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What Are You Looking At?

Glen Coombe, The Putting Doctor

GCAA Contributor

The question above is the magic question to be considered and asked of student-athletes competing at all levels of sport.  Gaze in golf is critical to success but focus of attention is even greater.  From eye tracking to target visualization the eyes are the key to success or lesser performance. 

In an eye tracking study of elite and near elite golfers researcher Joan Vickers found that near elite athletes had on average nine targets during a putt sequence vs. the elite athlete who had only one to three.  In her book “Perception, Cognition and Decision Training” she also delves into the subtitle of the book “The Quiet Eye in Action.” Quiet eye techniques are quite startling in their effectiveness. 

When we consider the where of a student’s targeting during pre-shot or pre-putt routine we can offer some solid fundamental keys.  In my area of expertise putting, we begin with the definitive entry point into the hole based upon a clock face, coupled with the aim point related to breaking putts.  During the solid and repeatable routine, a stalking of the putt, my students raise the intensity of each putt.  They take in the big picture of the green as they approach from the fairway.  Once identified as to the type of green shape they are contending with, aim ability is brought to bear.  Decision making is in process as the golfer analyses all the factors related to the task at hand. A solid routine allows the finer senses to help the golfer understand what will be required to roll the ball on the appropriate line with sufficient pace to make or stop past the hole no more than a foot past.  Allowing both visual and kinesthetic speed and distance input to be accepted by the subconscious is a critical part of training done prior to competition and the memory of this experience will be unlocked during the pre-putt process.

In full swing from the tee box or fairway asking the student to refine their target to the smallest visible area has shown to minimize distractions and further diminish outside negative attention paid to trouble, which may or may not be in view.  Simply stated we’re taking the targeting to a highly refined target not the trouble spots.  The smaller the target the more refined the Focus Of Attention, more on F.O.A. shortly.

As we consider targeting it should be that we encourage the student to consider each shot from a cause and effect standpoint, making solid decisions as to what the target should be while analyzing the potential results.  Allowing the student to discuss the target out loud will offer keys to the state of mind and the ability to course manage through the round.  Proper targeting and realistic expectation begins on the tee box with the proper side of the box selected and a highly defined landing area chosen for the resulting shot.  Without a solid plan the outcome is as much in doubt as the process. Planning during practice rounds may include yardage book hole layouts with past landing points marked vs. aim points taken, as well as multi round competitive results from the same course.  Realistic shot making decisions result from solid mental processing and routine, routine, routine.  It is said that baseball great Joe DiMaggio used a single fan in the crowd as his F.O.A. when batting.  From the fairway if the base of the flag staff is visible I suggest using the edge of the cup as the focus of attention and personally this has resulted in directly holing out from the fairway! Refine the target and keep it as your focus of attention.

In her study Vickers used two groups with different quiet eye targets to test the effectiveness of each.  It was found that the quiet eye gaze target placed toward the rear of the ball was much more effective than that of placing it on the top of the ball as viewed from address.  The quiet eye gaze target is simply a single dimple filled with a felt pen.  When using an alignment line on the ball the quiet eye dot will be at the rear of the line at address, see the photos below of the appearance of both versions.

                 

In practice on the green with ball in hand the student will, either using an aim line or without, place the ball so that the dot is at the rear of the ball but visible at address.  Once the ball has been placed and the aim or aim line verified the true work begins.  Now with the line of the putt committed the student will proceed with the final moments of their repeatable routine.  Many of my students will use a three stroke waggle immediately adjacent to the ball while gazing at the entry point into the hole.  This is a feel related exercise and should be done with the intent to replicate the amount of enthusiasm to be applied to the ball with the putter.  When stepping into the ball I have my students take precise and careful aim with heightened attention to the aim line of the putter if present, again attempting to raise the critical intensity of the process.  Using as neutral a setup as possible the student is now in a position to make a good putting stroke but the critical point is yet to be realized.  From address the final gaze down the target line is made with only the head pivoting on the spine, resisting any temptation to look up and open the shoulder line.  As the eyes follow the path of the intended putt out to the aim point and then to the entry point it should be noted that the kinesthetic movement of the turning of the chin to the target will also assist the non-conscious side of the brain to access the stored memory of similar input related to speed and distance.  Try this yourself from an address position and as you rotate your head try to keep your eyes in the same straight ahead reference in the ocular sockets.  You may notice a different sensation telling you that your gaze has been wandering as you check your line during your pre-shot routine.

