Game Improvement Supernova by Ashvin Sangoram

It's hard not to notice in the sports press, the meteoric rise of athletes that seemed to be locked in a zone.  The way Jason Day and Steph Curry capture the imagination with their gravity-less elevation of their respective games.  But the approach to practice is really the unheralded path to this superstardom.  There are few who are willing to dedicate themselves to an unconditional growth mindset when it comes to improvement and Day and Curry represent trained neural networks that have benefitted from a comprehensive approach to training that is unrelenting in its search for better.   

You can get a taste for this neural network training and presence in the zone in your own practice as well.  Surely the reader can think of those times when they stood over a putt or a chip or a tee shot and simply felt that the shot that was required was going to be produced with seemingly no effort or extra cognitive input.  This is the kernel, the distilled essence of existence in the flow state or the zone.   Living in this state more continuously really doesn't require much from us other than throwing away everything else that is extra.  What do I mean?  It is for example extra to believe that if you make this shot you will be a good golfer.  It is extra to feel like a calculation must be made prior to execution of a golf shot.  It is extra to think that you should feel any differently than you actually do when standing over that shot.  The process of throwing away the extra thoughts (in Buddhist lingo... letting go) gets you closer to purest state of enjoying the sensory input feeding into the circuits that must operate prior to execution of the shots.  You don't even need any conscious knowledge of what these circuits are and what they do (even though that is precisely the subject of this blog series) in order to execute the shot at hand.  

Maverick McNealy won the 2016 Western Intercollegiate at Pasatiempo Golf course, held concurrently during Master's weekend every year at this slightly less renowned Alister Mackenzie tract.  He shot 64 64 on the weekend and only one other golfer in the field was within 14 shots of his score.  He did what no other Stanford golfer (not even Tiger or Patrick Rodgers) did during their tenure on The Farm.  His winning score of -16 was the lowest any Stanford golfer had ever shot in a 3 round tournament.  Maverick openly talks about adopting a growth mindset to practice (a concept whose principle proponent, Carol Dweck, has championed as critical to true continued success)  The ability to go supernova in performance requires the confluence of this mindset (that there is something to be learned gained and improved by hard work rather than innate inborn talent) as well as a dedication of this principle to every aspect of life that would contribute to performance.  In the case of golf, nutrition, exercise, knowledge of physics, command of the different aspects of the game (short game, putting, driving and iron play) provide  starting material to adopt growth mindset.  To go beyond this,  to incorporate balance work, visualization, ambidexterity, trick shot execution, martial art based movement practice can expand the capabilities of the body to allow enhanced performance if one actually sets the growth mindset to work on these avenues as well.  The key here is that some of this work can be done at almost every waking moment and sleep helps consolidate the gains.  The athlete poised to go supernova is able to effortlessly combine the best aspects of practice into each moment of their existence towards this singular final goal.

The next time you get a taste for a zone-like state, revel in it.  Don't go to the point where you start to wish it will last, remember this is extra.  Rather, notice the feeling in the body and the quietness of mind that yield this state and dwell in that for a short moment.  When it is time to move on to another task, see if you can actively release the thoughts and feelings that weren't present before and seem to be extra.  In practicing this way (a form of meditation actually described in both Buddhist and Hindu texts) one can attain the flow state in whatever one is absorbed in (some call it "bare attention").  Washing dishes can lead to improved putting when this kind of state takes hold. But don't get too carried away with your good results when they start flowing your way.  This is a sure fire way to lose the flow state as trying to partake in the fruits of one's labor gets in the way of the labor.  Stick with the simpleness that results from setting aside everything (feelings thoughts, movement patterns, behaviors) that are extra to the moment that is in front of you.  If it is washing a dish, then feel the food remnants being removed from the dish under the water.  If it is putting a 10 footer be cognizant of the feeling in the hands and the visualization of line and speed that informs you of a successful putt.  Compare the outcome of the actual executed putt to your visualization then let it all go as there is now a new task at hand (you've got to go get the ball out of the cup at some point...).  In this simple way, we stay directly involved in the present moment alone. Tossing away the extra, discerning deeply the solution to the present problem and repeating this in complete absorption.  

Inevitably there will be a break from this absorption.  During my own writing of the last part of the last paragraph I entered that state that I was writing about.  But as I write this there is a little bit extra and the feeling is lost.  So when during practice you notice the break in absorption with the task, congratulate yourself!  This is the road to sustained mindfulness.  As you will never be in a continual state of mindfulness if you can't discern when you break from it.

