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Published: Monday, 8/6/2007

Golfers can end the suffering if they turn off that anxious voice in their heads

BY JENNI LAIDMAN
BLADE SCIENCE WRITER

You know what it feels like when it all comes together.

You re in the zone. You know what to do so well, it just happens. The writer writes. The artist paints. The batter swings and makes solid contact. The golfer lifts the club, twists his torso at exactly 90 degrees in relationship to the plane of his hips ... Oh, wait, that s already too much thinking.

Thinking: It s what not to do.

Debbie Crews, a sports psychologist at Arizona State University in Tempe specializes on attention in golf. She studies golfers in the zone and then bumps them out of it.

Her question? What makes golfers choke?

Choking is more than blowing a single shot, even a crucial one. It s a meltdown.

Choking is when they drastically fail, typically at the end of a performance, she said. It s the guy ahead by a couple strokes who suddenly can do no right.

They may have a huge lead but they lose it all because of their state of mind.

Her research shows that golfers choke when they become very left-hemisphere dominant. They re in the wrong side of the brain. Really they need to be in a balanced state, but they re way out of balance.

If you ve played any sport, you know this left-hemisphere problem although you probably don t identify it that way. Instead, you re listening intently to that little nagging voice offering constant instruction and correction. That s what Ms. Crews calls left-hemisphere thinking.

It s verbal, sequential, analytical, logical, Ms. Crews explains. It s that little voice in the head issuing commands, reminding, cajoling, even encouraging.

The self-talk is probably going 90 mph in there.

It s 1996, the final round of the Master s Tournament in Augusta, Ga. Greg Norman is ahead by six stokes.

He s about to commit one of golf s classic chokes.

Norman wrote about it in Travel + Leisure Golf last year, on the eve of the 10th anniversary of what he calls his screw up, disdaining the choking label.

I sensed early on that things weren t right. I said to Tony Navarro, my caddie, Boy, it s going to be a tough day. I just couldn t feel what I had the previous three days. The more I tried, the more it went away.

Call it what you will, Mr. Norman, but one can almost hear that little voice, that left-hemisphere, analytical not-in-the-zone voice talking to you, urging you on, leading you astray.

Let s face it, competition is an arousal state. The successful players turn that arousal to his advantage. The rest of us choke.

You might think of it as stage fright: A little bit of it leads to a sharp, bright performance. Too much and you bomb. Your knees shake. You forget lines.

When you re in the zone, Ms. Crews suggests, you re more in your right hemisphere. Imagery is your language, pictures, a feel. To avoid the choke, golfers need to learn cues that creates the pictures. They need to take all that energy and entrain it, or be absorbed by it, she said.

Bradley Hatfield, a professor sports psychology at the University of Maryland, studies choking in marksmen. Different sport, same problem. When he watches the brain of a marksman in the death spiral of failure, it s like a traffic jam.

At peak performance, the brain of the expert is an efficient thing, he said, its operations economical, with a minimum number of areas involved.

At least one explanation for choking is, there is too much communication between nonessential regions of the brain, thinking too much, processing too much in terms of distraction, Mr. Hatfield said.

Because everything in the brain is interconnected the areas that control muscles, limb movement, when there is too much noise, too much traffic, that changes the normal pattern, he said.

That s when you see the over-thinking, the over-analyzing, the sense that things aren t right, he said. Remember how Greg Norman described that day in 1996?

In a way, an elite athlete who chokes is in the thinking pattern of a novice player, research by Dr. John Milton, a professor of computational neuroscience at Claremont Colleges W.M. Keck Science Center in California, suggests.

Dr. Milton studied the differences in brain function between professional golfers and novices. He does it with something called functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI. This type of MRI allows researchers to watch as oxygen is delivered to the parts of the brain engaged in a specific task.

Golfers in an MRI machine were shown images of various holes while the action in their skulls was projected on a screen for the researchers to observe. The golfers were told they were about to take a shot. The pin is 100 yards away. There is no wind. They were instructed to go through their pre-shot routine mentally. The only thing the golfer was permitted to move was their right index finger. For the purpose of this experiment, that represented the swing.

The title of the paper Dr. Milton and his colleagues wrote says it all: The mind of expert motor performance is cool and focused. The paper published in NeuroImage showed that expert brains were more efficient at their task and engaged fewer brain areas than the novice.

The researcher found evidence of this inefficient brain activity even when he talked to the 13 golfers who participated in the trial. The novices questioned whether the wind was truly absent, or whether the hole they were shown was really 100 yards away.

One person actually talked about water. There wasn t any water, in the images golfers were shown, he said.

The pros expressed none of these doubts, reinforcing the idea that what makes a pro a pro is his or her focus on relevant details.

