The Frontal Cortex

Tiger Woods

Like so many golf fans, I’d never even thought about watching golf on television until Tiger Woods. I don’t play the game and the images of all those manicured greens and hushed crowds always struck me as incredibly boring. Why would I want to watch a game that seems to consist mostly of people walking?

But then, one day, I saw Tiger play the game. And now I’m a PGA addict. I spent way too much of the weekend (and most of a Monday afternoon) camped out on my couch, watching Tiger and Rocco perform acts of finesse at the US Open that I can’t even begin to comprehend. There’s a certain pleasure in watching a sport that you have never attempted: my brain has no idea how someone can take a graphite stick and then, by altering the subtle details of their stroke, make the ball go 110 yards instead of 115 yards, or put so much spin on the little white orb that it hits the grass and rolls backwards.

Watching Tiger Woods reminds me of one of my favorite scenes from John Updike’s novel Rabbit Run. Rabbit, the hapless protagonist, is playing golf with his Episcopalian minister and is trying to explain what he’s “chasing in life,” what he “wants from it all.” Lacking the eloquence to put his desire in words, Rabbit takes a swing. To his surprise, he hits a booming drive that flies down the fairway, a divine straight line diverted only by gravity. He turns to the minister and says, “That’s it.”

What Rabbit is saying is that he wants to taste perfection, even if the taste only lasts as long as a golf swing. The joy of watching Tiger is that we get to bask in a similar state of grace, even if the grace comes in short bursts on the back 9, or on a 20 foot put on the 18th hole. We get to see someone who is better at this – a silly game – than we will ever be at anything. In every other sport, I root for the underdog – when I’m watching golf, I always root for Tiger.

And then, the obvious question: How does he do it? What makes him the best? The body speaks for itself. Tiger has muscles where most golfers have man boobs. He looks like he’s made entirely of fast-twitch fibers. However, while such a Promethean body might be a necessary part of athletic perfection, it is hardly sufficient. As the Nike ads make clear, Tiger’s real secret is his mental toughness. Here’s David Brooks:

Rocco Mediate’s head swiveled about as he walked up the fairway of the sudden-death hole of the U.S. Open on Monday. Somebody would catch his attention, and his eyes would dart over and he’d wave or make a crack. Tiger Woods’s gaze, on the other hand, remained fixed on the ground, a few feet ahead of his steps. He was, as always, locked in, focused and self-contained.

In a period that has brought us instant messaging, multitasking, wireless distractions and attention deficit disorder, Woods has become the exemplar of mental discipline. After watching Woods walk stone-faced through a roaring crowd, the science writer Steven Johnson, in a typical comment, wrote: “I have never in my life seen a wider chasm between the look in someone’s eye and the surrounding environment.”

But Tiger isn’t just focused. If he paid exquisite attention to his stroke while playing in the US Open, if he obsessed over his torqued wrist or the rotation of his hips, then he wouldn’t have won: he would have choked. That’s what happens when you think too much.

If anything, Tiger’s astonishing talent is to focus on not being focused. He concentrates on tuning out his consciousness, on ignoring the little voice in his head telling him that he needs to make this shot, or that he must avoid the sand bunker on the left. I have a feeling that if you imaged Tiger’s brain while he was preparing to swing a golf club you’d see the following:

activation in specific neural systems associated with conflict monitoring (e.g. the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex), selective attention (e.g. the temporal parietal junction, ventro-lateral prefrontal cortex, frontal eye fields) and sustaining attention (e.g. right frontal and parietal areas and the thalamus)

That’s the sequence of neural events in the brain of a Buddhist monk practicing meditation. It’s what happens when the mind dissolves into itself, when self-awareness vanishes into the flow of automaticity. Bradley Hatfield, a professor of kinesiology and psychology at the University of Maryland, has led some cool studies on the particular brain wave patterns emitted by expert athletes (golfers, archers, rifle shooters, etc.) when they are performing in their domain of expertise. Like the monks, Hatfield found that these athletes, at least when compared to novices, inhabit a brain defined by its tranquility. Unlike novices, who exhibit all sorts of errant spikes in EEG – their brain is humming with conscious thoughts, noticing all sorts of irrelevant stimuli – the EEG of experts was eerily consistent, from beginning to end. In particular, there was dramatically reduced activity in the left temporal lobe, an area implicated in “feature detection”. It was as if the expert athletes were no longer paying attention to the outside world, or even to the movements of their own body. They didn’t have to think: they were in the zone.

Tiger, of course, is the epitome of such expertise. When I watch him play golf, this is what leaves me most in awe: his ability to not think. To not think about his knee, which is going to scream in pain after his tee shot. To not think about the tens of thousands of people lining the fairway or the millions watching on television. To not think about his career or the possibility of winning his 14th major. To not think about the mechanics of his swing or the last shot he yanked to the right. To not think about anything at all. For once, the corporate motto is right: just do it. And that’s what Tiger does.

Comments

  1. #1 amybuilds
    June 17, 2008

    It’s funny, I like Tiger Woods, I think he has energized the game of golf. He has given it so much in recent history, he has inspired a generation, and he’s broken some serious stereotypes.

    BUT every time it comes down to a tournament like the one this past weekend, where one man is standing down the machine, I tend to root for the man.

    I agree with your comment that it is a good feeling to watch someone do one thing better than I can do anything. But when Tiger goes into the “zone” I don’t feel like I’m watching “someone” anymore. This place, this “zone”, seems eerie, you describe it as tranquil, I’m wondering if another word might be empty.

