It will not surprise some to know that a lifetime of golf affects the brain. Understanding the golfer’s brain can illuminate that journey, somewhat like reverse engineering. Particular activities and vocations make lasting impressions upon our mental hardware. A musician’s brain shows:
“Learning to play a musical instrument is a complex task that integrates multiple sensory modalities and higher-order cognitive functions. Therefore, musical training is considered a useful framework for the research on training-induced neuroplasticity.”
Similarly, a professional dancer’s brain reveals structural changes from the neural processing work demanded of that activity over many years. The region connecting the two hemispheres of the cerebral cortex is enlarged in both musicians and dancers. The professional golfer and those who have devoted large chunks of their life to this pursuit will show structural brain changes via neuroplasticity.
Why Do Golfer’s Brains Change?
Those of us who have embarked upon the mysteries of the golf swing via personal experience know how challenging this process can be at the beginning.
Once we have learned to walk as toddlers we do not spend a great deal of time thinking about how we achieve this mastery of ambulation and balance. Riding a bike is another example of this. Therefore, when we come to isolating the biomechanical sequences involved in swinging a golf club it is initially a tough gig. I have referred to the driver swing in previous books, as “dancing with wood.” If you think about it for a minute, the analogy fits, as we perform this ritualised series of movements, which must be executed perfectly for best results. Many players make practice swings in a parody of a repetitive modern dance movement. If aliens were watching this from above and knew nothing of golf what would they make of this spectacle happening on golf courses across the land? A strange mating ritual or war dance perhaps?
Biomechanical self-awareness is the ability to understand and control one’s own body movements and physical actions, particularly in relation to sports or other physical activities. It involves being aware of the body’s alignment, balance, and range of motion, and being able to adjust and control these factors in order to perform specific movements or tasks.
Having good biomechanical self-awareness can be important for a number of reasons. It can help individuals to move more efficiently and effectively, reducing the risk of injury and improving performance. It can also be helpful for those who are recovering from injuries or surgeries, as it allows them to safely and effectively progress their rehabilitation.
Developing good biomechanical self-awareness typically involves practicing specific exercises and movements, and receiving feedback from coaches or instructors. It may also involve learning about proper technique and form, and using tools such as mirrors or video analysis to help visualize and understand one’s own movements.
The Structural Changes In The Brains Of Golfers
Basic understandings of the two hemispheres of the cerebral cortex tell us that the left and right sides are responsible for distinct types of neural processing. The left hemisphere is involved in data processing, crunching numbers and such like. The right hemisphere experiences the big picture and in golf may be responsible for playing the shot.
“In general, the left hemisphere controls speech, comprehension, arithmetic, and writing. The right hemisphere controls creativity, spatial ability, artistic, and musical skills… the left hemisphere of the brain is responsible for language and speech and is called the “dominant” hemisphere. The right hemisphere plays a large part in interpreting visual information and spatial processing. In about one third of people who are left-handed, speech function may be located on the right side of the brain. Left-handed people may need special testing to determine if their speech center is on the left or right side prior to any surgery in that area.”
- (https://mayfieldclinic.com/pe-anatbrain.htm#:~:text=In%20general%2C%20the%20left%20hemisphere,%2C%20artistic%2C%20and%20musical%20skills. )
Take a moment to visualise yourself on the golf course and the various processes taking place whilst playing golf. On the tee you are checking the wind factor, the length of the hole, the positioning of bunkers and hazards. On and around the green you are examining the grass, the grain direction, the slope, and the distance your golf ball is from the hole. All of these variables are processed by the left side of your brain, in most instances, but the right brain is involved in spatial processing. Following this data crunching you come to play your shot or putt and this is most likely a right brain function. Coordinating all the many physiological and biomechanical processes required to swing the club in the perfect way for this specific shot is the remit of the right side of our brains.
Remember that computers are poor reflections of our own brains in terms of intelligence quotients and functioning abilities.
Returning to the slab and the forensic examination of the golfer’s brain. The buzz saw has removed the cranium cap and our neurosurgeon has lifted out the grey matter in his gloved hands to hold it aloft. What does he or she see? What signs of neuroplasticity are prevalent in the brain of the golfer?
“Several recent studies have shown practice-dependent structural alterations in humans. Cross-sectional studies of intensive practice of specific tasks suggest associated long-term structural adaptations. Playing golf at a high level of performance is one of the most demanding sporting activities… we report the relationship between a particular level of proficiency in playing golf (indicated by golf handicap level) and specific neuroanatomical features.”
