Putting is impossible

Frustrated reflections of a double bogey golfer

Prof. Dr. Dr. Ernst Pöppel


Sometimes it makes sense if one wants to understand something, like putting a ball, that one takes a position that at first sight may sound outrageous or at least strange. But taking an outside position has one advantage: It opens the mind for new ideas, and one can get rid of some typical prejudices.


Putting looks extremely simple, and because it looks simple, a prejudice of simplicity develops, and the complexity of efficient action is underestimated. It is my experience that the challenge of complexity of putting is not appreciated by every golf player and not of every golf pro; there is a lot of knowledge out there which can be applied to improve performance. But before developing new „therapies“ like for yips during putting, it is necessary to expand the view to finally say „putting is possible“ after all.


Let me sketch just a few ideas. During putting the movement is controlled continuously by certain brain areas (the basal ganglia); this continuous control makes by definition the movement more vulnerable as other influences may interfere. For continuously controlled movements (or physiologically speaking „ramp movements“) it is of course desirable that at any instant a specific movement can be altered by new information; this is our evolutionary heritage, and we use these kind of movements every day successfully like steering a vehicle. Ramp movements are highly adaptable. But for a movement trajectory which should be smooth like putting a golf ball this openness and adaptability can be the source of disaster; any influence from inside or outside may affect the movement. Such openness of movement control is not the case for ballistic movements where the entire movement is preprogrammed like hitting the ball with a specific weapon for a desired distance of say 120 yards. (The different weapons are chosen to allow the enrollment of the ballistic movement without any necessary control during the movement). Thus, from the brain’s point of view putting has nothing to do with hitting the ball with the driver or any iron, and the challenge of creating a smooth movement with a specific acceleration and peak velocity close to the point of impact is rather unphysiological. Basically, it is an impossible movement, (or if I have convinced the reader, a very difficult movement).


Because of the openness of the neuronal program during a putt, other effects easily can interfere. Depending on the situation the activation level of a player is different; with higher activation for instance triggered by anxiety or social challenges, all movement programs in the brain are affected, usually in a negative way. There is one basic lesson to be learned from the brain sciences: There is no independence of any activity of any brain module. Such modules represent perception (what and how we see or hear), or emotional evaluation, or memory processes, or movement control, or high-level cognition like thinking. This interdependence of all neuronal activities that are basic to consciousness is due to the high interconnectivity of the billions of brain cells; our brain has a qualitatively different architecture than any computer (thus, one should never refer to the brain as a computer as unfortunately some researchers are doing). If the emotional frame is altered because we are annoyed, or if we think too intensely about our score, or if we try to remember how to putt the ball, performance will be necessarily affected because of the openness and vulnerability of the brain machinery. Thus, don’t think, don’t remember, don’t evaluate, gain the moment.


What does it mean „gain the moment“? It has been discovered during the last years that the brain provides operational platforms with a duration of approximately 2 to 3 seconds. This time window can also be referred to as the subjective presence, and we can see it in many activities like speech, memory, decision processes, and particularly in movement control. A putting movement with high temporal and spatial precision must be embedded within this temporal window. On this operational platform of just a few seconds everything else has to be blended out; there is nothing else in the mind than just „movement“. What I refer to here is the concept of „embodiment“ which during the last years has become is a central issue in the brain sciences and in technological development both in the US and Europe, and in particular in Japan.

What does that mean for putting a golf ball? A putter has to become part of the body of the player, and the putter should not simply be an instrument for hitting the ball; my putter is a part of myself.


A successful player no longer has an external point of view towards a putter, towards the ball or towards the hole; within the time window of a few seconds, within this „gain the moment“, player, putter, ball, and the hole become a unity being connected by the trajectory the ball is travelling. Obviously, to come to the state of successful embodiment, special training which must be highly individualized is necessary. In fact, everything said so far indicates that playing golf is an extremely individualized activity; everybody carries his or her own personal history in the brain that can affect performance; it is the challenge of the golf pro to recognize the individual frame which is in my view more relevant for putting which regularly, however, gets much less attention when learning to play the game. This viewpoint also implies that when somebody suffers from yips the reasons are very specific. There is no general yipping problem; yipping looks on the surface like being always the same, but to control yipping and to get rid of it, an individual analysis and a personal program are necessary.


Referring to embodiment, i.e. mentally connecting the different elements to a unity or gestalt when putting a ball, I have already indicated that a practice stroke in the traditional way may actually be disruptive. If there is no ball, the entire movement program is different; in particular there is no anticipation of the ball falling into the hole and giving feedback by the desired noise. It is no wonder that one hardly ever observes yips during practice strokes as it has nothing to do with reality. Thus, for practicing the putting stroke, new technologies must be developed (and to the best of my knowledge, are already under way) which mimic the reality of putting. Furthermore, as we have demonstrated by some experiments in associated fields, mental training may be very useful for improving movements; again, this has to be learned on a professional level.


What should be recognized in the development of new golf technologies are features of brain processes which we as neuroscientists refer to as the „reafference principle“ or „corollary discharge“. The basic idea is the following: Whenever we make a movement, whenever we put a ball, there are two events in the brain: one program is responsible for the execution of the smooth movement; the other program is storing the movement program and it allows a constant monitoring of the movement. When the movement – or better the action – is completed, a feedback cancels the copy of the movement program. What could be the feedback in putting? It is the noise of the ball falling into the hole (which also give psychological satisfaction). Only when the player has heard the noise the putting stroke is completed. This implies that the player should definitely not follow the ball visually but wait for the auditory feedback. This final noise is an essential element of embodiment in putting which should get more attention.


To reach the goal „putting is possible“ requires the acceptance of many factors which contribute to the complexity of this stroke. I believe that the brain sciences provide some information which allow a better understanding of putting in general, of yipping in particular, and of creating new concepts for improvement and even therapy. I am convinced, however, that there is not one therapy for yipping for everybody, as there is no learning program for putting for everybody; because of the high complexity of the game, every player with or without yips or any other problem represents an individual cosmos.


Some biographical data about the author that might be useful for the promotion of the book: Ernst Pöppel is a brain scientist in Germany. He founded both the Institute of Medical Psychology and the Human Science Center, both at Munich University. He is also guest professor of Peking University, and he does research also in Tokyo, St. Petersburg, and Warsaw promoting interdisciplinary and international activities with the motto: „Scientists are natural ambassadors“. Previously, he was director of the National Research Center Jülich in Germany, and in earlier years he was affiliated with the MIT in Cambridge working in the Department of Brain Science and Psychology and, independently, in the Neuroscience Research Program. He has published many books, several for the general public, he has written more than 400 scientific papers, and he has given more than 1000 scientific talks worldwide.


He is an expert in time control of brain processes and of visual perception. He has discovered the phenomenon of „blindsight“ which implies that we can see a lot without noticing it consciously. He has taught sports medicine linking his expertise from brain science with the challenges in different sports like soccer, tennis or golf. As a younger person he did track and field, and as a professor he played squash challenging his students to beat him (which actually never happened). With 69 years of age now, he owns in golf the flattest learning curve to be imagined reaching an honest and stable double-bogey level only after many years. This, however, does not prevent him to enjoy the game and to observe with fascination its different facets – psychological, from the brain’s point of view, medical, technological, within an aesthetic frame, and also social – in himself and others.