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Jul. 25, 2013

Does Posture Affect Putting? And Other Golf Questions, Addressed

by Mark F. Smith

Click to enlarge images
Do “quiet eye” moments help putting success? Where should
 I look when making a putt?
Where a golfer looks during the putt may reveal more about what’s happening in the mind during those vital seconds beforehand than first thought. Scientists from Canada and 
the United Kingdom have uncovered the role our brain’s visual motor control system may play in enhancing neurological efficiency throughout the stroke. More importantly, though, they have revealed a solution which helps all players, irrespective of ability, improve their putting performance.
 
Evidence presented at the 2012 World Scientific Congress
of Golf Science reveals that focusing on the ball in a particular way—dubbed “quiet eye” moments—eliminates unwanted distractions, and leads to more successful putting. Based 
on a number of controlled experimental studies, it has been suggested that the key is to spend around two seconds during the stroke concentrating on the ball and then, once impact has occurred, to continue staring at the same spot on the ground afterward.
 
It is thought that this approach is effective because it allows the golfer to take in only the necessary visual information required to make the shot. Focusing away from the intended task at hand can disrupt the functioning of millions of neurons in the brain that convert the visual information into movements of the putter. Given that putting is a hugely important part of golf, accounting for around 45 percent of the shots taken in an average round, researchers are beginning to acknowledge that this approach may be vital to success, improving both precision and accuracy, and preventing the breakdown of the movement under high levels of pressure and nerves.
 
Does a balanced posture affect putting success? How should I stand when putting?
Despite the relatively small body movements involved during the putting stroke, how a player stands and moves during those few brief seconds may reveal how posture at address and through the stroke could play a more important role than first thought in determining putting success. Top players look to create a stable, balanced, and solid base, along with a fixed pivot point to execute the stroke consistently. Without these, the putting stroke may not stand up under pressure.
 
Using the latest scanning technology, a study published in the Annual Review of Golf Coaching measured the pressure under the feet of both right-handed amateur and professional golfers while addressing the ball and making a strike. Recordings of the weight distribution between the right and left foot and the toes and heels revealed that amateurs place on average 20 percent more weight on the right side than left, with more pressure through their toes than heels. Professional players have a more even distribution, spreading pressure more consistently. When measuring the movement of pressure throughout the putt, the study also identified that amateur players created more sway during the putt while the professionals remained relatively still.
 
With uneven weight distribution at address, the researchers suggested that the amateur player is already placing their body in an “unbalanced” posture before they attempt the putt, meaning that any subsequent movements will simply be compensating. It has been found that many right-handed amateurs place a greater percentage of pressure on the right foot than the left, and more toward the right toe (vice versa for left-handed players) when standing still. When in the putting address posture the same pattern is observed; golfers with handicaps greater than 10 performed significantly worse than those with handicaps less than zero when both were asked to balance on one foot. Given the importance of postural stability before and during the putting stroke, using activities that improve balance can lead to a more repeatable and mechanically sound ball strike.
 
What can we learn from the brain activation patterns of top players? What happens in the brain during the pre-shot routine?
Successful golfers have the canny ability to refocus after unwanted distractions, have control over their thoughts and emotions, and employ cognitive techniques in imagining intended shot outcomes. In addition to these characteristics, top performers can also deploy consistent cognitive-behavioral strategies that are maintained throughout competition. One specific cognitive-behavioral approach used in golf is the pre-shot routine. This ritualistic sequence of events that, time after time, prepares the golfer for their shot, is a process of mental and physical rehearsal. What a golfer thinks during these vital seconds before the swing may begin to reveal what is actually happening in the brains of the top players.
 
By using functional magnetic resonance imaging techniques, otherwise known as fMRI, scientists from across the globe are beginning to observe fairly striking differences in the brain activation patterns of players during those all-important seconds before the shot. By examining the neural events in the brains of golfers while they are visualizing their normal golf swing, or performing their mental pre-shot ritual, researchers have begun to show that during these periods of mental rehearsal there is less neural activity in the brains of better players. At the lower-skill level, the typical swing is a complicated array of moves and adjustments, errors and corrections, anticipation and worry. Simply trying to organize thoughts and plan movements ahead of the strike can result in intense brain activity. With diminished brain activation occurring as skill level increases, it has been concluded that as a consequence of practice and experience, the tour player’s brain becomes less activated during these periods as their movement creation and shot planning becomes more automatic.
 

Reprinted with permission from Golf Science: Optimum Performance From Tee to Green, edited by Mark F. Smith, published by the University of Chicago Press. © The Ivy Press Limited 2013. All rights reserved.

About the Author
Mark F. Smith is a sports science expert, researcher, and avid golf enthusiast. With more than 15 years of experience in sports performance research, he has published in a range of leading international scientific publications, has worked as a scientific advisor for leading organizations, and is on the International Editorial Board for the World Scientific Congress of Golf Science. He lives in the UK, where he is a principal lecturer in sport and exercise science at the University of Lincoln.
 
 
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About Mark F. Smith

Mark F. Smith is a sports science expert, researcher, and avid golf enthusiast. He serves on the International Editorial Board for the World Scientific Congress of Golf Science.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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