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 of 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.

 

 

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.

 

Practice your short game like Odell Beckham catches footballs by Ashvin Sangoram

  By now some of you have seen Odell Beckham's ridiculous one-handed end-zone grab, with the degree of difficulty being escalated further by being heinously interfered with before the ball arrived.

https://youtu.be/zxbz3DDQzHU

 His ability to make these one handed grabs has been highlighted during pre-season training sessions. If you haven't seen any of these, see the video here:

https://youtu.be/BY8xrmkN9w4

 Suffice it to say that this is a man whose nervous system has been acutely tuned to the physics of football flight. He is able to read the trajectory of a ball and simultaneously control his own body (and hand) with such precision that he can manufacture these spectacular catches with seemingly no effort.   Now he is endowed with big enough hands to make this possible (some world-class table-tennis players may have similar dexterity but could never make such a catch). And make no mistake, his training in catching balls this way makes his two-handed catching ability even more precise.

 

 Training the neural networks involved in reading the physics of ball flight and adjustment of body mechanics (principally located in the cerebellum) by this rigorous exercise has several effects.  The main one is that these networks can then collude to produce a simpler task with greater efficiency.  If you are trying to improve an ability with which you already have a 99% success rate  there are other ways at getting improvement besides repetition of what will seem like a boring and laborious task.  

Take the ability to make 3 footers as an example. It will take most golfers who have been playing for >2 years an EXTREMELY long time to see substantial increases in their 3-foot make percentage) Training in a more diificult related task with a defined success of 40-60% rather than >90% will allow you to quickly see the improvement you seek.  

How do you apply this to your game ?

  With 3 foot putts, putt exclusively on the practice green with the blade of a wedge.  This will fine-tune your "touch" to delivery the blade with the correct path, contact point and force that will make putting these with a putter trivial on the course.

Not exciting enough for you ???

  With chips around the green, practice the toughest ones you can find one-handed with your highest lofted club.  Define success as whatever you can do 5 out of 10 times.  For some this would mean just making contact cleanly and moving the ball forward toward the target, for others it would be a 20 foot circle around the flag.  Whatever it is for you (try 10 and draw a circle around your best 5) define it and work to get more than 7/10 in that range with every subsequent chipping session.  Your short game will thank you out on the course.

Bottomline:  Practice with a degree of difficulty that makes the game seem easy in comparison.  It will do wonders for your actual golf game.

 

Spieth Could Putt Better... by Ashvin Sangoram

One of the few golfers I've seen out there who putts (at least some of the time) using a fundamentally sound approach is two-time major winner Jordan Spieth.  

As a neuroscientist, I break down putting into the neural networks that are engaged while accomplishing the task effectively.  Most people quickly move to alignment, distance control and proper putting mechanics as critical to making putts.  Sure these things are important.

But almost all golfers out there today are relying on the fidelity of their brain's GPS to inform them about those three factors.  When they take their eye off the hole they are asking their brain to keep that target in some form of working memory in order to allow the rest of the circuitry to use that information to do its work.  The entorhinal cortex, the seat of the brain's GPS is doing a portion of this work to keep the target in the "mind's eye" -- whatever that is.  

Instead of trusting the fidelity of that system to accurately inform you about the position of the hole to within 4.5 inches, why not keep the target in your visual field?  In plain English, why not look at the hole while you putt?.  This simple switch changes the game of putting from having to putt to a picture that you have to create and maintain in your brain to simply putting to the ACTUAL picture! (Yes I'm invoking Earl Woods here, who famously instructed Tiger, "Putt to the picture.")  The latter is way easier when you get used to it, especially for players worried about distance control.

Jordan putts while looking at the hole on shorter length putts.  I even noticed that Louis Oosthuizen did it on short length putts at the British this past week.  Hunter Mahan at a clinic I attended at Half Moon Bay claimed to practice this way as well.  All in keeping with sound fundamental neuroscience for getting the neural circuitry to produce more consistent results.

I would argue that the effect is much more dramatic for longer putts than shorter ones, and Spieth could be an even better putter if he committed to the method for every putt he looked at.  

Here's why.  

That seat of the brain's GPS I was telling you about, the entorhinal cortex has place cells and grid cells ready to fire when a person is in a particular place in his environment.  The number of these place cells is much greater for shorter distances than farther distances.  When researchers look at slices of the brain they note that greater cell mass corresponds to your immediate vicinity versus further out.  

