How Your ‘Brain’ Hits A Golf Ball

I recently came across a ‘debate’ in a PGA coaching forum about how the mind is more important than swing mechanics. This isn’t a simple topic, but I decided to share what I think I know about the topic to explain why this question is impossible to answer, yet interesting to discuss.

Thanks to modern science most of us have a sound idea of how the body works. We can think of our brain as a super-computer, we have wires that lead from our brain to our muscles and electrical signals cause them to contract. Our muscles then pull against our bones and apply forces – voilà we have a golf swing.

Sadly, swinging a golf club isn’t that simple.

Nonetheless, within the complexity of controlling movement lies some real insight into why golf is so dam hard and how we can think differently about improving our swing and coaching others.

The simple process

The golf swing is a perceptual-motor skill, meaning we take in information via our senses to perform the movement. Before you make a swing you assess the distance to your target, the lie of the ball, wind and many more elements.

This results in a rough idea of the movement you need to make, based on your previous experience of performing similar actions.

As you stand over the golf ball ready to swing, yet more information pours in. Your eyes fixate on the golf ball and its location. Receptors across your body provide information about balance, pressure and the position of your limbs.

This information is synthesised in a region of your brain called the supplementary motor area and a plan is generated. Shortly afterwards, we see a burst of activity in the motor cortex which is the main area of the brain responsible for activating and controlling complex movements.

Electrical signals are sent down pathways via your spine and out to your trunk, arms and legs. Muscles are suddenly firing in a beautifully, orchestrated manner – a golf swing produced.

Is this correct?

Yes – the outline above is a pretty sound explanation of how a golf swing is produced. But it neglects a really important part of the process.

The golf swing isn’t a 1 millisecond bang of activity, instead it is a 1.5 second block of muscle contractions, feedback and updates. 1.5 seconds is a long time in the the human body. Let’s look at what goes on during this time to control the golf swing as this is where true ‘skill’ lies.

Why we feel our golf swing

Our brain sends signals to the muscles to start the golf swing, but the brain also makes a prediction of what the golf swing should feel like if performed correctly. I know this sounds strange, but it is in fact a genius solution to a really complex problem.

Consider how you would know if the club head is moving correctly during your backswing? Or how you would know if you are correctly balanced at the top of your swing?

Well, one solution is to predict what the swing should feel like then wait for the true feedback to come back to the brain from our sensory organs. If you compare these two signals and they are the same they will cancel each other out and the golf swing will feel ‘effortless’. We all know how good those effortless shots feel and how straight they seem to fly.

Your body does some simple maths: predicted feedback minus actual feedback. If the two are identical they cancel each other out and the golf swing will feel effortless.

When there is a difference between our predicted feedback and the feedback we receive from our body, we can sense something is wrong and try to correct the golf swing. Amazing really isn’t it?

In the scenario above the actual feedback doesn’t match the prediction. In this hypothetical scenario your backswing feels wrong. You try to correct the swing, but the mismatch in feedback continues throughout your swing.

How we update our swing

This process of move – monitor – update is a continuous cycle that goes on throughout the 1.5 seconds of your golf swing. I’m sure you can relate to knowing you’re about to hit a bad golf shot at the top of your swing or half way down. Or in golf lessons when a player says ‘I know I’m going to hit a good one when I get my takeaway correct’.

Well, the process of predicting and comparing feedback is what underlies that certainty of a good shot or feeling of dread. During those bad-feeling swings your predicted feedback and actual feedback are different. You body senses you are in trouble and things are not going as planned.

This leads to our first insight. Great golfers don’t just have great golf swing, they are also capable of predicting what a great golf swing should feel like. This ability to predict is critical for keeping your swing on-track; from take away to impact.

For a century or more we have referred to this as feel. Great players have great feel, now you can see why the concept of feeling is synonymous with elite performance. You need to be able to feel (predict) to know your golf swing is on track.

What controls updates during the swing?

Here is where things get weird.

The task of storing and comparing feedback is carried out in a part of the brain called the posterior parietal cortex. When we cause a virtual lesion in this area of the brain (zap it) this ability to update movement disappears. Two further parts of the brain are also activated during these updates – the primary motor cortex and cerebellum.

Interestingly, studies have shown that we can update movements in our hands as quick as 70 millisecond (0.07 of a second). This timeframe is not long enough for a signal to travel from our hands, along all of the wiring to our brain and back down again to update our muscle contractions.

What does this mean? It means your spinal cord is actually responsible for these updates and controlling a lot of the movement during your golf swing.

Your spinal cord is far more than a length of wiring. In fact, it is a really complicated set of electrical loops, switches and pedals that can switch muscles on and off in a few milliseconds.

Our current best guess is that your brain acts like a Cox in a rowing boat – it shouts out the commands, but your spinal cord are the rowers in the boat controlling the movement.

A lot of the muscle contractions and updates are managed by loops that run from our sensory organs to the spinal cord. Further demonstrating the importance of sensory feedback when swinging a golf club.

In this sense the brain isn’t directly controlling movement. Instead it oversees the process.

What about muscle memory?

This leads nicely onto the next point – No, your muscles don’t have a memory. But in a bizarre fashion our brains don’t directly control movement either.

Instead, view swinging a golf club as a decentralised process. Your brain certainly plans and delegates, but your spinal cord and thousands upon thousands of sensors and spinal pathways are also involved once the golf swing has begun.

