brain's function if repeated and consistent input is provided (with the right intention). 

   To be sure fear has a specific role in the planning and execution of a golf shot.  It can serve as a useful heuristic measure to give you a sense of the probability for success of a certain type of shot.  Should I be the hero and go for the green from 2XX yards (pick your fear inducing number) with water guarding the front or should I lay up to a "comfortable" (non-fear inducing) number?  Maybe both of these possibilities induce just as much fear... and that tells you where the work needs to happen off the course.  The amydala could have just helped you save a stroke with more sound planning.  However there is little place for the amygdala to act during the actual execution phase of the shot.  

    For the golfer looking to improve, the lesson from basketball's MVP remains just as valuable.  Steph Curry is comfortable launching from 23-28 feet knowing in practice that he regularly converts 85% of these shots.  This translates to in game with a defender actively trying to prevent success to a 46% success rate.  The math is on his side.  With an expected value of 1.4 points per attempt from 3 point land, he should be hoisting whenever he feels he's got a look.  He is constantly preparing for the look.  You can see it in the way he moves, you can see the decision-making that unfolds when he has clearly lulled the defender into overcommitting to stop the three and he goes right by to the rack where the expected value is 65% of 2 (1.3).  He'll take that decrement of 0.1 points as it only gives up 1 point every 10 decisions.   Make no mistake though, he is looking for the unsuspecting defender to ever so slightly shift weight to his heels, thinking Curry might go by before he lets one fly!  His own fear circuit can work in the background to help him make these decisions on the fly without bogging him down into inaction or a poor decision.  Nothing is black or white thought.  These circuits are honed but they can be improved. He says it himself and the enemy of the amateur golfer is the thought that you have to be able to execute 100% of the time in order to compete or have fun.  Nothing can be further from the truth.  Curry misses 53% of his 3 pointers.  Pro golfers miss 50% of putts from 10 feet.  This is simply a product of reality meeting a limited capability nervous system.  That's all.  No additional fear needed to change this.  It's a fact.  It's with this wisdom that the golfer who is looking to improve can set about the activities and practices that result in improved confidence and by default less fear.

As an applied neurocience writer, I seek to ask more questions of the reader than answer with dogma.  This is because the applied neuroscientist seeks to ask and answer these questions in the crucible of their own experience, their own central nervous system.  So take these fear anxiety reduction drills presented below as a simple experiments to try out on the course and in practice to see what works.  Ruthlessly throw out what doesn't work and keep the parts that do.  Ask yourself how you can modify the drills to make them better for your current state.  Rinse and repeat!

Fear in the body - How does it manifest?

When you are playing it is informative to ask yourself before a shot, is there fear here?  If so, how is it making itself known to you?  Some golfers experience this as a tightening of muscles.  Others as an increased heart rate with more profuse sweating.  Others still sense it as an overactivity of the muscles and a generalized jitteriness.  There is no right or wrong answer to this question... Only YOUR answer.  But when you do answer it, makes some space for that feeling rather than fighting it to get it to go away.  The obvious anchor, and I will use it unabashedly, is to take one deep intentional breath as you become aware and make space for your fear (imagine your body and mind expanding a little bit with your in breath and that expansion creating the space for fear to rest without interference).  Let it be and set about the work of understanding what your body needs to accomplish to pull off the shot you are faced with, in the setting of having the fear with you.  Maybe you choke down on the club for more control, maybe you consciously relax a tightened shoulder and back to allow for the turn you were making so fluidly on the range.  Maybe you do nothing but make the attempt.   Investigate by trial and error what improves your outcomes.  This investigation puts YOU in control of your fear and your game. You'll find over time that you more quickly recognize how fear shows up and it will likely have less power over your executive ability with consistent practice.

For those who don't like the discomfort of bringing attention to a "negative" emotion without "fixing" it with specific instruction, you can try this variant too.  Once you identify the physical manifestation of the fear prior to your shot use the breath to consciously try to relieve the symptom gently.  Unlock the muscles in your jaws, neck, shoulders arms and back.  Shake these out with a preshot waggle designed specifically to empty your body (and brain) of the fear you face.  Once you detect even a modicum of reduction of the symptoms, move forward to hit your shot.  Over time you may find that you are able to reduce the symptoms you are aware of and start to become aware of deeper more subtle symptoms of fear that previously escaped your attention.  Keep a short log on your score card of your fear levels for each hole (and each shot on that hole).  Make it your own scoring system (0-10 works well).  Look at it briefly at the end of the round and then toss it.  Let it go in the ether and let it be a final symbolic gesture of ridding yourself of that fear.  If you happen to identify that fear for example seems highest in the fairway bunkers or over 3 foot putts, take this feedback as your prescription for the next range/short game session.  Use fear constructively to guide your practice on the way to supreme confidence.