The logical extension is that the fidelity of the "mind's eye" picture is much better for short putts than long ones. Plus your margin of error percentage is about one-half the hole width (2.25 inches) divided by the distance of the putt X 100.  For example, if you are 4 feet from the hole, your margin of error is just under 5%, while a 12 footer gives you only a 1.5% error margin.  The longer the putt, the less the margin of error for your target acquisition, and, unfortunately, the less neural circuitry there is dedicated to making a high fidelity image at the greater distance. On the other hand the margin of error introduced for not looking at the ball when you are ready to putt is always fixed (as it is the same distance from your eyes for every putt). 

In other words, the beneficial effect of looking at the hole (not the ball!) can be even more dramatic at longer distances.

If you look at putts gained for the professionals,  the average putts to hole out from 8  feet is about 1.5 (roughly a 50% make probability) and the average putts to hole out from 16 feet is about 1.8 (a 20% make probability).  Would you rather your 8 foot make probability go up by 10% over the field or your 16 foot make probability go up by 10% over the field?

Now this is a somewhat rhetorical question as improving your target acquisition by looking at the hole is going to increase both make percentages, but the strokes gained by doing so for the longer putts is 0.8 for every 10 putts of 16 feet versus 0.5 for every 10 putts from 8 feet.

There's more to gain over the field by making a few more longer putts per round.  Also the fidelity of the picture in your brain stands to improve more for the longer putts while looking at the hole versus shorter putts.   I maintain that Spieth would be a better putter if he committed to the technique wholesale.  

Now before you go trying this out at home (and I wholy encourage it - no disclaimer here) , know that there is  a learning curve to the switch.  Stubbing putts while you are adjusting your brain to a consistent setup is a possibility.  But a committed putter can make this transition in one or two sessions and never look back or fear a mishit putt again.  It is far easier to train the brain to know exactly where the ball is then to know EXACTLY where the hole is. Commit to this and perhaps you could putt better than Spieth!

Want to learn more about how neuroscience can inform and improve your practice and thus your game? Contact me at sangoram at goalogolf dot com.

 

 

 

Curing the hosel rockets and chipping yips with the fundamentals of neuroscience by Ashvin Sangoram

  Say you have been playing golf a long long time. Say you were pretty good at it once upon a time. Say you are a perfectionist who constantly wants to get better. Say you tweak swing mechanics to improve and try to honor what your body is telling you along the way... But say, in so doing, you run across a bug in the Matrix...

  The hosel rockets and yips are a constant source of mystery and much consternation.  People even believe that watching other people with the yips can INFECT them and they typically want nothing to do with watching it, fixing it or even talking out loud about it.  If you've been around golf a while, you've no doubt heard stories of famous golfers developing these conditions and having to quit the game for good.  To a neuroscientist the yips are not all that mysterious.   As with many disease processes, the underlying causes are multifactorial, and attacking the specific underlying circuit malfunction FOR YOU with informed practice is the way toward the cure.  Curing the yips can be hastened with a simple fundamental understanding of the neural circuitry involved in the process of making a golf shot.  Using this fundamental understanding as a basis for diagnosing the CAUSE of your yips leads to fairly straightforward ways to solve the problems.

  In this series of blogs we explain each system and the ways it goes wrong and provide a drill or two that can help you see you game.  We start with the brain's GPS.

Target acquisition difficulty

Your brain has a GPS system built into it.  It helps you recognize where you are in space and where things in your environment are and forms a model of this so you can use it predictively to accomplish tasks.  Find the bathroom half-asleep, give someone directions to your living room from your kitchen without having to lead them by the hand, represent a golf target so your motor program has something to plan towards. Problems with your brain's GPS can lead to errors in shot-making. The place, grid, boundary and head direction cells that form the core of the GPS can come uncoupled from their actual physical representations and start to lose fidelity.  For some, this loss of fidelity can lead to second-guessing during the swing, altering swing mechanics based on a perceived "better" target and inappropriate activation of muscles that outwardly resembles a "twitch."  If you have trouble retaining the target in working memory when you step over a shot, your GPS may need tuning. I suggest the following drill.

