Ask the Top 100: Swing with your eyes closed to find your balance

July 16, 2008

Dear T.J.,

I have trouble maintaining balance when I swing, and as a result I often fade the shot and lose distance. How can I correct this? — Chip P., Chattanooga, Tenn.

Dear Chip,

Your brain receives a continuous flow of information about the attitude of your body and when you stumble you body reacts to keep you upright. This unconscious self-preservation system is what I call “street balance” and any message that says “this container is falling over” triggers the automatic response — and no matter how badly you want to stay in your golf posture, you’ll straighten up and ruin the shot. The key to hitting consistently solid golf shots is to develop a swing where golf balance and street balance are the same.

Here is a drill that will be hard to do at first, but it will definitely improve your golf/street balance matchup. Take your address position, close your eyes and take a practice swing holding your follow through for a count of three. This is not as easy as it looks. (Of course you can’t see how good you look because, like a good student, you’re doing the drill with your eyes closed.) If you fall over, get up and do it again until you get the hang of it. Do this about 400 times over two weeks and you’ll be more balanced than a CPA’s checkbook.

Dear T.J.,

I am an 8-handicap living in St Augustine, Fla. On the rare chances I get to play the TPC Stadium Course, I turn into a 20-handicap. Yes, it is a difficult course, but I fail on the most basic shots that are routine on my home course. The last time I played there I dubbed it the “awe factor.” This creeps into my game any time I play awe-inspiring courses. Any suggestions? — Michael Parimucha, St. Augustine, Fla.

Dear Mike,

It sounds like you don’t have complete access to the part of your brain that controls your golf swing. Let me explain.

The culprit here is stress. Studies show that rats stressed by an electrical shock forgot how to negotiate a maze that they easily solved only minutes before. The “forgetting” matched the levels of cortisol, a major stress compound that’s in the blood when humans perceive themselves to be threatened. Notice the word “perceive.”

So you perceive the golf course as not a safe place and that causes stress. Why a beautiful place like a golf course can be perceived as threatening is a worthy topic of examination, but suffice it to say that once you perceive it as such, chemicals are produced that block full access to the motor memory of your swing. And like the rat in the study, you’re lost — the golf course is a maze that you can’t negotiate. It’s not complete amnesia because you can make a swing, but you can’t make your swing.

But here’s some good news: According to James McGaugh, director of the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the University of California, Irvine, “This effect only lasts for a couple of hours, so that the impairing effect is a temporary impairment of retrieval. The memory is not lost. It is just inaccessible or less accessible for a period of time.”
So rejoice that your swing isn’t gone forever, it’s just that you can’t retrieve it at will. Lose the perception of stress and you’ll be your old driving-range-self on the course. For some help in this regard see my book “The 30 Second Swing: How to Train Your Brain to Improve Your Game.”

Dear T.J.,

I can hit my irons perfectly straight and then, without warning, start hooking them 10 to 20 yards. I can’t seem to find a permanent solution. It happens quite frequently, usually after a perfect drive or on a par 3. I need help. — Bill Kolze, Des Plaines, Ill.

Dear Bill,Here’s the progression of your problem: You’re not trying to be perfect so your swing is un-manipulated, resulting in a Perfect Drive. But now there is pressure to capitalize on it and that means that you need to be perfect, so you slow your body during your swing and this causes the very error you were trying to avoid. What kind of a game would tangle us up like this!

Solution: In preparation for the next shot after the Perfect Drive, make a practice swing where you focus on keeping your core [navel] moving at the constant rate throughout your swing — then inject that thought into your actual swing.

Golf Magazine Top 100 Teacher T. J. Tomasi, Ph.D., a Class A PGA Professional, is the Teaching Professional at the Nantucket Golf Club on Nantucket Island. He is one of the most published professionals in the world.