For a third "drill" try out how you're fear levels appear when you stand over a 10 foot putt and say to yourself before putting: 

1) This putt is going in.

2) I have no idea if this putt will go in.

Fear often accompanies doubt.  Putting a positive statement in your psyche helps eliminate doubt and the idea here is to see if fear follows suit.  Try it out for yourself.



Small Targets, Small Misses by Ashvin Sangoram

This Spiethism is a very catchy, um, "catchphrase."  What's the neuroscience behind it?

We explore that briefly in this post along with a practical drill for determining how small a target is right for you.

Hitting our target after all is what golf is all about.  The closer you are to the target the lower your score is likely to be.  The brain processes targets in a very specialized area of the cortex called the entorhinal cortex (the ERC).  Within the ERC are many types of specialized cells.  Place cells fire when a person is physically in a location that is mapped to that cell uniquely.  Boundary cells respond to edges, walls and straight lines in the environment.  Grid cells not only fire in one unique location they fire when you physically locate yourself any of a constellation of locations that are distributed in what resembles a hexagonal grid regularly spaced from the original one.   Head direction cells fire maximally when you are facing a certain direction.  Together these 4 cell-types synergize to form a map of the space around you.  They then relay this information to other parts of the brain involved with motor planning and error correction.  Amazingly these cells can do their job even devoid of visual cues.  Grid, place, boundary and head direction cells can be repurposed when you move locations.  The longer you hang out in a particular environment though, the more precisely these cells delineate their place, boundary, grid and head direction.  (Think of it like a new google map location loading on your phone with a limited data connection... the longer you wait the higher the resolution of the map that develops on your screen and you start to see detail that wasn't evident when the map started loading even though the basic structure of the territory was there pretty quickly) 

What's the ERC got to do with target acquisition? Well, in a word, everything...  These cells are so important and central to brain maps, the discovery of the properties of grid and place cells was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2014.  While the field of neuroscience is still piecing together the exact mechanism for how these cells provide the full map of space to the rest of the brain for functional use (and this might take decades), we can use this basic understanding along with neural network theory to apply this to golf.   

   The analogy to the cellphone GPS map even goes a little further... The pinch and zoom function on your phone is a function that the best golfers have incorporated into their neural wiring.  Their grid, place, boundary and head direction cells are optimally tuned and coupled with their motor planning networks that they have essentially "pinched and zoomed" the parts of their entorhinal cortex that closely model small areas around their desired targets into working memory to use for shot execution.   In other words they can select incredibly small targets because their ERC and motor control can handle actually hitting them consistently.  So in some ways it is because they can miss small they can aim small.  

The beautiful property of neural networks is that no matter how well tuned they are, if you find the right training set for them, you can make them perform better.  And so the reverse also holds, aiming small will eventually lead you to smaller misses.  But only if you do it in a way that honors the current point in development of your own neural networks.  Just as it is pointless to aim at the ocean from the side of a boat, so too is it frustratingly pointless to aim at a penny on the green from 200 yards away.  The dynamic range for training is somewhere in the middle.

So let's talk about a drill that will help you find your optimal training set to see improvement in your target acquisition.  I always like to emphasize short game with the drills I recommend so this one is a chipping drill.   It can be extended analogously to a putting drill or even iron approach drill with a little bit of effort on your part.

 You'll need a set of 12 markers (tees, coins, leaves, acorns you get the idea).  I like to use 75 cents (7 dimes and 5 pennies).  You will be hitting a sets of 10 chips to a target from a set location and marking them with the coins.  Here's how to proceed.

Before you've hit any chips walk up and physically visit the target that you are aiming at (a hole or a tee stuck in the green).  The place cells in your brain that correspond to your target will actually fire when you arrive.  You needn't make any special effort or mental thought when you arrive there but if you insist on doing so, think "This is my target" when you are there.   Then go to your chipping spot and hit the first set of 10 chips.  With each chip physically go visit the location the ball ended in and drop a penny or a dime in its spot and remove the ball. Then visit the target once again on your way back and, if you want to, think to yourself "THIS is my target" when you are there.  Your decision to drop a dime or a penny should hinge on this... If you think that you couldn't do worse more than 33% of the time (2/3 shots will end up just as good or better) than put down a penny.  If you think you'd be hard-pressed to beat that shot 2/3 times put down a dime. Continue going back and forth for ten shots putting down dimes and pennies, removing the chips and visiting the target each time.  When you have completed a set of 10 take a look at the array of shots you have compiled (even take a snapshot so you can review it later).  If you are an accurate predictor of your innate ability you will have 6 or 7 dimes inside the area surrounded by 3 or 4 pennies. If not, no big deal, you now know you're characteristic spread of balls when chipping from that distance. 

