ZipTip: Psychology: Bubbleheaded Putting
Thinking is Stinking! but my advice to "use your brain" stands. A great deal of the brain has nothing to do with that little voice we use to think with. Using the brain to putt means "shut up and putt" -- not bothering yourself with pointless thoughts, concerns, worries about the putt -- and the end result is your conscious awareness is empty except for the moment itself in a clarity that allows your brain-body to perform at its highest level.
THEORY: Here are some related points I've learned about putting:
As we become more adept in a skill during progress along the learning curve, our brain activation patterns dwindle and subside to a more focused and repeating neural circuitry for perception and movement only, without the internal self-talk and cognition that is initially needed to "get it" when we are learning something new.
The brain only works by consuming energy, so patterns of brain activation correlate with patterns of glucose metabolism and blood flow, which concentrate in those specific parts of the brain that are used for a specific process like thought, or fear, or sight, or movement.
The brain uses over 20% of the energy supply in our bloodstream, when by weight our brain is only 2% of our body, so obviously the brain is very greedy for our energy resources.
In almost all people, the verbal processes for language and analysis are heavily concentrated in the left hemisphere (the "dominant hemisphere") of the brain, whereas the processes for smoothly controlled movement in space are concentrated in the right (nondominant) hemisphere.
Anxiety and choking under pressure in putting are accompanied by brain activation patterns and energy consumption patterns that are not helpful because the appropriate areas of the brain for controlled movement are getting interference from the inappropriate (unhelpful) areas as well as having precious energy resources drained by the unhelpful brain activation.
Other bodily processes that influence blood flow and energy flow affect putting performance, as when digestive processes take blood flow from the brain and redirect the flow to the stomach and intestines, or when the fight-flight response constricts blood vessels in anticipation of a wound and bleeding and redirects energy supplies to muscles.
state in athletics is characterized in part by effortless performance, in
which the athlete's well-learned skill competences come forth in execution
without much worry, concern, or even "trying" to do well -- all
hallmarks of appropriate brain activation patterns.
During yoga and zen meditation, as well as in western-style relaxation techniques such as controlled breathing, the calm mind and body corresponds to a focus of blood and energy flow free from distractions.
APPLICATION: What all of the above is telling us about putting can be summarized fairly succintly -- "Thinking is Stinking." At least in the act of executing the putting stroke.
Clearly, there are matters to pay attention to, such as the slope of the green, the green speed, and so forth, but there comes a point in the routine where you simply have to "Shut Up and Putt." At this point, optimal putting comes from a calm mind and body and the absence of energy wasting by unhelpful thoughts and internal verbalization and even emotional feelings.
NoThink / "Stupid". The best way to get to a NoThink brain state is to stage your thinking out of existence in the routine. Pattern the routine so that you have special times and places for thinking and planning and worrying, with the idea in mind that it is the performance of this thinking that matters -- think well, think at your best level, and then move along with the doing. By the time the putterface has been aimed, thus summarizing all your thoughts about break and speed, your internal dialogue about the putt should be dwindling to a faint, hardly audible whisper far off in the distance. At this point, if you still have internal dialogue in your head, you probably did a poor job planning the putt and aiming the putterface -- so recycle and get it right. As James Dobson describes it in his book The Dewsweepers, good golf often feels like playing "happy stupid."
"Happy Stupid" Putting
Images of golfer brains reacting to stress and anxiety show the blood flow and energy consumption pattern:
NOT HAPPY OR STUPID -- Golfers reacting poorly to stress and anxiety about a putt with too much thinking and emotional turmoil (left hemisphere) interfering with motor planning and execution (right hemisphere pattern and submerged and obscured symmetric pattern on left).
Images from Crews, Golf Mag., Mar. 2001.
HAPPY & STUPID -- Golfer reacting more competently to stress and anxiety about a putt with less thinking and emotional turmoil (left hemisphere less active) thus allowing the motor planning and execution areas to have more resources and focused definition (right hempishere) and allowing the symmetrical areas on the left to emerge from the turmoil and contribute in a balanced way.
