Sports and the Brain
Last week, I played my usual nine holes with our Old Guard group at the local par 3 course. It was a mixed sort of round for me, with a couple of pars on the hardest holes and a triple bogey on one of the easiest. On the last hole, a sand wedge from the rough put me about eight feet from the hole. It was a demanding sideways putt on a sharply sloping downhill green and I sank the putt for a fist-pumping par.
This past Sunday there was nearly-60-year-old Tom Watson, also eight feet from the pin on the last hole, needing what looked to me to be a much easier putt to win the British Open. At 81, I was among the millions rooting for old Tom but had the sinking feeling that he would miss the putt; and he did. It was a pitiful putt, not even close. Golf is a mental game and his aging brain failed him.
If you haven't played golf, you may question that the brain plays such an important role in the outcome of a golf shot. But think about it. Pro golfers spend hours upon hours on the practice range and on the putting greens. With such intense practice one would think that every drive should be right down the middle of the fairway and every relatively short putt should go in the hole.
Could Watson's failure to hole that putt be a case of an "ironic process of mental control"? In the July 3 issue of Science, Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner has a review article titled "How to Think, Say, or Do Precisely the Worst Thing for Any Occasion". In the article Wegner discusses the ironic kind of error, the error in which we specifically think about not doing something and then we go ahead and do it. The more we think about it the more likely we are to do it, particularly if there's some kind of stress or pressure such as a time constraint. If you're a fan of British TV sitcoms, it seems to me that Hyacinth's neighbor Elizabeth in "Keeping Up appearances" is a prime example. Every time Hyacinth invites her over for tea, Elizabeth thinks about not spilling her drink and/or dropping the cup. Invariably, she does just that.
Apparently, psychologists have found that, for example, the very act of deliberately trying to keep a secret makes one more prone to reveal the secret, if only in an indirect fashion. Apropos of Tom Watson, it seems that sports psychologists are quite cognizant of this ironic error stuff when it comes to certain athletes. Wegner specifically cites the case of putting and the ironic error tendency known as the "yips".
I certainly don't claim to be able to read Watson's mind but I know what I might be thinking if I knew that just this one putt stood between me and achieving something that nobody close to 60 years old has ever done, win a major golf tournament. I might be thinking, "For heaven's sake, hit it firmly (never up, never in) and don't push or pull the putt; follow through smoothly." It was a perfect setup for an ironic error - a tired brain and a uniquely stressful situation never encountered by any golfer his age. He did not hit the ball firmly and it looked to me as though he pushed the putt.
After reading about the ironic error, it occurred to me that I personally often have the yips, especially on short putts. If I have a putt that's a foot or so from the cup, I will almost always sink the putt if I simply walk up to the ball and tap it in quickly with one hand. However, if I set myself up in my normal putting stance with two hands on the putter, there's a good chance I'll miss the putt. I did just that with a one-foot putt last week in the same round that I sank the 8-footer. When I set up over the ball, I have time to start thinking, "Don't pull that putt.", my normal error when I miss a short putt. On long putts, I don't think they will go in the hole and don't tend to worry about pulling or pushing but concentrate on reading the green and am actually a pretty good long putter.
Well, so much for my golf game. Let's look at another aspect of the brain and its role in athletic performance. An article by Gretchen Reynolds in the magazine section of the New York Times last Sunday, July 19, reports on a study by Ed Chambers of the University of Birmingham in England and his colleagues published in a recent issue of the Journal of Physiology. Lance Armstrong should be aware of this study, if he isn't already. Chambers and his team showed how the brain can be tricked into boosting the performance of cyclists in an unexpected way.
Marathon runners and long-distance cyclists are often seen with bottles of sports drinks containing carbohydrates to not only quench thirst but to provide energy to power those hard-working muscles. But what happens if the cyclists, instead of swallowing the drinks, just spit them out? Chambers and his colleagues decided to find out what happens in a controlled study with endurance-trained athletes riding on stationary bicycles in a lab setting. The athletes were given one of three drinks. One was a drink laced with the sugar glucose, another with maltodextrin (a carbohydrate that is tasteless) and a third drink with artificial sweetener and no carbohydrates.
All the drinks were just swished around in the cyclists' mouths and then spit out. The cyclists who swished either the glucose or the tasteless maltodextrin were 2 to 3 percent faster than the cyclists who got the artificial sweetener drinks. The athletes were also subjected to functional MRIs and the researchers found that the brains of those getting the carbohydrate drinks "lit up" in the areas of the brain associated with pleasure or reward. The cyclists getting the artificial sweetener drinks had no such lighting up of their pleasure/reward centers.
Two important conclusions result from this study. First, the researchers seem to have shown that there are taste buds or receptors that respond not just to the sweetness of carbohydrates, but respond to carbohydrates themselves. Such receptors are as yet unknown. More important to the athlete is the conclusion that it isn't just the muscles or other organs such as the heart and lungs that limit performance but stimulation of the brain can provide an edge that could determine who wins the Tour de France or the New York Marathon. Hey, 2 to3 percent improvement doesn't sound like much but, in a field of highly competitive athletes, it could make the difference between winning and coming in second.
We've talked about ironic errors; wouldn't it be ironic if, after all the doping scandals in cycling and baseball, ruling bodies of the various sporting endeavors now have to come up with rules about how many and/or how often sports drinks can be drunk and/or swished during or shortly before an event? And can a host of new TV commercials now be expected that will boost particular sports drinks as guaranteeing improved performance in all sorts of athletic endeavors?
It occurs to me that perhaps swishing a sports drink might distract my brain from thinking about pulling that short putt. I normally just carry a bottle of water with me. I'll let you know if I ever get around to a definitive study on the influence of sports drinks on my golfing prowess. Oh, I almost forgot. Longtime readers will be shocked that I've talked about golf but have not taken the opportunity to mention my hole-in-one some years ago. I've now rectified that oversight.
Next column on August 6.
Allen F. Bortrum