In golf and life we often find that our most consequential decisions come at times when the going gets tough, the chips are down, or the stakes are high. In golf it is at times like these that we are either free to be a more daring swashbuckling type of player who trades high risk for the promise of high reward, or he who would chose the safer more secure path; one that mitigates the down-side threat to our score and our egos in trade for completely foregoing the up-side promise of salvation and the shot of adrenaline and increased self-confidence that comes from pulling of a heroic shot. Curiously, in the generally accepted lexicon of the game, the safer more conservative route is often referred to as the smart play, while the riskier play is often labeled as dumb, even when it comes off. But is it really so totally cut and dry? Would Bubba Watson have won the Masters last year if he had played smart and just punched out to the fairway? Likely not. And even if he had, he would certainly not now be known for having hit one of the greatest shots in Major Championship history. Thomas Jefferson once said, “Those who would sacrifice freedom for safety deserve neither!” and while there is little evidence to suggest he was among the early practitioners of the game, he could have just as easily declared that in the clubhouse bar after a round in which he or another player lost an event by one shot after once again succumbing to the Siren’s song of security, and the illusion that it is always both the smarter play and the surest path to better scores and victory.
As human beings we inherently crave security. Our brains are hard-wired to seek it as a response to threats that are both real and imagined. Evaluating and consequently reacting to these threats is the job of one of the most primitive parts of our brains; the amygdala. This region of our brain processes base emotions resulting from sensory inputs like fear, anger, and anxiety. It’s one of the oldest and least evolved regions of the brain and is responsible for the rush of adrenaline and other hormones injected into your bloodstream as well as the elevated heart rate, increased muscle tension, and sweaty palms you get every time you see, hear, or feel something that you assess as being a potential danger and it reacts immediately. As human beings, however, we have a second line of defense that is unique to mammals and which has evolved more recently known as the neocortex. It is a more advanced part of the brain that is both intelligent and analytic. It can both reason and assess the nature of threats and is more nuanced than the amygdala, however there is but one problem; it is just a bit slower.
So this brings us to a bit of a conundrum. We have two regions of our brain wrestling to control our reactions to threats and risks to our security and they are mostly operating in parallel, rather than working in conjunction. The more advanced and analytic neocortex struggles to win this battle with our more primitive amygdala because it is relatively slow afoot by comparison and consequently you find us reacting to perceived threats and risks to our security almost as if we are helpless to do otherwise. Fortunately, in the game of golf the threats we face are for the most part not anywhere near what one would call life or death, but try telling that to your primitive amygdala. It reacts to the prospect of embarrassing yourself by topping it off the first tee in front of your buddies and a small gathering of unknown onlookers much in the same way Cro-Magnon man did when a saber-toothed tiger jumped out of the bushes on his afternoon stroll collecting wood for the night’s fire. This reaction is a brilliantly designed mechanism for immediately fleeing for one’s life, but the added adrenaline and cortisol pumped into your system at these times isn’t much use when it comes to trying to keep your tee shots on the short stuff or your ball out of the lake that fronts that tricky par 3.
Fortunately for us, our brains managed to learn a new trick just a short few million years ago and we can now appropriately predict the timing, location, and severity of many threats before they materialize based upon our past experiences. This new trick is what allows us to make the aforementioned trade-offs and in golf one of the ways we do this is by trading the freedom of that free-wheeling free-swinging move we make with the driver or some other club under normal circumstances in favor of that iron off the tee on that short and tight par four or that lay up short of the water when we fear that trying to reach the green is a somewhat risky proposition based upon the length of the carry, the ball’s lie, and our past experiences. It is essentially the region of the brain that has the biggest influence upon whether a particular course of play is perceived as either smart or dumb. And while this new and still evolving region of the brain allows us the opportunity to plan ahead and make these sorts of decisions, it has its hang-ups as well and when you combine its ability to anticipate perceived threats along with the amygdala’s penchant for exaggerating the degree of their risk to your security you often end up with a desire to seek the comfort of choosing what is widely considered the smart course of action and this illusion of security can seem too powerful to overcome. If you really think about it, though, and you turn those decisions completely over to your newer neocortex, you just might find you won’t always end up making those same seemingly safe and smart decisions.
So now that you have a basic understanding of your brain, at least these two particular areas of it and how they can affect your game, you can learn to teach one perspective, while using the advantages of the other. And one of the advantages of having this newly evolved neocortex is that we can envision situations and scenarios that have caused us to over-react in the past and decide what the appropriate course of action should have been. And once we have done that we will have begun the process of changing our mental programs so that the associated risks and threats are no longer actually perceived as threats or at least their threat level is kept in perspective. This is a process and while it doesn’t necessarily happen overnight, with conscious intention and discipline I promise it won’t take as long to train as Cro-Magnon man had to wait for a fledgling neocortex to come along and aid in counteracting his amygdala. So the next time you’re in a tournament, or even a casual round with your buddies and you reach a hole, or a situation that typically causes you to reflexively trade a little bit of freedom for what you think will keep you safe, reject the illusion of security and remember the immortal words of Helen Keller, “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing!” Now go live your daring adventure.