Drill:   Visit the target!  For a short game practice session make it a habit to physically visit the target of your shot (notice I didn't say the hole).  The entorhinal cortex saves the bulk of its circuitry for your immediate vicinity (typically less than 20 yards).  The only people that need precision and accuracy of mere inches or feet at 30-50 yards or greater are golfers, archers, snipers, etc. (See upcoming posts for a discussion of the difference between precision and accuracy)

 In order to enhance your existing GPS function take a trip to the area where you want the ball to end up and imagine how it will get there. Then go back to the ball and prepare to hit the shot.   Ask your practice swings to answer the question: Will this attempt result in the shot I imagined?  Answer the question with your practice swing (not cognitively) until you're fairly confident that  answer is yes. Then hit the shot with a swing as close to that "correct" practice swing as possible.  If you are near scratch take only one shot, handicap 5-10 you get a second try, handicap  more than 10 you may if you choose take up to 3 tries but remember that in the game of golf you only get one chance. 

 Assess the outcome of your body movement in practice with respect to the body movement for the actual swing BEFORE you look at the outcome of the shot.  Repeat this process from different locations around the green to different targets on the green each time.  It helps to get away from precut hole locations and stick tees in the ground for your "pin target." This is because, just as Google Maps loads on your phone from low resolution to better and better clarity, so too your entorhinal cortex is working to learn your surroundings without you "knowing" it.  The longer you spend in one spot, the better the representation.  But golf doesn't allow you to stay in one spot, so simulate the game by at least moving targets and positions (and even green complexes) as your particular practice facility allows.  This type of approach will help you solidify the connection of the GPS circuitry with the motor program while simultaneously training the GPS to do a better, quicker job at acquiring the surroundings in a representation that can lead to great shots.

 

Send us feedback about your experiences with this drill at sangoram at goalogolf dot com and stay tuned for more posts on the other components of the brain that need tuning to cure the yips!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

    

The Red Panda Drill by Ashvin Sangoram

      I once went to a Bulls game in the mid-90's during the Jordan-era and the half-time act was a Chinese acrobat who went by the moniker "The Red Panda."  She did a number of balancing demonstrations but the coup de grace was a balancing feat on a 7-foot high unicycle.  She started riding it in a wide circle that took up about half the court.  Her assistant tossed her two bowls that she carefully balanced: one on her head and one on her right foot, still cycling the unicycle with her left foot back and forth in place to keep balance.  When she was ready she flipped the bowl up with her foot and caught the bowl on her head -- stacked on the bowl that was balanced there in the first place.  Very impressive! But she wasn't done.

  The assistant tossed her two bowls the next time around, and again she carefully stacked and balanced them on her right foot all the while pedaling one-footed  to maintain balance on the unicycle with two bowls in place on her head.  When she got the feeling, a swift kick of the right foot and the bowls flipped up, and again she caught both bowls on her head without any use of her hands (other than to maintain balance on the unicycle).  Four bowls securely on her head, she proceeded around the arc repeating the feat with three bowls. 

  By this time the audience was rapt in attention to this woman who could seemingly do no wrong. Each successful catch resulted in louder and louder applause.  Four bowls were just as smooth and the crowd could not believe what it was seeing.  The grand finale was five bowls that she stacked on her foot. At this point the audience was pretty certain that this woman, The Red Panda, was as sure as a Jordanesque buzzer-beater jump-shot.  And true to form, she nailed the finale catching all 5 bowls on her head while riding the unicycle flawlessly around the arc.  A total of 15 bowls tossed (by foot!) over the 5 attempts, catching every single one of them on her head.  Her hand-eye coordination (or should I say foot-head coordination) was simply off-the-charts.  The crowd went crazy.

  This dainty Chinese acrobat had stolen the show from what was, in the form of a World Champion Chicago Bulls game, a very tough act to follow.

       The training that this acrobat had to undergo to develop this skill must have been at a level of rigor that few athletes would be willing to match.  The balance and strength that must have developed in her core to perform this feat, along with the judgment of force necessary to get those bowls to their destination is (almost) singular.  Google "Chinese acrobat unicycle bowls" and  Youtube videos featuring the Red Panda and numerous other Chinese acrobats abound demonstrating even further feats of difficulty (all involving bowls and 7-foot high unicycles). 

 

 

  The "Stars of the Beijing Circus" features a group of five women all riding unicycles performing various and sundry tosses of bowls to each other, in synchrony and in movement demonstrating a level of control that is other-worldly.  And yet we all know that at some point each of these women made the attempt (and failed) to mount a bicycle for the first time.  They attempted (and failed) to mount a short unicycle for the first time. They attempted (and failed) to mount a 7-foot unicycle for the first time. They attempted (and failed) to balance a bowl while riding said unicycle for the first time.  They attempted (and failed) to toss that bowl in the direction of their heads once balanced while riding said unicycle for the first time.  (You get the progression by this point…) They failed all of these times before they succeeded in performing an act that on the surface appears effectively impossible.  