  2. #2 jkottke
    June 17, 2008

    After Tiger’s 2006 PGA Championship win:

    Only at the end (after he won) did he acknowledge the crowd. Said “I know I walk with my head down alot, but that’s because I’m focused on the game. I do hear everyone and I thank you for your incredible support.”

  3. #3 Scott Belyea
    June 17, 2008

    I have some of the same feelings as amybuilds, and I’m probably also reacting against what can only be called the idolatry with which Woods is often treated (and this includes the TV commentary).

    Not to take anything away from him; he’s the best of his era by a considerable margin, and is a remarkable athlete both physically and psychologically.

    Th only two sports that I watch a bit of are golf and tennis, and for the same reason – the psychology of each is of paramount importance and quite fascinating.

    Another superb example of rising to the occasion was Roger Federer’s 2007 victory at Wimbledon. Nadal had multiple chances to break Federer’s serve in the first half of the fifth set. As Nadal served at 2-3, the commentators were expecting an easy service game for Nadal followed by another serious attempt to break Federer.

    Instead, Federer broke Nadal’s serve quickly, held his own serve even more quickly (3 aces and 1 second serve that Nadal couldn’t handle), and then broke Nadal again to win the set 6-2 and the chanpionship. This was as good an example as I can recall of someone having the mental strength to seize the moment.

    Wood’s accomplishment is of the same calibre in terms of mental strength.

  4. #4 Brad A. Greenberg
    June 17, 2008

    I had the same experience this weekend. I’ve played golf maybe five times in my life and rank it somewhere behind billiards and stickball on my list of favorite sports. But after watching Tiger eagle the 18th on day three, I was hooked. I watched most of his round Sunday and left the TV on as I worked all day yesterday.

    His degree of focus is just ridiculous.

  5. #5 Scott Belyea
    June 17, 2008

    Wood’s concentration is not unique. George Plimpton has an anecdote in Bogey Man illustrating Ben Hogan’s focus. While walking to the next tee, Hogan asked his playing partner what his score was on the preceding par 3 so that Hogan could record it on the scorecard. His partner (whose name escapes me) stopped and said in astonishment, “Ben, I got a hole in one.”

  6. #6 Mark P
    June 17, 2008

    While I recognize the skill with which Tiger plays golf, every time I see a game of golf, or tennis, or many other games, the comment comes to mind unbidden about being “the best in the world at hitting a ball with a stick,” and then it seems pretty silly. Even with all the money.

  7. Focus is the key word. Did you hear the announcer’s comments (every day of the US Open) about the mental pressure/focus that the golfers were dealing with?

    I believe that Tiger’s dad, Earl Woods, is a huge factor in Tiger’s unbelievable focus. Here’s what he said, in part…

    “You don’t really instill anything into a child, you encourage the development of it. But I would do all kinds of things to mess him up. Just as he was beginning to swing, I’d drop my whole bag of clubs. And he would stop, and look at me, and grit his teeth.

    And then he would strike it, and turn around and look at me – and never say a word, but that look said…?

  8. #8 Scott Belyea
    June 17, 2008

    comment comes to mind unbidden about being “the best in the world at hitting a ball with a stick,” and then it seems pretty silly.

    Indeed. Or as Michael Flanders said in his monologue about the tennis umpire (“…the British umpire, on whom the sun never sets.”):

    As I sit up here hour after hour, I am struck by the thought, “They are bashing a ball with the gut of a cat.”

  9. #9 Anonymoustache
    June 17, 2008

    Good article, Jonah.
    I think Tiger is indeed focused but he is focused on the correct thing. Whether it be a drive or a shot or a putt, he is focused on the picture. He has said on many occasions that his dad trained him to ‘putt to the picture’. So his focus is not on the mechanics or the outcome or the crowd or the consequences but simply on what needs to be done to the best he can visualize. Once he gets comfortable with the ‘instant preplay’ (as I like to call it) in his mind’s eye, he pulls the trigger on the shot. This is where his immense confidence and self-belief come in—he practices a swing to fit the picture and then goes to it without wasting time and energy on mechanics or the crowd or the enormity of the moment.

  10. #10 Dan
    June 18, 2008

    Great points, Jonah.
    You’re right that Tiger does shut out the crowd, the pressure and the surface doubt (“I can’t bogey this hole!”). But, in his book, “How I Play Golf”, he describes the incredible decision making process he goes through for every shot. Distance to hole, quality of lie, wind, hazards, slope of green, etc. Most good/pro golfers go through this process, but I believe his list of variables are much more detailed and, more importantly, he has learned how to solve the equation correctly. His “focus time” on the course is actually his “computation time” to solve the next puzzle.

  11. #11 jb
    June 19, 2008

    A very interesting post as are the comments. As a meditator tho, I’d like to clarify “Self-awareness dissolving into automaticity”. This is not ‘spaced out on autopilot’, but rather spontaneous action arising out of total awareness of the situation without a split into self and other, ie there is no experience of ‘me hitting the ball; there is just ‘hitting the ball’. Great performances in which this happens can evoke the state of mind of the performer in the spectator even via TV. Magic.

    A BC? cartoon also comes to mind. A golf pro, as he tees up says to the novice: “The object is to hit the ball as few times as possible.”
    The novice replies, “Why hit the ball at all?”
    Last frame: golf pro still standing there.