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Phil Mickelson Takes a Swing at Science


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Flora Lichtman. This next segment is specially dedicated to people for whom midsummer means lush greens, maybe a little sand and hopefully a lot of birdies. We're in the thick of golf season. The U.S. Open wrapped up last month, the British Open last weekend. And in just a few weeks, the PGA Championship begins. Up next, a look at the science of this sport. What sets the pros apart? Stroke mechanics, swing thoughts, physics, psychology?

My next guest is studying exactly what goes on in the minds and bodies of golfers, and he may even have some tips for how to shave a few strokes off your round. I'm sure we have some golfers in our audience. Give us a call, 1-800-989-TALK, 1-800-989-8255. Let me introduce our next guest. Mark Smith is the editor of "Golf Science: Optimum Performance from Tee to Green." You can read an excerpt of the book at sciencefriday.com/golfscience. He's also a principal lecturer at the School of Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Lincoln in the U.K. And he joins us from Siren FM at the university today. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Smith.

DR. MARK SMITH: Thank you for having me on the show, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Sure. I think, you know, what every golfer listening right now wants to know is what can science do for my game? And maybe we should start with short game. What do you think?

SMITH: Well, that's a big question you asked. And I suppose if maybe we could maybe start what goes on in the brains of the golfer. I think that's a nice place to start really. And...

LICHTMAN: Well, give us a specific - yeah, a specific example, of maybe people about to take a shot. Have you looked at that?

SMITH: Certainly. Well, during upon evidence that's presented in the book, neuroscience research has certainly uncovered differences in the brain, activation patterns of professional and amateur golfers. And specifically, they've looked up pre-shot rituals, which we all know is a cognitive behavior that we all as golfers take for granted often. But it's actually quite an essentially part of the preparation and the whole process of making a shot.

LICHTMAN: So this is what you're thinking when you get up to the ball and you're about the swing the club.

SMITH: Absolutely. It's that ritualistic series of events that we undertake, whether that be mental or physical, just prior to taking a shot. And brain scans have revealed that the areas within the inner brain that particularly link to emotional control and motivation, working memory seemed to be more activated in amateurs than professionals. And it's been suggested that lower-skill players, those with natural ability and have a much more automatic type of movement that they've been grained over practice and over time than the amateurs certainly activate different regions of their brains as indicated from functional magnetic resonance imaging scans.

LICHTMAN: So what part of the pros brains light up during pre-scan?

SMITH: Well, the evidence would suggest that for the professionals, there's a much more activated area within what we call the pre-supplementary motor cortex in the motor cortex. And that region is specifically associated with our generation of movements and the sequence and the planning of movements. On the contrary for amateurs, evidence would suggest that there's a stronger activation area within the limbic system which is linked to our emotions.

And with amateurs and lower ability players, novice players, for example, obviously, any signs of emotion or uncertainty or anxiety or worry linked early on before we've even made the shot is obviously going to have some implication as to our effectiveness and the outcome of our performance.

LICHTMAN: This is going to sound, I think, very familiar to many amateur golfers. I'm an amateur golfer myself, and I feel like this is neural signature of emotional baggage about my swing, is what you're telling me.


SMITH: Well, it's something that you've become consciously aware of as an amateur. I think as a professional, you pass through that stage and you become more autonomous and natural with regards to your movement. And, therefore, what that does is it actually frees up your attention or focus to more external cues. And those cues may be cues about the environment and specifically about your target and where you're actually aiming for. But it's important to add that these are still early stages of neuroscience research within golf. These particular studies were conducted in a laboratory on an FMRI scanner, really out of the context of the golfing environment.

But I think what they do do is they start to provide us some kind of early signs, a window into the mind of players for us maybe to delve in a little bit further and find out actually what does distinguish the amateur player from the professional player. From that point, we can then start to identify particular training structures and practice routines that can then be put in place to help players kind of reach a much better standard.

LICHTMAN: Let's talk about some of these tips. Your book mentions research about eye focus before a shot.


LICHTMAN: So give us the details on that.

SMITH: Well, within the book, what we've done is we've highlighted particular research studies that were conducted in Canada and United Kingdom that have identified that during these critical moments just before the putt, and the researchers call this quiet eye moments, where we look and how long we look for and the type of information we look at just prior to the putt has been shown to actually influence our success on the green. And that's quiet significant when we consider that about 42 percent of our total score is made up on the green in terms putting. I suppose anything that we can do to try and improve that statistic is going to have a meaningful impact on our overall score.

And what the evidence does seem to suggest is that there are two critical moments just before a putt. The first is where we fixed our gaze prior to making our backswing, and the second is how long we stare at the particular location on the ball fall. And what the research would suggest is that for the amateur players or those of a lower ability, their gaze tends to be less fixated. It tends to be a little bit more erratic. It doesn't really stay in one place for a particularly long time.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, the picture in your book looks like plate of spaghetti.

