What your brain is doing when you putt How to

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Dec 4, 2003 - these aspects first using your mind, then no amount of practice and technical skill will consistently make the ball go into the hole. And your mind ...

Want to know the difference between a good putter and a bad one? Look no farther than

Simple as it seems, the putt is one of the most sophisticated of all sport skills. To this day, it has defied scientific understanding and stands alone in golf and all of sport as one of the big mysteries yet to solve. The problem isn’t the mechanics of the stroke. Anyone can take hold of a putter and hit the ball in an acceptable manner. This is readily apparent if you watch a novice on the green as opposed to on the tee, where you can spot a beginner in an instant. And it is not unusual to find golfers who are very good at getting on the green but have a terrible time once there. Why is putting so difficult? All putts have slope, curvature and distance problems. If you don’t solve these aspects first using your mind, then no amount of practice and technical skill will consistently make the ball go into the hole. And your mind does not solve the slope, curvature and distance problems unless your eyes first detect the right information at the right time. By recording under laboratory conditions precisely what golfers see while they putt, my team of researchers in the Neuro-Motor Psychology Laboratory at the University of Calgary are beginning to figure out the mystery—what separates really good putters from the rest. We call it the Quiet Eye.

By Dr. Joan N. Vickers UNIVERSITY OF CALGARY Illustrations by +ism Photo by Corbis xxx

Golf Digest.com

DECEMBER 2003

ALL PHOTO & ART CREDITS • WILL GO HERE • AS SHOWN

The Quiet Eye

What you see when you putt The two overhead views below show the differences between a skilled golfer who is good at putting (right) and a skilled golfer who has trouble on the greens (left). The skilled golfer focuses his gaze on a precise spot on the back of the ball,

his scans from the ball to the hole are more direct and he fixates his gaze on a specific spot inside the cup. The poor putter does not select a specific target to fixate on, but instead directs his gaze to a number of locations on and around the hole. There is no clear definition of his target or his line of gaze from the ball to the target. His gaze on the ball is all over the place. He has a shorter Quiet Eye duration because he is unable to keep his gaze quiet as he strokes the ball.

Steady scan path

Erratic scan path

Fixations on the hole and ball are shorter, with no clear definition.

Target is clearly defined, with longer focus on the ball.

Good putter

Poor putter Tests of skilled golfers who are poor putters reveal that they fail to fix their gaze on a specific location on the ball. Where you fix your gaze matters less than for how long.

What is The Quiet Eye?

A Quiet Eye occurs when your gaze remains absolutely still on the ball just before and as the stroke is performed. There are two important aspects to this essential trait: location and duration. Our research has shown that golfers who putt well focus their gaze on either the back of the ball or the top of the ball. Which is better? Both locations are effective in improving accuracy, and a weight of evidence is beginning to favor the back of the ball. We’ve also studied Quiet Eye duration, most recently by comparing a group of LPGA players against a group of beginners. The expert putters had a Quiet Eye dura-

tion of two seconds on average, while the less-skilled players held their gazes steady for 1.5 seconds. The same type of result has been found in a number of other sport skills such as rifle shooting, darts, billiards and the basketball free throw. In putting as well as in other hand-eye-target skills, a Quiet Eye is emerging as an indicator of optimal focus and concentration. Why is it absolutely essential that you develop a Quiet Eye when you putt? It’s simple—your hands are controlled by your brain, which does what your eyes tell it to do. As you putt, your brain needs to organize more than 100 billion neurons. These

Good putters keep the gaze very still on a specific location on the ball just before and as the stroke is performed. The duration of the Quiet Eye averages two seconds.

neural networks are informed by your gaze, and control your hands, arms and body as the stroke is performed. These networks will stay organized for only a short period of time; a window of opportunity opens that must be used when it is at its most optimal. This is the Quiet Eye period. Take two skilled golfers, one being good at putting (above right) and the other poor (above left). In the illustrations, both are performing a short putt on a flat surface. Using the sophisticated eye-movement tracker technology detailed below, we’re

able to monitor precisely what they focus on and for how long. This skilled putter fixates on the back of the ball where the putterhead will contact it. There is little uncertainty in the mind of this golfer where the target is. A skilled putter picks out a specific location on the hole, such as a blade of grass on the lip or feature on the cup. The target is not the hole itself, and certainly not around it. Instead he focuses his gaze on a target only a few millimeters wide. Skilled golfers use rapid-eye movements, called saccades, in which no conscious information is processed, to link the specific spot on the hole with the specific location

on the back of the ball. In terms of time, he fixates on the spot for one to two seconds and then uses saccades between the spot and the ball of 300 to 500 milliseconds. (There are 1,000 milliseconds in a second; you become aware of something after about 100ms, and it takes about 180ms to see something and make or correct a movement. By recording micro-movements of the pupil and corneal reflex, we can also show the difference in gaze control throughout the putting stroke. The skilled putter maintains fixation at the same location at the back of the ball through the backswing, foreswing, contact and for almost

half a second after the ball is struck. His gaze stays in exactly the same location relative to the position of his feet, indicating his gaze does not move. This is very difficult: Most often, the gaze moves when the club contacts the ball. When golfers stabilize this part of their routine they are more accurate. There is a sureness in a good putter’s gaze about where the target is and what he wants the ball to do. Contrast this to the gaze of a very good golfer who has trouble putting. This golfer does not select a specific target to fixate on,