Second Thoughts. If you have thoughts arising spontaneously after you have set to the putterface and prepared to pull the trigger, it is invariably a destructive "second-guess" thought. These thoughts are valuable, but not helpful. Their only value and function is to warn you like a small blinking red light that "something is not right." However, they always come knocking in the disguise of "alternative plans" as if someone has had a better thought process than you did earlier. That's a lie! A second-guess is a feeling wrapped up in thought's clothing, and never ever open the door to such a predator. The feeling is a dis-ease physically (a vague sense of unease) that is born from the mind and the body having a conflict in their plans for the putt. The body is committed to going with Plan A in this conflict right or wrong, but the mind comes knocking and claiming that Plan B is correct afterall and that the body is headed for disaster, and an immediate change is required. What is really going on is that something about the body is out of kilter or is about to get thrown out of kilter by the mind. A second-guess is obviously not the end-product of the careful thought and observation like that just completed in your routine, so regard a "second-thought" as if it were really an emotional phantasm muttering scary words that sound vaguely like a plausible alternative Plan for the putt, but are actually nothing other than distraction. You really shouldn't go ahead with the putt in this state, so learn to value this sense of dis-ease, however faint, as a LOUD WARNING to recycle your routine until it goes away and the mind and body are on the same page about executing the putt. When they are, you will sense a nice "go" signal for the putt that let's you shut up and get on with performing the stroke.
NoFeel / "Happy". Great putters are always the same emotionally. Frankly, they just don't get worried. And Harvey Penick once said that you should always invite great putters over for dinner, because they make the most pleasant guests. As Ben Crenshaw says, "I don't have any big secret about putting. It's either going to go in or not." Brad Faxon likewise doesn't get too bothered about putts, regardless of how important they may be -- he just treats putts like shooting baskets with a pal in friendly competition. "Trying" is not a good word for Brad. Neither is getting upset or frustrated about missing a putt part of the optimal pattern. Bobby Locke once missed a very short putt; on the next hole he faced a 50-footer and calmly sank it. A spectator was astonished and asked him how he was able to stay so calm on the 50-footer after having missed that short putt. Locke replied, "Oh, you see, all putts are the same, just the distance is different." This episode reveals his "poise" on the green -- always the same, never hurried, never worried. The reason the great putters are nicely insulated from anxiety and stress is somewhat complex, but it basically boils down to the fact that anxiety and stress don't help much in doing what needs to be done to give the putt its best chance of sinking, and that's all the great putter really expects of himself every putt. The end result is a built-in preference for calmness that actively suppresses emotional or arousal fluxes. The great putter is at ease with his skills. As Jane Crafter says, "Competence makes its own confidence." Putting stays fun, but serious, regardless of the situation.
In the weightlessness of space, the bubbles of boiling water do not "rise to the top" as usual since there is no "up" in gravity-free space. Instead, the bubbles all bump into each other and merge into one single bubble inside the fluid. Similarly, in putting, if you stay in the weightlessness and timelessness of the "the moment," the boiling bubbles of emotional turmoil have a tendency to coalesce into one nice clear, calm bubble. And this allows you to keep the emotions from running amok and causing chaos with those parts of your brain carrying out the putt.
A Couple of Tricks: How do you get from "Scary Ghost" to "Easy Go"? What's a good way to promote getting Happy Stupid over the putt? Here are a couple of tricks:
1. Hum a low resonant note. Humming is a combination of exhaling and vocalization. Exhaling is the "relax" phase of the breathing cycle. And humming is very similar to meditative chanting. So far so good. But humming is also a form of "white noise" that actively suppresses the internal dialogue of thinking. Remember that Byron Nelson won the Masters humming the Blue Danube all Sunday.
2. Look down at the ball until you get interested in seeing it simply as a shape. When we pay close visual attention to something, our brains focus their resources. That means we get still, our eyes calm down, and the little voice in the head goes silent.
3. Suspend the tongue inside the mouth. When we think, we usually "mouth" our thoughts without our mouths moving any but nonetheless "silently" in our heads. Thinking with words, then, is accompanied by a tension in the tongue. If you consciously put the tongue back a bit so it is suspended in the cave of your mouth without touching the sides, and hold it still with just a bit of tension, you will have less chatter inside. Nick Faldo in his heyday often stuck his tongue tip lightly between his teeth when he was putting, but I think back is better.
4. Sense important parts of your body. Sensing the deadness and heaviness of your hands, or noticing the feeling of your left shoulder, are forms of "thoughtless cognition" that can help your putting. Similarly, paying attention to your breathing or heartbeat and imagining the feel of the perfect stroke with smooth tempo and action are positive behaviors that leave your mind unbothered with clutter.
So, to putt your best, keep your brain energy available for optimal performance by learning to like a NoThink-NoFeel state of mind once the moment of truth is upon you and it's time to pull the trigger and putt. At this point in the process, great putters just aren't thinking -- they're putting. The mind has its consciousness of what is going on, but it is a clear mind, like the clear air inside a clear bubble. No thinking, no emotional waves. When you look at a bullseye, what do you think? When you reach for a glass of water on the table, what do you think? Pure putting in the here and now. What is the sound of a perfect follow-through?
For more tips and information on putting, including a free 10,000+ database of putting lore and the Web's only newsletter on putting (also free), visit Geoff's website at http://puttingzone.com, or email him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.