“Skilled golfers revealed smaller WM volume and FA values in the vicinity of the corticospinal tract at the level of the internal and external capsule and in the parietal operculum. However, there was no structural difference within the skilled and less-skilled golfer group.”
- (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19277116/ Jäncke L, Koeneke S, Hoppe A, Rominger C, Hänggi J. The architecture of the golfer’s brain. PLoS One. 2009;4(3):e4785. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0004785. Epub 2009 Mar 11. PMID: 19277116; PMCID: PMC2650782.
Self-Awareness & Biomechanical Movements In The Golf Swing
A large number of recreational golfers avoid having lessons on this basis. You often hear on the tee grumblings from fellow players about the damage done to their game following a single instructional session. How anyone can realistically expect a seamless improvement after one golf lesson from a PGA professional is beyond me. The golfer can be a churlish curmudgeon wanting the world but unwilling to commit to the process of change. I know because I have been in those shoes myself. We have to pass through periods of discomfort if we are to emerge with a more effective golf swing. A lesson involves not only the teaching pro imparting knowledge about the golf swing but the player attempting the new sequence of biomechanical movements under the direction of the instructor.
The teacher will, also, give the player drills to practice in their own time following each lesson. Doing the drills frequently, in the mirror to ensure the correct procedure, will accelerate the integration of the swing changes or learnings. Doing this process changes your brain. If you take this understanding of the golf swing as a starting point on your journey as a golfer you will incorporate drills as a permanent modus operandi. This activity and processing changes the golfer’s brain. It can feel uncomfortable and be a bit like groping around in the dark in search of the light at times.
The golf swing is somewhat like an old fashioned clock forever running down. We all know what it is like to play a round of golf and to lose our rhythm and tempo. Suddenly, it seems, our body forgets how to swing the club effectively. If you have no understanding of where the golf club needs to be at various check points within your swing, then, you are in deep trouble. Another common complaint is from the golfer who is striping the golf ball with the driver for 9 holes and then, on the back 9 things go awry. This is often caused by our overconfident player speeding up his or her swing because things are going so well. Next thing you know, is that the timing of sequenced movements within the driver swing are out of whack – to use a technical term. Pulled shots and blocked shots send golf balls into trees and hazards rather than finding fairways. The walk in the park has suddenly become a struggle. Before you know it, the golfer who knows her or his swing is practicing drills on the tee in a bid to recover their tempo. Those strange dance steps and hip thrusts our aliens were so concerned about. The beginner and the non-student of the game are lost and all at sea in this instance.
“Human neuroimaging studies have demonstrated that exercise influences the cortical structural plasticity as indexed by gray or white matter volume… we scanned 28 elite golf players in comparison with control participants, using a novel neuroimaging technique-quantitative magnetic resonance imaging (qMRI). The data showed myeloarchitectonic plasticity in the left temporal pole of the golf players: the microstructure of this brain region of the golf players was better proliferated than that of control participants. In addition, this myeloarchitectonic plasticity was positively related to golfing proficiency.”
- (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35420729/ Shao X, Luo D, Zhou Y, Xiao Z, Wu J, Tan LH, Qiu S, Yuan D. Myeloarchitectonic plasticity in elite golf players’ brains. Hum Brain Mapp. 2022 Aug 1;43(11):3461-3468. doi: 10.1002/hbm.25860. Epub 2022 Apr 14. PMID: 35420729; PMCID: PMC9248307.
“The cerebral hemispheres have distinct fissures, which divide the brain into lobes. Each hemisphere has 4 lobes: frontal, temporal, parietal, and occipital (Fig. 3). Each lobe may be divided, once again, into areas that serve very specific functions. It’s important to understand that each lobe of the brain does not function alone. There are very complex relationships between the lobes of the brain and between the right and left hemispheres.”
- (Mayfield Brain & Spine – The Anatomy of the Brain.)
Everything is connected upstairs and our left brain tendency to look for ever smaller particles and to specialisation does not do the brain justice in terms of understanding how it works. It is the interconnectedness of our brains and bodies which underpin the complexity and fine functioning of things like motor skills. You cannot pin the tail on the donkey in neurological terms when it comes to charting the golf swing.
In some ways, we are outsourcing a lot of the data processing inherent in playing the game of golf via the use of technology like GPS. The modern golfer amasses a cornucopia of digital devices tracking his golf swing and surveying the course ahead. The magical processing that used to happen inside our heads is now on display within devices carried by golfers.