But for a novice, this may be the only way to play golf. Over-focus may be an inseparable from learning. But, Dr. Milton notes, it does raise the question of whether novice golfers should be taught to ignore irrelevant data.

In other experiments, Dr. Milton and colleagues performed motion analysis as people attempted to balance a stick on their fingertips. That research showed that the more one attends to the task, the more performance deteriorates.

Ask any waitress and she ll tell you: If you want to carry a full soup bowl, don t look at the bowl.

The fact is, your thinking mind can t respond fast enough to the information at your fingertips in the balancing act, Dr. Milton said. This far simpler task shows again the price of over-focusing.

Dr. Milton believes that when good golfers choke, they are essentially returning to the novice golfing mode.

The very things you re talking about that destroy performance is probably the very same things you need to do when you re learning, he said.

You start on this spiral. The little voice always wants to make a connection, like your mother. The secret is to turn off the little voice.

Would that it were so simple.

One method to is to have a consistent pre-shot routine, he said. Always do the same thing. It may work for all kinds of choking, whether you re having trouble writing a report you know should be easy, or solving a math problem, or shooting a gun. Routine is part of the preventive technique, he said

You develop a mantra that s going to protect you, he said.

The application of this process may be fairly broad.

Should students be taught a pre-shot routine when they re going to solve physics problems? he asked.

Mr. Hatfield of the University of Maryland says that there is reason to believe that some of us may be choke-prone.

Some people genetically are more reactive to their environment in terms of fear centers. They re more likely to choke.

Designing the research to explore this question, though, would also require researchers to know what kind of instruction the sportsman received: Was it encouraging? Was it abusive? That can play a role in whether someone is choke-prone.

One piece of evidence of a genetic link is research that looks at a gene involved in the reuptake of the brain chemical serotonin. A study published in the journal Science in 2002 showed that people with one version of the gene demonstrated increased fear and anxiety. Other genes have been shown important in the regulation of emotion. All these things could play into the likelihood of choking, or even a student s panic during a test.

Tension and stress appear to play a role in another curse of a bad golf game: The yips.

It s a cute name for the dreaded jerk that ruins a perfect putt.

Debbie Crews is part of a team studying yips, analyzing the brain waves of people who suffer from this condition, and categorizing its sufferers.

Not all people with yips are the same, she said. But she found some yippers are very left-hemisphere dominated: that nagging voice again.

I see left-side dominance lots of the time. But I wouldn t say that s going to be with all yips, she said.

Dr. Charles Adler, a professor of neurology at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., leads the yips research.

His work suggests that for a portion of folks although probably less than half yips may have more in common with writer s cramp or musician s cramp than it does with distracting self-talk.

His group brought 20 golfers into the laboratory to study yips. Half of the golfers complained of the problem, half had never experienced it. Electrodes were attached to the golfers bodies to monitor muscle activity. Ms. Crews monitored their brainwave activity.

In five of the golfers who complained of the yips, there seems to be a pattern consistent with dystonia, Dr. Adler said.

Dystonia is a syndrome of involuntary muscle contractions, often producing twisting, repetitive postures. It s what causes writer s cramp or musician s cramp, or uncontrollable neck movements sort of like Rodney Dangerfield s and even some eye twitching.

In the yips, normal wrist movement which should consist of an extension of one set of muscles and the complementary relaxation of an opposing set is awry. Both sets of muscles contract at once.

It s not a guarantee that it s dystonia, but it s suggestive of it, Dr. Adler said.

Performance anxiety can increase the likelihood one can suffer from this jerky disruption, and Dr. Adler s current work tries to look at golf situations outside of the lab in hopes of tapping into a little more anxiety.

Sometimes, a fatter golf club grip is enough to control the yips just the way someone who suffers from writers cramp sometimes can simply use a fatter pen, Dr. Adler said. Other times, golfers can change the way they hold a club and lessen the yips. Long putters also seem to help, since this necessitates a change in the way the golfer grasps the club.

There are no pills one can take for the yips, he says. Although the equivalent of a Botox injection to paralyze certain nerves in the wrist may hold some promise, it s yet to be tested.

A survey of golfers conducted by Aynsley Smith at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., found that the yips generally occurs in people who ve been golfing for a long time. They re usually middle-aged. And they re good golfers.

To some, this suggests that yips may be a repetitive movement disorder, something in the repeated effort of putting that sets off the problem.

But Dr. Adler doesn t buy that theory.

It can t just be considered repetitive use, he said. Most golfers are taught to putt without moving their wrists. It s a pendulum motion of the arms. If you re not moving your wrists, it wouldn t be repetitive motion. You re not planning to move your wrists.

In any event, just don t try to talk yourself out of it. Don t turn on that little voice. You ll only make things worse.

Contact Jenni Laidman at: jenni@theblade.com or 419-724-6507.


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