Now, for the magic of quiet eye, when the eyes are allowed to track back slowly to the ball at address the student is asked to allow their gaze to settle on the quiet eye dot for approximately 200 milliseconds (2 seconds).  This pause while keeping the focus of attention, the mind’s eye if you will, on the target will in fact be the switch that allows the conscious brain to quiet and the non-conscious to execute the desired shot.  The state is called Mushin or as we’ve referred to it forever, “The Zone.”  In fact we are dividing attention between the ball and target with the mind’s eye or focus of attention on the target. This should be the most finite target the student can identify related to the desired outcome.  The entry point into the cup while putting or base of the flag from the fairway, even a mower stripe from the tee at a specific point on the fairway may be the mind’s eye focus of attention.  Separating gaze from focus of attention is the goal.

This is a good time to discuss the conscious and non-conscious activity of the brain.  When we refer to these as left and right it should be noted that the brain is very interconnected and there is no definitive left brain / right brain but for convention we refer to the conscious as left brain and the non-conscious as right brain.  The easiest explanation and one that seems to resonate well with students is as follows.  The left brain or conscious control is capable of approximately forty commands per second in sequential fashion command after command.  This is at first blush a very rapid pace.  That is until we consider and explain to students that the non-conscious or right brain is capable of executing up to eleven million commands per second in non-sequential fashion!  Of course many of these commands are related to the everyday physiology and biology of our bodies, but there is exceedingly more computing power and decision making ability in the non-conscious than the conscious. Like so many automatic processes controlled by our non-conscious brain the delivery of the putter or golf club when guided by the non-conscious is proving to be much more effective than that of any attempt to consciously control the club.

We have all heard and recognized that “getting out of our own way” can be effective in executing the golf swing.  I tell coaches that the verbal and written references used as lip service to “getting into the zone” are conceptual in nature while some have been effective, some not so.  The athlete who excels one day only to return the next with lack luster results may have actually been in focus for too much of the round.  Finding the switch and being able to access non-conscious execution  should be learned. From the standpoint of being able to turn focus off as well as on, spending four plus hours “in the zone” will almost guarantee mental exhaustion and a following day collapse as related to the earlier round success.

Greg Norman was the first professional golfer to refer to the state of Mushin (pronounced Moo-Shin) at the 1996 Masters following his first round 63.  His daughter had introduced him to the martial arts thinking and terminology in 1994.  Translated as “the mind of no mind” Mushin refers to what we in golf might call “the zone.”  It is the transfer of active control from conscious to non-conscious and the results are staggeringly effective.  Sadly Norman played three consecutive rounds in Mushin and the last not quite so in his loss of the major he wanted badly to win.

Training in the techniques outlined above are simple to implement during practice.  Advances in technology now allow us the use of wireless EEG for bio-feedback to quantify focus, quiet eye and the switch from conscious to non-conscious or Mushin.  The use of video and audio feedback allows coaches to advance training goals and to pursue higher levels of acceptance of these techniques.  Understanding the brain and how vision is the major contributor to the senses related to athletic endeavors should be a major topic of study for coaches wishing to raise the levels of their programs. While brain waves and bio-feedback may send the more stoic of coaches running I know many are ready for this new frontier.

So, What are you looking at?

Questions?      Please feel free to contact me at GlenCoombe@PuttingDoctor.net

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