Now here is where the training set really starts to make you work.  Remove all but the 6 best shot markers.   Make a regular hexagonal grid with 6 dimes that as closely as possible represents the same area and position covered by those 6 best shots (After all your grid cells main currency is regular hexagonal grids).  Presumably your actual target (the hole or the tee you put in the ground) is pretty close to the center of them but if not place the 7th dime at the center of the hexagon and now you have 6 smaller equilateral triangles comprising the hexagon.  It took a lot of effort (and words on my part) but you have successfully identified that THESE small triangles are YOUR optimal "small targets" for that distance/difficulty chip.   Pick the one triangle of dimes with the target contained in it and leave these 3 dimes and remove the rest.  Go back to a different location (but keep the distance and difficulty of the chips the same for each subsequent set) and see if you can get 2-3 chips out of 10 inside the triangle.    You should find this sufficiently difficult to do that it may take you up to 5 sets of practice chips to have success of getting 2 or 3 balls in that set inside your target.  Vary this drill further by varying the distance/difficulty of the chip and the physical location of the short game area you choose to work on (after all your ERC will started to have loaded a pretty darn good map of the area if you stay too long and this defeats one of the purposes of the drill --> to make the ERC work to tighten its output)  Having done this drill a few times, you will start to notice that your misses aren't nearly as bad as with your opening training set.  Small targets, small misses!

If you are or know a golfer who is really interested in taking your training to the next level and getting the most out of your practice, contact me at sangoram at goalogolf dot com for a conversation about how we can work together to train your brain to conquer the game!




Radical Adaptation by Ashvin Sangoram


Today, at age 82, Dr. Oliver Sacks passed away.  A prolific writer with the ability to unlock the workings (and failings) of the brain for the popular audience, Sacks was probably best known for his books Awakenings (turned into a screenplay with Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro) and The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat. He was a man who I admired professionally and aspire to emulate in my investigation of golf as an applied neuroscientist.  While he was decidedly NOT a golfer he did apply his acumen to achieving remarkable physical feats;  he was apparently an avid body builder at Muscle Beach in California where at one point he held a record for squatting 600lbs.  He wrote an interesting column back on New Year's Eve 2010 about resolving to "Change Your Mind" rather than the old standards of weight-loss, exercise, etc.

He writes in that post:

That the brain is capable of such radical adaptation raises deep questions. To what extent are we shaped by, and to what degree do we shape, our own brains? And can the brain’s ability to change be harnessed to give us greater cognitive powers? The experiences of many people suggest that it can.

   He goes on to talk about a deaf patient who learned to lip-read so well that he forgot she was impaired and inadvertently turned away from her while speaking.  When she told him she couldn't hear him anymore, he corrected her saying "You mean you can't see me."  She admonished him in return "You may call it seeing, but I experience it as hearing."

   Further he elaborates the newfound ability a patient with a paralyzing spinal cord infection developed almost overnight.  When she was trying to do a crossword puzzle she could hold the entire puzzle in her mind and solve it mentally with the words almost filling themselves in as she went along.  This cognitive power did not exist for her prior to the infection.

There are, in fact, myriad examples of people with extraordinary abilities that developed due to roadblocks of one form or another.  The NPR Invisibilia podcast has a great episode on How to Become Batman.  The ability to learn and radically adapt is in and of itself the brain's most amazing attribute.  We can harness this power in our golf games.

Dr. Sacks ends his essay with this:

Just as physical activity is essential to maintaining a healthy body, challenging one’s brain, keeping it active, engaged, flexible and playful, is not only fun. It is essential to cognitive fitness.


I would say that this growth mindset applies in spades to the golfer who wants to improve.  One practical way to take his message and apply it directly to the practice of golf follows.

Sensory deprivation practice.

Remove what seems to be a necessary network from your mundane practice ritual.  The hardest one of course (and most likely to observe a profound effect) is vision. 

Close your eyes during short game practice.  

When you are chipping simply close your eyes right before making your swing.  The world you experience will change having been deprived normally ubiquitous visual input.  Instead the feel in your hands, the tension in your body, and the point of impact between clubface and ball (to name just 3 sensory inputs) will all be accentuated.  The goal is not necessarily to become just as proficient as with your eyes open immediately.   You will hit the hosel, you will whiff completely and you will blade balls.  Do not worry!  The idea is to allow you to experience the world through systems that are at work even when you are sighted.  Your reliance on them increases as you attempt the complex task of chipping a ball.  You start to train these systems more intensely to help you accomplish your goal when you lean on them in this way. 

But more importantly you set your brain into a mode that is active, engaged, flexible and playful.  As Dr. Sacks would relate, THIS is the way to change your brain.