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!