To kick of my sport specific psychology series of blogs, I’m going to start with golf. My new experience within Golf at the PGA academy, The Belfy in Birmingham provide fitting context for this blog post. Golf is a massively psychological sport and has plenty of opportunity to use psychological skills at various points during the performance. There is significant amount of research focused on improving the accuracy of a golf putt. This movement is highly susceptible to mistakes under high pressure given the precise and accurate movements needed to succeed. Gaze control has been shown as an important determinant of accuracy in motor tasks (Land, 2009). Expert performers keep their eyes steady on the back of the ball for up to two seconds prior to the initiation of a back swing. They then maintained this fixation until the putter contacted the ball. This fixation has been termed Quiet Eye. Since 1996 quiet eye has been show to underlie higher levels of performance and skill in a wide range of aiming and interceptive skills.
The quiet eye period is a length of time when task relevant cues are processed, motor plans are coordinated and relaxation can take place. Longer quiet eye periods allows for performance an extended duration of programming, which minimises distraction from internal or external cues. There are a number of ways in which quiet eye impacts upon performance. Firstly the motor system tends to more accurate when provide with timely information about targets and gaze, by holding a ball focus quiet eye throughout the putting stroke golfers are able to ensure a more accurate contact with the sweet spot of the putter. Secondly information about the location of the hole may be more effectively stored in the visual memory by maintaining a steady gaze on the ball. Thirdly the quite eye period may provide the external focus of attention described in the pre-performance routines suggested by Wulf (2007) or Singer (2002). The quiet eye period may provide focus on a controllable element of performance rather than uncontrollable such as the outcome of performance which can lead to increased pressure during competition.
Quiet eye training consists of initially recording your own gaze data, this can potentially be recorded on video by the use of a go-pro camera or if you have access to it eye tracking equipment. Golfers can also do this by verbalising what they notice during putting performance. The following points should be stressed when attempting to improve quiet eye use:
1. Assume your stance and align the club so the gaze is on the back of the ball
2. After setting up over the ball, fix your gaze on the hole. Fixations towards the hole should be no more than 3 times.
3. The final fixation should be a quiet eye on the back of the ball. The onset of quiet eye should occur before the stroke begins and last for around 2 to 3 seconds.
4. No gaze should be directed to the club head during the back or fore swing.
5. The quiet eye should remain on the green for 200 to 300 milliseconds after the club contacts the ball.
It would be useful for golfers to then practice this under pressurised situations, for example competitions which have some kind of value to them. Pressurised feedback, comparing scores, and potentially the use of heckling during performance may all help increase the pressure and therefore prepare a golfer to perform in live competition play.
The benefits to performance under pressure of quiet eye training offer insights for coaching. Much of guidance given by PGA pros focuses on the mechanics of the movement which draws attention inwards. This has been shown to be somewhat counterproductive. Quiet eye training acts as a practical and easily applicable training regime that acts to focus a person’s attention correctly and coordinate gaze and motor control. From my point of view as a psychologist however the quiet eye period can help performers deal with the emotional and cognitive factors that threaten the ego during performance situations. This period creates a ‘just do it’ condition for performance states and emphasises that optimally focus attention is best achieved by selecting one simple, appropriate external cue. It would be beneficial for any golf performer to adopt this quiet eye principle into their pre-performance routine.