HOW WE MEASURE THE QUIET EYE TO DETECT THE QUIET EYE (OR LACK THEREOF) DURING THE STROKE we use a helmet-like device called an eye tracker (far left). It is outfitted with two miniature digital cameras and a visor that looks like clear glass but acts like a mirror to the cameras. The first camera (labeled “A,” Inset image) focuses on the center of the pupil and the corneal reflex, which is the reflection of a small light source from the center of the cornea. Two sets of crosshairs record their locations. By measuring both, the system tracks eye-line of gaze in the scene viewed. The second camera (labeled “B,” near-left image) records the golfer’s gaze, which is indicated by the yellow cursor. The location of the gaze is acALL PHOTO & ART CREDITS • WILL GO HERE • AS SHOWN

curate to less than 1 degree of visual angle—a degree of visual angle is about a third the width of your thumb held out in front of you at arm’s length. Last, a third camera positioned in front of the golfer records the stroke at the same time (image “C,” middle left). All three images are sequenced in time so we can record what your eye, gaze and stroke are doing every 33.33 milliseconds. Because images A, B and C are synchronized perfectly we can answer questions like: What did you look at the moment the club hit the ball? How did this affect your accuracy? What did you look at as you read the green, and how did this affect the result? J.V. xxx

The Quiet Eye HIGH

LOW

LOW

Brain Activity

Brain Activity

HIGH

Skilled Golfer

A Quiet Eye routine on straight putts has the following characteristics that you can easily learn. Repeat this process two or three times or until you feel you understand the putt. ✔ FOCUS ON THE HOLE: As soon as your putterhead is set behind the ball, pick a specific location on the hole where you

LOW

Brain Activity LOW

PATTERNS OF BRAIN ACTIVITY VARY FROM THE SKILLED GOLFER TO THE beginner. New golfers tend to have lower activity scattered throughout the brain. The experienced golfer tends to know what to focus on and does this with more intensity and activity. Over all, the skilled golfer shows “harmonized” activity throughout the brain. This is similar to the keys on the piano. Certain combinations of notes create greater harmony than other combinations: They may not all sound the same but are beautiful when put together in specific patterns. The brain maps shown above represent the amount of activity at 10 locations in the right and left hemispheres of the brain for two individuals, a novice golfer (left) and a skilled player (right). The activity is averaged over the final second before initiating the putting stroke. The two components of importance include the amount of activity

How to develop your Quiet Eye

Left hemisphere HIGH

Left hemisphere

HIGH

What your brain is doing when you putt

Brain Activity

but instead directs his gaze to a number of locations on and around the hole. There is no clear definition of his target or his line from the ball to the target. And his gaze on the ball is all over the place. He has a short Quiet Eye duration because of his inability to hold his gaze still. Golfers who have trouble putting do not select a single spot on the target but let their gaze roam all over the hole and surrounding green, they have a shorter duration of fixation on the hole, and they use saccades that are either too fast or too slow between the hole and the ball. The golfer’s gaze is unstable as he hits the ball—in this particular test the golfer’s gaze moved toward his front foot as he hit the ball. This erractic scan path and fixation clouds and confuses his focus and concentration. It’s evident that his brain is getting a jumble of signals about where the hole really is and what he wants the ball to do. (As the related article at right shows, noted golf researcher Dr. Debbie Crews of Arizona State University is also able to determine the brain-activation patterns among golfers; the skilled putter achieves a “harmonic” state in the brain while the novices show chaotic activity, particularly in the area of the brain that controls vision.) Skilled putters have developed an efficiency in their gaze control that differs greatly from novices. Further tests show when skilled golfers make putts, they take less time and use fewer gazes per putt than when they miss. When they made putts, they took about eight seconds per putt and used 10 gaze fixations, saccades and blinks combined. When they missed, they took longer and used more gazes per putt. The novices had a completely different gaze-control strategy. They were more accurate when they took more time, and used more gazes per putt. These results reveal an important point. With golf skill, there is a quality in the information absorbed that translates to better performance. Beginners do not have the same ability to extract meaning from each gaze, to help the brain solve the location, slope, curvature and distance problems. It’s better to take more time and use more gazes to build up the putt over time, until you begin to develop understanding of what you are seeing. However, the key is to get out of the novice gaze routine and

Novice Golfer

want the ball to go, such as blade of grass or very small feature on the back of the cup. ✔ ‘SEE’ THE BALL GO IN: Look at this location for one to two seconds and visualize the ball going into the hole. ✔ SCAN FROM BALL TO HOLE: Saccade, or glance, without interruption from the target to the

Right hemisphere

Right hemisphere

(yellow is high, blue is low) and the balance of activity in the two hemispheres. Of these two components, the balance of activity is more important. The optimal state is harmony, all areas of the brain firing synchronously and creating a coherent state of activity. You can see this higher state of harmony in the more balanced brain-activity patterns in the right and left hemispheres of the skilled golfer versus the unharmonized, lower—“bluer”—patterns of the novice. The brain is designed to be as efficient and effective as possible. During each look at the hole or target the golfer needs to have time to go there in the mind and return. These looks are meaningful as the brain gathers the information it needs to create the motor program. Novice putters look repeatedly at their targets at a fast rate and have diffuse brain activity. In contrast, expert putters look to the hole

slowly with focused intensity. When the brain reaches a harmonic state, there is nothing left to do except putt the ball in the hole. Interestingly, the occipital area of the brain, the area that controls vision, shows a reverse pattern compared to the other brain regions. Skilled putters show less activity at this location just before the stroke compared to novice putters because the processing is complete and no new information is being provided. The skilled putter knows where to look; the occipital area has completed its work. It simply harmonizes with the rest of the brain. Novice putters with varied eye patterns remain active in this brain region as if the processing is never complete. They lack the Quiet Eye. DR. DEBBIE CREWS, Arizona State University

back of the ball, taking about a half a second. Your gaze should move smoothly and efficiently. ✔ EYE ON THE BALL: Fixate on the back of the ball for a second and imagine just the right contact of the putterhead on the ball. Picture a line through this contact point to your spot on the hole. ✔ STAY STEADY: Maintain a

Quiet Eye on the one spot on the ball during the backstroke and forward stroke and through contact for a half-second. Don’t peek! Only after this, take a look at your ball going into the hole. A word of caution: Some golfers I work with have a timing that goes like this: Focus for a couple of seconds on the hole, a

half-second from the hole to the ball and back, repeat two times, then focus on the back of the ball during and after the stroke for two to three seconds total. Their timing routine becomes everything to them. They forget the reason the Quiet Eye routine is used in the first place: to optimize the information needed for each

putt. Your Quiet Eye routine should not become a rigid counting exercise; this is not the main reason it’s important. It is important because it allows you to become smarter about each putt. Once your brain has its information, the stroke is easier to perform and your confidence will rise as your scores improve.

The 1 ilne italic goes here and goes here about who the person is who wrote this and it looks like this and this.

DECEMBER 2003

Golf Digest.com

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The Quiet Eye

develop the shorter, more focused routine used by highly skilled putters. The notion of being in “the Zone” or of “flow” in sport has been around for a long time. But until now there has been no scientific evidence that the Zone exists, let alone has measurable characteristics. Perhaps the Quiet Eye will emerge as one of the objective measures. A Quiet Eye is all about focus at one of the most important moments in the putt, and with a longer duration of Quiet Eye they virtually make time slow down. This contributes to the harmonization of their brain activity. Under stress, the Quiet Eye is often the first thing to go. It moves with the stroke, and golfers lose their ability to stabilize their gaze as they putt. When you choke, the billion cells in your brain lose their effective complexity in solving the slope, curvature, distance and location problems. Golfers have long been told to hold their head still when they putt, and certainly this is important. As Tiger Woods has said, “If you’re like me, you can’t wait to see if the ball is tracking toward the hole right after the ball leaves the putterface. But the urge to glance up too soon has some nasty consequences. The tendency to peek too soon causes my head to move and leads to sloppy contact.” It may be that stability in the gaze and a Quiet Eye is even more important, as this is the source of the information you need to make the putt. If your gaze is moving when you hit the ball, the commands to your brain that set your gaze in motion were sent through your brain about 180 milliseconds before— sometime during your swing. The Quiet Eye is the glue that keeps your neurons from being scrambled when placed under stress. It supplies the right information at the right time. Over all, the Quiet Eye has the essence of simplicity alluded to when a golfer’s in the Zone. More research and time will tell; but in the meantime, the Quiet Eye is something that you can easily learn and add to your putting game today. TK Vickers bio, with a reference to her website and golfdigest.com to see more complete technical information and graphics. TK TK

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Golf Digest.com

DECEMBER 2003

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