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.


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.