     With the Red Panda and her colleagues as background, the point of this drill is not for you to go out and buy a 7 foot unicycle and refit your wedges with 7 foot shafts. Rather, the idea is to bring in a level of difficulty commensurate with your existing ability to help train balance while executing short chips.  

   The principle of goal-setting for this drill is to titrate the failure rate so that learning can take place without utter frustration.  Failure is absolutely acceptable and the level of difficulty must match so that you can be "successful" around 40-60% of the time.  For the novice this may mean simply balancing on one foot and trying to make contact (any contact) between ball and clubhead. For the high-handicapper it may mean trying to get the ball inside a 20 foot radius of the hole 50% of the time. For the mid-handicapper the goal may be 10 feet. For the single-digit handicapper the goal could be set to 6 feet.  And for the scratch/elite golfer the goal would be inside the leather (less than 2.5 feet). 

  The exact number, however, depends on your own empiric experimentation.  Here's where you turn into an applied neuroscientist.  After 10 preliminary “scouting” attempts at chipping one footed from a good lie,  walk around and remove the 5 worst shots.  Measure the distance from the target hole to the furthest remaining ball.  This is your target distance for the drill.  Now reattempt the drill from a different positions around the green complex with your attention on your own sensory feedback.  

    The question you are trying to answer, in the form of a chip attempt (ie. the actual movement of an executed shot — not a cognitive verbal answer), is this:

  What is the least possible effort I can make, with my muscles in the least tension and remaining in good balance, that will still get the ball to the target?

 With this question and a goal in mind (ball inside X-feet)  you’ve set the stage for your brain to train itself to improve its performance.  It requires making continual softening or firming adjustments to the body as well as deeply feeling the sensation of engaged muscles and how the degree of engagement correlates with the outcome.  This quintessential feedback loop for learning will result in internalization of the correlation.  There will come a point where no conscious cognitive knowledge of how far to take the club head back, what arc the arms/hands/club should trace, nor how much force to use to swing is needed to execute a better than average shot.  When that feeling sets in on more than 50% of your shots, you know you are improving.

   The key to the continued utility of this drill is to adjust the goal intelligently or increase the degree of difficulty of the physical maneuver.   There are merits to each, and you should try to adjust each as you gain experience with the drill.  Adjusting the goal should only occur when 50% of your “scout” shots start to fall inside a smaller radius.  Adjusting the difficulty should occur when you feel comfortable and relaxed with the prior level of difficulty.  Increasing the difficulty could take many forms but here are a few examples for you to riff on based on your own personal preference.

1) Close your eyes, further training the Brain's GPS integration.

2) Balance one-footed on a destabilizing balance pad (like an Airex balance pad), further taxing the cerebellum's balance control and error-correction algorithms.

3) Use one hand while chipping instead of two, challenging the sensory perception ability of the proprioceptive smart-grid inputs.

4) Do both 1) and 2) simultaneously

5) Do 2) and 3) simultaneously

6) do 1) and 3) simultaneously

7) Do all of 1) , 2) and 3) simultaneously

8) Purchase a unicycle on which to perform the drill while doing 1,2 and 3 ;-).

 

The degree of difficulty should be ramped up whenever you approach a near 60% success rate but should be eased up if you are failing  more than 60% of the time.  This is the dynamic sweet spot of learning.  Since chipping doesn’t take any “God-given” physical prowess to execute, you too can become a chipping "Red Panda".

A Neuroscience of Golf Debut by Ashvin Sangoram

I plan to blog regularly to bring you state-of-the-art neuroscience content as it relates to golf.  

Check back here for more on the Brain's GPS, the Cerebellum and it's function, the proprioceptive smartgrid and much more.  In addition, you'll find useful drills that are firmly based on neuroscientific principles designed to elevate your game.  You won't find these drills anywhere else!

Check back here for more on

  • the brain's GPS
  • the cerebellum and it's critical function for hand-eye coordination
  • the sensory smart-grid that lives in your skin and muscles
  • and more neural system that allow you to play golf

In addition, I will provide useful drills designed to elevate your game that are firmly based on neuroscientific principles.  You won't find these drills anywhere else!