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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Playing Brain Games on the Course

Monday night I watched a half-hour TV show on the National Geographic Channel called Brain Games. (Here's the show's website, in case you're interested. The video page has several shorts that give you an idea of how the show works.) It's the first time I've ever seen it, but I was fascinated by it.

This particular show was about how stress triggers the "fight or flight" response in your brain and how it affects your performance. NGC did a special page for this show at this link, if you'd like to take the tests that were on this episode. (You can also see part of the stress episode on this page if you scroll down.) I want to tell you about a specific test they did late in the show using the old kid's game Perfection with the help(?) of standup comedian Ben Bailey.

Perfection gameIn case you aren't familiar with Hasbro's game Perfection (pictured at right), it's pretty simple. You have 25 different shapes that you have to put into their corresponding slots in the board before the timer runs out. It's a shape recognition game.

Here's the deal: They asked people to play the game BUT with Bailey's "help." That means that he yelled at them, berated them, and just generally made a pest of himself. Less than half of the group successfully completed the game.

Then they did it again, only this time Bailey was calm, he tried to be helpful, and he was encouraging. And under these conditions, most of the players won the game.

The show concluded that you can improve your performance through better stress management, and you could accomplish that by eliminating distractions as much as possible and replacing them with a positive, more relaxing environment.

This helps explain some of the golf advice given out by mental coaches -- and even instructors. For example, you keep hearing that you should play by feel and not with a lot of swing thoughts. That's to help remove some of the clutter (distractions) that can affect your performance. In effect, too many swing thoughts create a "ticking clock," just like the one on the Perfection game; you have so many things to do in a short time frame that it increases your stress.

In addition, if you're afraid you're going to forget some of those swing thoughts, that's another source of stress. So simplifying your swing thoughts can eliminate two sources of stress!

Although they didn't play all the things Bailey said when he was being encouraging, I didn't hear much of the "come on, you can do it" kind of talk. He was commenting how well the participants were doing certain things, or offering guidance that reinforced their good performance. In other words, if you're going to use "self-talk" you don't want nebulous "you can do this" talk. What you want to do is reinforce the things you're doing well.

For example, when your practice swing is nice and smooth, you want to tell yourself things like, "Yeah, that's it. Nice and smooth. That's the way you want to strike the ball. Do it again, just like that." And after you make the swing, find the good in what you did and talk to yourself about that.

We saw players multiplying their stress at Torrey all weekend... and it destroyed their chances to win. Don't do that to yourself. Remember: Pressure comes from within. You can learn to control your stress on the course if you choose to.

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