What Are You Looking At?

January 20, 2014 Jon Roy

There has been significant research into the role of the eyes in the golf swing – but I think a good starting point is to say that the eyes can be really important allies in our game.  The eyes are the primary vehicle for gathering information and for designing the “trajectory” of our next shot(s).  The eyes recognize beautiful holes, can read lines, recognize the direction leaves are blowing, see where your opponent misses their putt, and on and on…

But like that famous line from Ry Cooder – “that which makes you rich will make you poor” – the eyes are also one of the greatest inhibitors of our natural athletic motion when we get on to the actual “strokes” in golf.  During the actual swing, for those 2-9 seconds we refer to as our “play box”, the eyes can do a significant amount of harm as they seek to control our stroke and gather information to our brain at a time when we need none.  The truth is that our best chance at performing in an optimal state requires that our eyes move as little possible during the “stroke”.  In the world of sport science we call the phenomenon “Quiet Eyes”, and this relates particularly to target sports – like free throw shooting, putting, serving in tennis or volleyball, rifling, etc… (see the work of Carol Vickers – Quiet Eye )

But of course the eyes cannot be blamed.  They are simply fulfilling the role they’ve been designed to do.  A role which has been critical in the survival of our species, but one which is quite detrimental to the improvement of a golfer.

Historically, the eyes are of critical importance in protecting us from oncoming danger.  For instance, if you were trying to cross the 401 highway (for some strange reason) then before you place your first step on the highway your eyes will be darting left, right, up and down in order to identify oncoming dangers and to protect you from running into things.  In fact, the fear you feel as you prepare to cross the highway is what triggers your sympathetic nervous system and activates the eyes to protect your life and to assess the dangers that may harm you..  And, amazingly, what you feel over a four foot putt is exactly the same fear (as far as your mind is concerned), and so once again your fight or flight reflex is activated and the eyes work furiously to protect you.  It sounds crazy, but your mind can’t tell the difference between real and imagined dangers, and in both cases it will  activate the self-preservation reflex and then the eyes will get to work to protect you.

In short, when you feel any sort of fear or anxiety you activate a function of your nervous system which makes your eyes move all over the place in order to gather information and protect you.   And this is a great trait in the world of tigers and other predators, but one which is completely unnecessary in the world of golf (unless you’re playing in the Sahara).

The other function of your nervous system, and the one that is ideal for performance in sport, is called the para-sympathetic system.  This is a function of our nervous system which slows our heart rate, allows us to reduce tension, and ultimately is the key to performing at our potential – devoid of the interferences of tension, anxiety, and rapid heart rate variability.  Also called the “rest and digest” state, it is comparable to the feeling we get as we ease into our favourite chair at the end of a hard day – a peace and tranquility where our surroundings become blurred and our focus is incredibly sharp on one thing only.  Our body and mind enjoys this aspect of the nervous system, but this state is very tough to achieve in the face of any fears, stresses, or anxieties…

But unfortunately we DO feel fears when we play golf, as ridiculous as that would sound to a non-golfer, and while they may be tough to avoid it doesn’t mean that we can’t recognize the physiological implications of this and work to counter them.  Principally, we need to recognize that anxiety makes our eyes move a lot, and that eyes moving a lot makes it really hard to perform in our optimal state.  We need to recognize when our body is switching to the sympathetic system and then re-route the process back to the rest and digest state.

We can take actions to restore your optimal state and to evade the consequences of moving into the fight or flight reflex.  Classic examples of steps we can take are found in visualization practice, breathing, and practicing control of our gaze.  In the work we did over the past weeks, we try to see the target even though we may be looking somewhere else (i.e at the ball) – effectively occupying the mind with a vision so that the eyes don’t work to create one…

It’s been a fascinating topic to study at the domes, and we look forward to continuing this practice of moving from one state to another as we train – all in the name of evolving as golfers and working to create a different experience of the game once the snow melts in a few months…You can practice your golf swing all you want, but our opinion is always that we need to equally practice the state we’re in when it comes time to swing…

See you soon, and in the meantime try to keep your eyes occupied (with the target) while you swing.

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