How Memory can Improve Your Golf
IMPROVING GOLF PERFORMANCE BY ENHANCING PROSPECTIVE AND RETROSPECTIVE MEMORY
Memory retrieval increases the likelihood of future retrieval of the same memory traces. It is this effect that we are counting on in practice so that we will improve our access to features of our performance and reduce competition from the adaptive forgetting of outdated or ineffective adaptations.
In golf training, we are hoping that the retrieval process of practice will stabilize memory, making recall more durable and presumably more retrievable under pressure. We also hope that practice, though its repeated retrieval attempts, will induce forgetting of other competing memories (i.e., past “swing” habits that were discovered to be ill-suited to performance parameters).
It is now reasonably common knowledge that memory is not an exact reproduction of our past experiences, and that it is reconstructive and, as such, vulnerable to many kinds of errors and distortions. In the course of a golfer’s training, he/she has the opportunity to update memory to serve the purpose of strengthening motor memories. This memory “reactivation” can contribute to the valuable process of strengthening existing memory representations, while reducing the power of competing memories.
Golfers should be trained to carry out an invaluable learning application, a post-training or post competition imagery drill, which we have given the unfortunate title, “Reactivation Induced Memory Enhancement”, or its friendlier acronym, RIME. This exercise enables athletes to avoid post-event “misinformation effects” by strengthening memory, particularly for complex skills, such as the golf swing, and for the purpose of reducing “competition” from stored memories of outdated swing approaches. The goals of golf training programs should be to improve knowledge and skills, and to increase the resilience of these structures after periods of disuse. In addition, well organized training should enable a player to transfer his knowledge and skills to altered environments.
The brain’s “default network”, which up until now has been a fairly mysterious, complex amalgam of brain regions, has been the focus of research performed by our UCLA group led by Dr. Robert Bilder. In addition to our discoveries, those of a Harvard research group, led by our friend, Dr. Dan Schacter, have demonstrated that there are close connections between brain structures associated with past memories, and the regions of the brain that are activated when we imagine or simulate our future performance. In golf, sophisticated performers are keenly aware of the fact that how they “visualize” or plan these mental simulations will contribute significantly to the effectiveness of their response.
Probably the most popular of the mental training techniques which have also been shown in rigorous scientific studies to have positive effects on performance would be the application of simulations, or the visualization of future events, which includes specific information about the athlete’s intentions. Creative visualization is a cognitive process involving the generation of, or the recreation of, multiple sensory percepts, preferably in “real time” sequences. Visualization and guided visual imagery have been shown to have very positive effects in a wide range of sports, as well as other domains, including clinical and therapeutic interventions.
Through the generation of mental imagery that serves to simulate future events, golfers can increase the probability of executing their intended manipulations in future situations that demand high performance. These exercises are known to reduce anxiety and fear, as well as to provide a plan of action that can be activated when confronted by the situations imagined previously.
Jason Day is a talented golfer who has ascended dramatically in the Golf World Rankings to the number one player in the world in 2015. Jason has won a coveted “major” tournament title, the PGA Championship and is expected to be a consistent winner for years to come. When I first began working with Jason several years ago, he was reluctant to use visualization consistently. He was unable, at first, to get clear pictures of shots he wanted to hit in his head without closing his eyes to block out competing sensory stimuli. Jason is a modest young man and did not want to bring attention to himself by becoming “the guy who makes a big deal out of visualizing”.
It is not uncommon for professional athletes in spite of being well aware of the potential benefits of mental training techniques, to fail to apply these techniques consistently. There is no question that even top players do a fair amount of “temporal discounting”, the tendency to devalue an approach or reward, because of it’s temporal distance from the present. To circumvent this problem, and to increase Jason’s sense of his proximity to the imminent reward, we recommended that he visualize himself accepting the winner’s trophy. There is no research that finds that simply visualizing the consequences of competition, such as our trophy presentation example, is enough to make a powerful impact on performance. The strongest support for the efficacy of visualization in improving competitive performance requires the application also of a structurally coherent sequence of complicated motor programs, such as those in the golf swing. This small adaptation appeared to have a strong effect on Jason’s adherence to his visualization routines. There are, of course, many reasons for Jason’s rise to the top of the golf world, including the expertise and strong support from his coach/caddie, his loving wife and family, and his team of trainers and advisors who help him cope with the sometimes brutal toll professional golf can have on the human body and the human mind.
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