Is the brain more important than swing mechanics?

Here we get to the bottom of the opening question. Is the mind more important than swing mechanics? My viewpoint is that it is impossible to separate these two.

Your swing mechanics are a product of the brain taking in lots of information and creating a plan. A more interesting question is what should you ‘think’ about during your golf swing and how can you use this information to train golfers more effectively.

What should I think about?

This is known as your focus of attention, your focus of attention is not where your eyes are looking, but what thoughts are occupying your conscious mind. For example, you could be looking at your work laptop, but dreaming about playing Pebble Beach. In this example your focus of attention is Pebble Beach, not work.

I’ve written a full article on this topic here, but in short, it appears thinking about your target leads to increased performance and learning compared to thinking about your golf swing.

That said, these findings are only true for beginners and researchers are starting to agree the same is not true for experts. Many elite players do think about their golf swing and we think this is possible because swinging a golf club isn’t cognitively challenging for them, as the movement is so well engrained.

The best advice I can give you is to use your conscious brain to focus on one thing you feel is useful. It could be your target, it could be a swing thought, just try to keep your swing thought consistent between practice and play.

Your conscious mind doesn’t control movement, but can disrupt it. This of your motor system as a high-trained set of chefs creating magic in a kitchen. Your conscious mind is like a hyper 8-year old running around causing chaos in the same room.

A swing thought is just there to try to distract the 8-year old for long enough while the the chefs work their magic. It doesn’t actually matter how you distract the hyper 8-year old, just find something that works.

What does all of this mean for coaching golf?

I think there are two really important lessons for coaches and players.

Developing perceptual and cognitive skills

First, we must remember technique (the golf swing) is a result of the all the sensory information taken in and subsequent cognitive planning. However, often we try to change the movement without diving into the perceptual and cognitive processes that lead to that movement.

The golf swing (technique) is a result of what comes before. Do you think Tiger Woods, a 5-handicap player and beginner look at the same 12-foot putt and see the same information?

Of course not, so how can you expect them to make the same putting stroke, without training them to understand the information and plan movements.

Developing feel

The second lesson pertains to coaching feel. We now know being able to sense what the golf swing should feel like is critical for performing it correctly. But how do you coach feel?

The honest answer is I don’t know, but I do think about this question frequently. There is no getting around the fact that developing feel takes practice, but I would argue feel could be learned quicker with the two tricks below:

More variable practice – practicing from different lies, with different clubs and with different tempo swings should broaden the feel-landscape of a player. This type of practice should help golfers detect the difference between two actions and refine their ability to feel to correct action.

Secondly, when changing a players technique more focus should be placed on making incorrect variations of the movement as well as correct moves. The player needs to be able to feel the difference between the old swing, new movement and an over-exaggeration of the new movement.

What does this mean for practice?

This findings again points to the importance of varied practice, you should mix up practice, spend more time on the golf course, play more skills games. To develop the perceptual, cognitive skills and build feel.

But….and it is a passionate but. Please don’t think variable practice is a magical solution. Varied practice should be used in moderation. There is a reason all great golfers spend time beating balls on the range.

The range is a stable environment where your body can refine movement and hone its understanding. When you are first making a swing change or building skill use the golf range and use blocked practice.

When you can hit 7/10 shots well, start hitting a few different clubs, hit shots in batches of 5 balls. When you can hit 7/10 shots well in this practice structure, spend more time on the golf course and playing skills games.

This gradual process of adding in more variability is pictured below. Imagine before a swing change your performance is a hypothetical ’60’ on the left axis. Straight after a swing change your performance will dip – hit the range and use blocked practice.

Then gradually add in more variability as you begin to hit 70% of shots well in practice. This exact process will vary from player to player, but what I’ve outlined above is a good starting point.

As you keep progressing move from beating balls onto skills games, then onto the golf course. Over a period of time you will develop a new level of skill that is higher than your previous benchmark.

In summary

The golf swing is a 1.5 second chunk of movement. Your golf swing isn’t separate from your brain. Your technique is a result of the information you take in and the plan you make to solve the problem of hitting a golf ball.

Think about how you can develop the perceptual and planning skills via practice as well as developing a technique. This is where a lot of untapped golfing skill lies.

Finally, value the ability to feel the difference between good and bad swings. being able to feel this difference will help you make more good swing and update poor swings before it is too late.

Feel free to come join the Golf Insider Weekly Post if you would like a free email sent to you every Monday. Don’t worry most are a lighter read than this one.

Happy golfing – Will @ Golf Insider UK

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A PGA golf professional, with a PhD in Biomedical Science and MSc in Sports Biomechanics & Psychology. I currently spend my time lecturing part-time at Leeds Beckett University and working with elite athletes. In my spare time I build Golf Insider UK.

2 thoughts on “How Your ‘Brain’ Hits A Golf Ball”

    • Hi Micky,

      I am quite dreadful with spelling. However, this one is actually an SEO issue, most of my audience are from the US and Canada. Some articles where I use practice and practise don’t rank for the search terms as well in the US. That being said, all the other spelling mistakes and typos are my fault – I’m slowly getting better, but I’m still a 28 handicapper when it comes to writing.

      I hope it doesn’t detract too much from the content.

      Kind regards,

      Will

      Reply

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