SMITH: That's right, yes. We have, you know, kind of an illustration, really, of where that focus and that fixational gaze tends to be in the novice players compared to the professional players.

LICHTMAN: So focus on the ball.

SMITH: Exactly. So in terms of, you know, suggestions as to what players may do when they're out practicing on the green, for example, or on the course, well, the first thing to do is to line up your putt. And most golfers will go through a pretty short routine trying not to think on the grip, the stance, but think on the line and the nature of the putt. And then the next tip presented by the research is just to alternate the gaze quickly, so flicking between the hole and the ball.

And once that's established, then just before and during the strike, to hold a steady gaze on the back of the ball for about two seconds and even as you hit the strike to continue with that gaze on the ball. And again, as presented in the book, and quite nicely through the graphics and the statistics that's found within, there is evidence to suggest that applying that technique may have benefits when someone's on the green.

LICHTMAN: There you have it. I'd like to bring on another guest now to join the conversation who knows a little bit about golf. He just won the British Open and the Scottish Open a few weeks before that. He also has three wins at Masters in his bag and a win at the PGA Championship. And some commentators have called him one of the best golfers of all time. I'm talking about the legendary Phil Mickelson. And he's been avoiding the media almost the whole week after that amazing round last weekend, and yet he is on our show today.

Now I wish we could say that Phil Mickelson's appearance is a result of our magnificent booking skills. But even more remarkable, he called us because he wanted to talk science. And I'll let him tell you more about why. It's my pleasure to introduce Phil Mickelson. He's a PGA golfer and co-founder with his wife, Amy, of the Mickelson ExxonMobil Teachers Academy. He joins us here on our New York studios. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Mr. Mickelson.


LICHTMAN: We're going to cut that out and replay it to ourselves over and over again, I'm sure. So tell us why you wanted to come talk to us today.

MICKELSON: Well, science has played a huge part in my success and it oftentimes goes unnoticed, and therefore, our kids and our - other individuals don't realize the importance that science plays in everyday life. When I started working with Dave Pelz, who's a former NASA scientist, he really helped me alter and change my performance in the major championships going back to 2003 just before I won my first Masters.

One of the things we did was we used statistics as a way to help me focus my practice and my time spent working on my game so that it actually correlates into lower scores. And, Flora, the best example I could give and one that we use maybe a dozen or so is that as we move - work away from the hole, the percentage of putts made falls off exponentially. So from three feet in, let's say I'm 100 percent, when I move back one foot to four feet, that falls down - that percentage, down to 88 percent. And when I go another foot, to five feet, that falls down to 75 percent. And another foot down to six feet, it falls down to 67 percent. And so what this means is that every foot - it's not always how well you putt, but where you putt from.

If this - this makes me focus my attention on short game and chipping so that I'm working on getting each chip inside a three foot circle. Now, I don't always do it but if I can practice with a three foot circle imaginary in my head and I can get it inside that circle, I know I'm going to make the next putt. That's exactly why I raised my arms in 2005 when I won the PGA Championship on the last hole, because I hit a chip shot that got that shot - got the ball inside that three foot circle. I knew I was going to make it.

LICHTMAN: You knew.

MICKELSON: And so that's just one example of how science has helped me, yeah, in my golf game. Not to mention the three wood - the two three woods I hit on 17 last Sunday to win the British Open. That could never have been done with any other club before and possibly be the club that Calloway made and possibly anybody in the game because what Calloway did was they took the spin off the golf ball through technology. And this allows me to have a three wood that I can hit with launch conditions very similar to a driver, which is why I didn't even need to carry a driver. It was very instrumental in my win.

LICHTMAN: What about the psychology? Golf has this reputation as being, you know, such a mental game. Are there ways that you work out your mind to prep for matches? Do you do any psychological training?

MICKELSON: Well, the best thing that I do is I practice with a purpose. And so one of the other drills that Dave Pelz and I talked about is that I've got to know how far I fly each shot. So I've got to be able to hit a nine iron and fly it exactly 145 yards. Not 144, 146. I need to know what a 145-yard shot feels like. So I practice that over and over, timing the nine iron exactly 145, exactly 145.

Now, that does vary based on altitude, temperature, density, altitude, where I am, but for the most part that's how that nine iron flies. So 2007, I'm playing in the President's Cup and I'm playing Angel Cabrera and we get to the last hole. I'm one down. I have 118 yards. And I've got to make birdie. And I know that I have 115 yard gap wedge shot that I have hit thousands of times over the years. And so when I stand on the 18th hole, my psychology and my thought process is that I know exactly what a 115 shot feels like. I'm going to add just a fraction more and see if I can get an extra yard or two to it. I ended hitting the shot three feet, made birdie, and sent it into a playoff. And so that's how I work on my psychology - is based solely on how I practice.