You can teach yourself to sustain the state for longer and longer periods of time simply by repeating the above process with whatever you are tasked with doing at the time.  You need not sit full lotus under a bodhi tree or camp out a driving range or a green complex to reap the benefits in your golf game.  Each moment that arises and asks of you an appropriate response, is a moment that forms the crucible for honing a mindful flow state that can be applied when the game is on.

 

The honest game by Ashvin Sangoram

In order to improve your golf game, there has to be a certain honesty of how you are actually playing.  Real data rather than wishful thinking goes a long way in the appropriate analytic breakdown of the strengths and weaknesses of your game.  Numerous modalities have come online in recent years to help drive an honest vision of how good one's golf game truly is.  

Too often I hear from golfers a disinterest in knowing the exact data about their round.  Sometimes the dismissal is thinly guised fear.  Functionality like Arccos which tracks every shot taken effortlessly with the inclusion of bluetooth sensors in the butt-end of the club makes it very easy to gain a visual representation of the round.  While it is true there are no pictures on scorecards, Arccos brings a picture and distance data to your round in a very real raw and disturbing way.  This may be the reason there is not wide adoption of the technology.  At $249 it represents less than an hour's lesson with a top 50 professional and would easily provide feedback that could improve one's game more than the investment in the lesson.  However people are unfortunately happy in their delusions.  They want to believe an expert out there can bring better information about their game than actually looking deep into their own game.  A technology like Arccos (or its rival Gamegolf) brings a level of analysis providing handicapping to the various aspects of the game (driving, putting, short game and approach shots) allowing you to quickly see what aspect of your game requires the most work.  

Those duffers who are picking up after blown sand shots or raking putts back across the green before they've holed out, or hitting that mulligan off the tee are holding themselves back from a better game.  An unrelenting honesty can bring the golfer that "Come to Jesus" moment where it is evident that a part of his game needs dire work.

This of course is when the real work begins.  The training of the neural networks to perform the intricacies of a driver shot, short game feel and target oriented iron approaches require real dedication and consistent practice that mimics the game itself.  Without the honest data this work is set aside as not important.   Without the honest data a golfer goes out to the putting green with three balls in hand and no real plan of training other than to attempt putts of various lengths and repeat the same putt 3 times with the idea that the learning that occurs over 3 balls somehow translates to the course when you have one attempt only to convert a putt.   As a first pass to the novice this approach can give some level of improvement, but the golfer who has stagnated won't realize the 3 ball approach no longer has merit without further data.  Even as recently as the 2017 PGA Championship, I witnessed pro golfers (who shall remain nameless) that were employing a 3-ball putting practice without clear direction of what they were trying to accomplish with the other 2 balls.  The average professional putter by definition gains zero strokes putting.  The average pro putter does not hoist championship trophies.  The guys who lock into another level of putting rise to the top of leaderboards and this flow lock can be ephemeral.

 Clarity in focus helps these neural networks get trained more quickly.  Concerted sessions dedicated to short game coupled with visualization off the course and balance work in the gym can form a program of game improvement that yields measurable results.

Strokes gained putting, in the short game, with irons and driving can all be deduced from these data rich systems.  When you see where your strokes are being lost, there is but one choice... Tackle the aspect of the game that is losing you the most strokes head on with intention and focus.  The methods you use to improve that aspect must involve a combination of on course work, range work, lateral neural circuit training (more on this later) and muscular endurance and conditioning work.  The biggest bang for your buck arrives when you take this comprehensive and "cross-training" approach.  

   Since I have a personal preference for short game improvement work overall (and most golfers can benefit greatly from this work) I will provide a more concrete example of what I mean within this context.  Hitting 36 shots from a spot around a practice green dedicated  to chipping that does not roll like an actual green is a waste of the 15 minutes it takes to do so.  Hitting two extra chips after holing out during a practice round, one from the back of the green aimed at stopping a ball just at the front of it and one from the front of the green aimed to stop a ball at the back center on the other hand carries immense value.  While it will delay your round by about 15 minutes (and really 0 minutes if done right when you pick your opportunities to execute when others aren't affected) you will have gained invaluable neural circuit training to couple with the chipping practice that trains the brain's GPS with more data from each hole for better target acquisition, cerebellum for adjustment of distance control, sensory smart grid for green reading after the ball lands and rolls and motor cortex for execution of the club mechanics to pull off the required ball flight.  

When you can,  practice with only one ball, taking the time to observe the full outcome of the shot that was executed (good or bad) and internalize a likely correction or reinforce how a well-executed shot felt in the body.  A simple approach like this will result in improved short game handicaps in minimal time.  

 

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 wildebeests 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.

Addendum:

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.