Sir Charles Sherrington shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1932 and once wrote that the golf course could be used as a laboratory for the study of fundamental issues related to learning. More and more, mental coaches are realizing this and are using scientific studies in off-course laboratories to improve their knowledge and help their players. It’s a two-way street: They learn what a player’s problems are on the course, and incorporate studies off the course and often in research labs to help them.
Science, of course, has been applied to teaching the swing for many years. Dr. Theodore Jorgensen, a prominent physicist, studied the swing and wrote a book called The Physics of Golf. There are many more such examples. But mental coaching to train golfers hasn’t been as scientific an enterprise in a major way until recently.
Karl Morris is one of the mental coaches most interested in the application of science to golf. Morris, who tried to play the game for a living but realized he wasn’t up to the task, lives in Manchester, England. He provided a creative seminar on Oct. 22 at The Golf Lab, a sophisticated facility in Vaughan, Ont. The Golf Lab, led by former tour pro Liam Mucklow, has taken a cutting-edge approach to instruction. Dr. Gary Wiren, a PGA Master Professional who holds a doctorate from the University of Oregon, also spoke there recently.
Morris has coached current Open Championship title holder Darren Clarke, current Masters champion Charl Schwartzel, last year’s U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell and last year’s Open champion Louis Oosthuizen. He shattered some conventional notions of practice during his presentation.
An idea has taken hold that the golfer who hits thousands of balls is sure to improve. But Morris cited studies Gabriele Wulf has conducted in her lab at the University of Nevada Las Vegas that demonstrate it’s the quality of the attention, not the quantity of repetitions, that most influences improvement. Wulf’s field is kinesiology, with an emphasis on the control and learning of motor skills.
“Attention, not the number of practice swings, is what leads to change,” Morris told the audience of some 60 people, aged from 10 to 70. “And you must attend to one thing at a time.”
Citing Wulf’s work, he pointed out she’s concluded that there are two types of attention, internal and external. Internal focus attends to something in the swing, perhaps shoulder movement. External focus attends to what the club is doing. Learning is enhanced when the focus is external.
Jack Nicklaus, for one, always believed that. Intuitively, he understood what Wulf’s research demonstrates. Nicklaus focused on what the golf club was doing. It was his instrument.
Given the importance of attention, and that one learns better when focusing on one thing at a time, Morris asked why most golfers take three balls to the practice green. The answer is simple, Morris said. Golf balls come in sleeves of three. Practising with three balls compromises learning, because there’s no consequence to missing a putt. There’s always another ball. Morris was emphatic that every ball should count, and that every practice putt, and every swing on a range, for that matter, should have a consequence.
Along those lines, he advocates a practice game called Par 18 that his tour players use, with nine balls placed around a green. Three should be placed in easy positions relative to the pin position, three in medium positions, and three in difficult positions. One never plays a shot from the same spot. The objective is to get up and down in two every time, hence Par 18. Morris said that 20 is a world-class score.
But there’s another key element. The golfer serious about improving must write down the score every time, and play the game only once a day. A notebook is crucial. Research has demonstrated that learning accelerates when one commits goals and results to paper.
“You’re building in consequences,” Morris said. “You’re immunizing yourself against pressure.”
There was much more to his presentation. He cited the work of Elizabeth Loftus, a University of California Irvine professor who is a world-renowned expert in memory. Loftus is also a polarizing figure, in that she’s skeptical about recovered or repressed memory. Morris referred to her studies when he spoke about the importance of attaching emotions to good shots. He also discussed the significance of body language, and said that research shows that positive body language can alter one’s mood for the better.
“The key question is how you react after a bad shot,” he said. “[Padraig] Harrington [a three-time major champion who is struggling now with a variety of changes he believes will help him in the long run]has learned to smile even after a poor shot. This doesn’t mean not getting grumpy after a bad shot, though. You have about seven seconds to react honestly. Otherwise you release your inner caveman.”
Morris, ever practical, said a golfer should commit to keeping his eyes above the flag. Look up. Things will then look up. So says science.
“Change your body, change your mind,” Morris said.
Sherrington died in 1952. He’d have enjoyed Morris’s presentation at The Golf Lab. The late Moe Norman would also have enjoyed it. He always said, “Science, not violence,” when it came to golf.
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada’s Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and, most recently, he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 11 books, including The Natural Golf Swing, with George Knudson (1988); Links: An Insider’s Tour Through the World of Golf (1990); The Swing, with Nick Price (1997); The Fundamentals of Hogan, with David Leadbetter (2000); A Season in Dornoch: Golf and Life in the Scottish Highlands (2001); Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); and his latest, This Round’s on Me (2009). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein