It has been one of golf’s enduring mysteries: What is happening in that 3-pound gray organ between the ears just before a putt goes rogue instead of sinking smoothly, fatefully into a hole?
Stymied golfers, who might have tried all manner of modern technology, from simulators to customized clubs, now can turn to portable electroencephalography, or EEG, monitors to learn how to reach the quiet state of maximum focus that propels professionals into the winners circle.
“I am cautiously optimistic about the utility of … what neurofeedback does,” said Lindsay Thornton, a senior sport psychophysiologist at the U.S. Olympic Committee, whose equipment is much more sophisticated than that offered to noncareer athletes.
“Conceptionally, we are making the invisible visible; we are sort of peering under the hood,” Thornton said. Olympic athletes in sports from cycling to target shooting have added neurofeedback to training regimens alongside other high-tech devices.
Addition to the toolkit
Kelley Brooke, the first female director of golf at a major championship site, in this case Farmingdale’s Bethpage State Park, offers neurofeedback alongside more traditional lessons, such as teaching swings and stances, to those hoping to learn the calm concentration needed to excel.
“The point is to get you to a point where you relax,” she said.
Experts say sports in which the athlete initially is stationary, such as archery and golf, are especially well-suited to neurofeedback because movement interferes with the readings.
Overthinking is an athlete’s enemy, they say. “We actually don’t want a lot of prefrontal activity; that’s where thinking, planning, cognitive control, where they occur,” Thornton explained.
Once players assess the conditions and figure out their next move, they should go through the same routine motions before every shot, experts say, so the less conscious parts of the brain take over.
“If you are thinking about something from the past, anticipating something that is going to come in the future — you are not fully immersed in the pursuit,” Thornton said. “I want athletes paying attention and tracking visual cues. I don’t want them thinking a whole lot; thinking can slow you down; you want a quiet mind.”
Brooke says neurofeedback also helps her match her teaching style to pupils’ needs. “Anyone can play golf; you’ve just got to understand their learning styles,” she said.
With the portable EEG headset, “I can tell if they are auditory, kinesthetic or visual [learners],” she said. Those in the first category might learn best by listening; in the second, being placed in the proper position might work better; and the third group might gain more by watching videos, she said.
For people whose brains are dominated by the left side, as accountants tend to be, data are particularly useful; for the right-brained, often more artistic types, overall concepts are more important, she said.
Researchers say brains are “plastic,” meaning dominance is not wholly fixed. Scientists caution their research is far from complete.
For athletes, “The question is whether it has any value whatsoever to a person’s performance; I don’t know the answer to that,” said Dr. Steven Small, dean of the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas and founder of the Society for the Neurobiology of Language.
Referring to retail devices, he added: “I’m not sure the people selling this equipment have the final answer to that either.”
Brooke said neurofeedback also helps her see whether pupils are more motivated by fear of failure (“I need to make this putt so I don’t embarrass myself”) or hopes of success (“I’m going to be the hero.”).
Taking a test-drive
Two of her students (one a big handicapper, the other more experienced) agreed to be observed while wearing the headband EEG monitor. Sensors on the forehead gauge activity in the prefrontal cortex, where attention and executive decision-making occur, and sensors behind the ears reveal emotion, including anxiety, according to Debbie Crews, the founder of Opti Brain, maker of the device Brooke uses. There are more than two dozen similar machines made by different companies.
A companion app displays the sensors’ readings in three colors: red for most active, green for less active, and blue for least active.
“We use our focus to manage our emotions; our emotions certainly affect our focus of attention,” Crews said. “What we want to do is to help people balance all of this.”
As Brooke's big handicapper Ron Mirro, 66, of Wantagh, who manages Bethpage's pro shop, dons the headband, she assures him: “There’s no judgment here.” Observing the mainly greens and blues that appear, she says: “Overall, your brain scan is very relaxed; you’re not nervous.”
Mirro is not terribly surprised: “I think that’s my genetics; my mother was pretty mellow.” A few questions reveal that Mirro tends to be more of a right-brain, big-picture thinker.
He even maintains his calm after Brooke puts him under a bit of stress with a math problem.
Next up is a more experienced and outwardly more energetic student, Martin Green, 72, of Huntington, who has been pacing around the training area. “I think I’m a little bit more extreme than the average person,” he says.
A week earlier, Brooke says, Green was distracted by his work, so she suggested the brain scan.
“I thought she was crazy,” he recalls. “It turned out to be valuable,” Green says. His readings reveal a more left-brain type and with less-than-optimal concentration — at least at that moment. “I had to do some deep breathing as that came up,” he recalls. Such breathing can quiet the brain, experts say.
Brooke said that she uses the technology with all of her students except beginners. “We use it sparingly on the course,” she said. “We use it mainly for course preparation. The training prepares the student for the course.”
Highlighting the importance of teaching calm and focus, Brooke said: “This is the most amazing statistic I’ve ever heard: if you play 4 1/2 hours of golf, shooting 72, you’ve only played 147 seconds; the rest of that time you’re managing your mind.”