LICHTMAN: Hmm. You're talking - we're talking to Phil Mickelson on SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Flora Lichtman and let's go to the phones. Jonathan(ph) from Paramus, you're on the air.

JONATHAN: It's great - it's a great thrill to speak to Phil. He's a great golfer and I enjoy him every Sunday on TV.

MICKELSON: Thank you, Jonathan.

JONATHAN: You played great last week, you really did. It really was unbelievable. I'd like to know one tip about getting out of the sand and one thing - if one thing you do when you're on your short game and chipping.

MICKELSON: Most people don't have their weight far enough forward out of the bunker to keep the leading edge down underneath if their weight is back. And so that's typically the one thing I have to tell most people, most amateurs that I play with.

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Jonathan.

JONATHAN: Thank you.

LICHTMAN: What about science? I mean, were you always kind of into science as a kid?

MICKELSON: I've always loved science. I've always been interested in it and how it applies to golf. How I can get the ball to back up more, how I can get it to curve, how I can hit shots by opening or closing the face and so forth. But, Flora, one of the concerning things about science is that we've had a - we've lost a generation on the interest level. Meaning that out of all of our scientists and engineers in this country, over half of them are over the age of 40.

So we're skipping a generation, and this is a huge factor because we are not inspiring our kids in these STEM fields. And consequently, three million jobs are going unfilled in this country because the graduates from college don't have the qualifications needed to fill these jobs.

So what we're trying to do - Amy and I have partnered with Exxon Mobile nine years ago. This is our ninth year. And, in fact, this is the reason why I'm in town right now - I'm over at the Liberty Science Center at Jersey City - is because we're bringing in 200 great educators from third through fifth grade and we're teaching them new innovative skills in the math and sciences from Newton laws of motion to action and reaction and motion and force.

So all of these key principles, we are giving them techniques to go back to their classroom and inspire their kids through hands-on ways to teach them these skills and this science so that hopefully we'll inspire them in a way that they stay in the STEM fields - Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

LICHTMAN: Mark Smith, is there a certain amount of practice or time you need to put in to become an elite golfer like Phil Mickelson? I mean is this most - is it nurture or nature or both?

SMITH: It's an interesting question. And just coming back to some of the points that Phil makes, you know, firstly it's fantastic the work that he's doing in terms of developing an educational program. And I think the application of science within golf lends itself incredibly well as a vehicle for young children, elementary school, to learn about some of the basic principles of math and science, right up to high school. And within our book we certainly touch on some of the very basic physical principles that underpin fluid dynamics or Newton's laws up to more complex areas. And it really is a book that, I suppose, teachers can pick up. But let's come back to your question about practice.

Well, I think an important part - and it'll be interesting to get Phil's view on this - but I think an important part about practice is about socialization. And it's about the environment in which you're in and the support that you get. Now, Phil mentioned David Pelz a number of times as an influence in terms of his approach to his game and the application of science and the question and experimental drive that he had about trying things and trial and error.

So I think in terms of developing performance and developing into a better person, not just a better player, I think it's being in the right environment with the right support at the right time. I think that's fundamental.

LICHTMAN: And Phil, I mean, I read a story that you wanted to be golfing at three and a half and ran away with some golf balls. Do I have that right?

MICKELSON: Pretty much. I loved the game of golf from a young age and all I wanted to do was to play it. In fact, Flora, when - you know, I didn't grow up in a very wealthy family and I wanted to play all the time. And we didn't have the ability to go play and practice. So when I was eight years old I went down to our municipal course. It was called Navajo Canyon back then. It's Mission Trails now. And I would go out and work on the driving range three days a week picking up range balls for however many hours so that I would be able to have free playing privileges. And I worked at a golf course all the way through high school.

LICHTMAN: And we'll have to - we have to take a short break but I want to hear the second half of that story when we come back. We're talking with Phil Mickelson and Mark Smith. Stay with us. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.


LICHTMAN: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Flora Lichtman. We're talking this hour about the science of golf with my guests. Phil Mickelson is a PGA golfer and co-founder of the Mickelson-Exxon Mobile Teacher's Academy. Mark Smith is the editor of "Golf Science: Optimum Performance from Tee to Green." He's also principal lecturer at the School of Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Lincoln in the U.K.

And before we went to the break, I really interrupted you, Phil Mickelson. Please keep going.

MICKELSON: Well, it wasn't rude at all. But the point that I was making is that although I worked at a driving range all through high school so I would have the ability to practice as much as I needed, the point is that some people are going to have a desire to do whatever it takes and to work as hard as is necessary to achieve goals. And some people, you could put it right in front of them and they just don't - they're just not willing to do what it takes. And that's an intangible there that you can't quantify or put a number on it.

But when we talk about specific number of hours of practice to become great, they really need to be focused hours in practice. They can't just be random. I see guys on tour go out and hit balls all the time. And they'll spend hours out there, but they're socializing and they're talking to people and they're not working on any specific point. And if they do, you can't practice that long without getting worn out or without needing a break. I've found that about 45, 50 minutes is about as far as I can go to keep my mental focus in a practice session without requiring a 15 minute break or so.

LICHTMAN: This question of focus is really interesting to me. On SCIENCE FRIDAY we've done programs in the past about how people are getting actually worse at sustained focus with the rise of multitasking and checking your email while you're doing something else. Have you noticed this in yourself? Or do you think this is a problem for golfers, Phil Mickelson? And then I want to hear from you too, Mark Smith.

SMITH: Sure.

MICKELSON: I don't know if it's a problem. It very well could be. But one of the things, you know, my generation was really before that of Twitter and social media and Facebook and whatnot. So I don't have a Facebook account or do a Twitter account or have any social media, so I'm not as distracted. I don't have as much going on and it hasn't been a distraction for me to focus on golf.

In fact, what I've found is that - I put a practice facility in my yard at home and I've been able to go outside if I have 15, 20 minutes and putt. Or chip. Or hit balls. Or just spend a few minutes at a time. I feel like this has really helped me with my putting. I'm putting better now than I ever have by just having these sporadic 15, 20 minutes here or there.

Now, not many people have access to that but I've found that that's been a great thing for me because when I am out there I'm able to be focused.

LICHTMAN: I mean, do you think it paid off last weekend? Your putting was amazing.

MICKELSON: Oh, my goodness. It's the best putting of my career and absolutely that's what I attribute it to. I've been putting well now for months and the only common denominator and thing that I've done differently is I've spent hours in my yard putting. And as Hogan used to say, the secret's in the dirt. I've found a secret to putt - my putting by just putting for hours.

LICHTMAN: Hmm. Mark Smith, what have you learned about focus in the game of golf?

SMITH: Well, I think what probably Phil is referring to there is what we maybe call deliberate practice. And it's about structure in the practice so that it is meaningful and has specific objectives and specific outcomes that the player is actually aiming for during their practice, rather than just going on the range and hitting balls down the range and not really having any focus or deliberate attention to what they're trying to get out of their session. I think it's actually fundamental here.

And it's also about how that deliberate practice is structured and whether that is what we would call kind of randomized practice where we try and do different shots to try and build up a picture, really, in our mind of what may be happing on the course so that when we actually apply it on the course, we're able to kind of deal with the different circumstances and situations that we're in.

I think as you become much more specialized, as I think Phil alluded to earlier, it becomes more blocked. Phil was specifically focusing on a nine iron or a wedge shot from a specific distance and knows that each time he's going to get it from that point, so therefore Phil's practice will be a lot more deliberate and a lot more structured and blocked in that way.

So there's certainly researched evidence to show that different types of practice, how we structure it, and certainly being deliberate and having a clear objective every time we go out, whether that be 15 minutes or 45 minutes, will help and should improve a performance, you know, score on the course, if they use their time effectively.

LICHTMAN: It sounds like one of the things you've found that's really simple to do that might improve someone's score on the course is drinking water.

SMITH: Well, absolutely. And, you know, we know the impact that hydration status can have on performance. You know, we see it when we watch athletics. We see it when we watch cycling. We see it when we see different sports being played. And, you know, we certainly know from our own research that we've conducted that being in a hydrated state or a dehydrated state can actually have impact on our performance.

And that's a cognitive or a mental as well as physical impact. I mean, evidence does show that even small changes in what we'd call our total body water content, in changes as small as about one and a half percent. So if you took a 200 pound player, they would only have to lose about three pounds of that total body water content to really start to have a cognitive impact on their performance. And when we're talking about cognitive impact, we're talking about the things like decision making.


SMITH: Making the right decision at the right time.


SMITH: And I'm sure Phil would allude to, on that 17th, he had to make a critical decision about that shot that he was going to play. And evidence would suggest in an even mildly dehystrated(ph) - sorry, dehydrated state, that can start to cloud our judgment, and obviously in critical points on the course that could be the difference between winning and losing.

LICHTMAN: Well, there you have it. Some news you can use on SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'd like - we've run out of time. I'd like to thank you both for joining us today. Phil Mickelson is a PGA golfer and co-founder of the Mickelson-Exxon Mobile Teacher's Academy. I'm sure we'll all be watching you. Thank you for joining us again.

MICKELSON: Thanks a lot. My pleasure.

LICHTMAN: And Mark Smith is the editor of "Golf Science: Optimum Performance from Tee to Green" and the principle lecturer at the School of Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Lincoln in the U.K.

SMITH: Thank you for inviting me on, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Thank you for coming.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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