In large part, this is the game in a nutshell. Our brains must measure the perfect physical input to achieve the desired outcome. Prior to this, our survey of the land, which is now enhanced by technological aids, feeds us the data upon which to make the call on what force is required for one of 14 clubs best selected for the task. This is what we call touch and feel. It is this which is so admired in the professional and elite golfer, as we watch their skill around greens to get up and down repeatedly. Our brains expand in regions like the left frontal lobe via frequent use of this data processing.
One can observe the beginner on the links as she or he struggles to correctly adjudge the distance of putts and chips. It is common to battle with your short game after a lengthy absence from the game. These skills must be utilised regularly to keep them sharp. So much of modern life is being outsourced to computers and this is happening in golf too, with the use of GPS and launch monitors. However, swinging the club and stroking putts cannot be done by outside agencies, according to the current rules of golf.
The human ability to concentrate and focus on specific tasks is a complex and multifaceted process that is essential for many aspects of everyday life. It involves the ability to direct and sustain attention, to filter out distractions, and to retain and process information effectively.
Concentration and focus can be influenced by a variety of factors, including individual differences in cognitive abilities, personality traits, and environmental conditions. Some people may naturally have a greater ability to concentrate and focus, while others may struggle more with these skills.
There are several strategies and techniques that can help to improve concentration and focus. One of the most effective strategies is to eliminate distractions and create a conducive environment for concentration. This may involve reducing noise, minimizing interruptions, and removing clutter and unnecessary distractions.
Another important strategy is to break tasks down into smaller, more manageable chunks. This can help to prevent overwhelm and make it easier to stay focused on a specific task. It can also be helpful to set specific goals and deadlines, as this can provide motivation and a sense of progress.
Taking regular breaks can also be beneficial for concentration and focus. Allowing the mind to rest and recharge can help to prevent fatigue and maintain productivity. Some people find it helpful to use relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or mindfulness meditation, to clear their minds and refocus.
Developing good habits and routines can also be helpful for improving concentration and focus. This may include establishing a consistent sleep schedule, eating a healthy diet, and engaging in regular physical activity, which can all contribute to overall cognitive functioning.
Overall, the human ability to concentrate and focus is an important skill that is essential for many aspects of life. It can be improved through practice and the use of effective strategies and techniques, and is essential for achieving success and fulfillment in personal and professional endeavours.
Most sporting activities are throwbacks to primitive times, which is why they have been dominated by testosterone fuelled males until recently. The expanded appeal of the game and all sports to our much loved female co-inhabitants is an enriching thing, in my view. One of the most invigorating elements of the game of golf is that we must swing those clubs ourselves and walk around the course. Labour saving devices are all well and good but they are also killing us via our sedentary modern lifestyles. The secret to good golf is walking the course, if you are physically able to do so. The natural rhythm of the ambulating golfer best serves the tempo of the swing. However, those golfers who require motorised carts learn to adjust their speed and tempo to their golf swing. The love of golf means many aged and infirm golfers play with the help of mobility aids right up until the very end of their lives. This is another great thing, as golfers of all ages get to play with and against each other thanks to the handicapping system. A club golfer encounters a myriad of generations and learns to respect the elderly among their cohort. There is nothing quite as deserving of appreciation as watching an octogenarian cracking a 200m drive down the fairway.
We are learning to process spatial data and to apply fine motor skills on this basis. One can, perhaps, stretch the analogy to declare that golfers learn to have good judgement. Whether that skill can be transported beyond the spatial to matters of morality and justice may depend upon the individual. The golfer has to weigh up the situation by processing the available data. Bringing this skill to matters beyond the rub of the green may serve us all well. Taking the time to get the balance right is a good idea in most instances.
- Golf changes your brain.
- We all lack biomechanical self-awareness & have to work at it.
- You have to go beyond your comfort zone to achieve mastery.
- Commit to at least 6 lessons if you want to improve your golf swing & game.
- The left & right hemispheres of the brain play their parts in playing golf.
- Do the drills your instructor gives you to practice.
- Accept the fact that your golf swing will go awry at times.
- The game of golf demands fine spatial judgement.
- Practice makes perfect, if you keep it up.
- Get into the rhythm & groove to play good golf. Tempo is the glue that holds your swing together.
Robert Sudha Hamilton