Harms of Overthinking Technique on Golf Course Confirmed By Study

How do you hold the putter? It's not something you think about before you putt: You just grip the putter instinctively. You've placed your hands on the putter handle thousands of times, it's something you just do.

A friend of mine has a dirty trick he sometimes plays on me when I'm about to attempt a key putt during one of our friendly-but-intense matches. He asks me, "How do you hold the putter?" And I am momentarily flummoxed because he has made think about my putting grip.

Most golfers know that overthinking while playing golf is a bad idea. "Paralysis by analysis" can be very real on the golf course, and my opponent's simple question — "how do you hold the putter? — can be triggering for me.

It turns out that the "paralysis by analysis" phenomenon in golfers has been studied by a group of American scientests and St. Andrews University scholars. And their finding is that golfers are definitely susceptible to thinking too much — and that thinking too much about swing mechanics or fundamentals during a round of golf is bad for performance.

The BBC reported the findings thusly:

Golfers who think too much about their technique between shots could be seriously affecting their performance, a study has suggested. St Andrews University and US scientists said they had established that too much analysis made the golfer's game worse. They said thinking too much about the previous shot can disrupt performance.

In total, 80 golfers were given shots to practise until they got it right in the study ... Those who discussed their putting between strokes took twice as long. The study found that when the mix of skilled and novice golfers tried again, those who had discussed the shot took longer to get the shots right as those people who had spent a couple of minutes engaged in other, unrelated activities.

St. Andrews University phychology professor Michael Anderson told the BBC that the effect was particularly dramatic in skilled golfers who spent five minutes discussing their putting technique, before attempting to putt again. Those skilled golfers were 'reduced to the level of performance of novices,' Anderson said, after the self-analysis of their putting technique.

The effect wasn't seen in novices, probably because beginners don't have much room to get worse. So beginners: Analyze away.

Intermediate and advanced golfers, however, may want to save the analysis for practice sessions, while during play trying to keep in-depth analysis of technique and mechanics at bay.

What effect might be at work that causes overthinking to harm the scores of golfers? The BBC report stated:

The researchers think the loss of performance was due to an effect called verbal overshadowing, which makes the brain focus more on language centres rather than on brain systems that support the skills in question.

The study ... marks the first time researchers have claimed to demonstrate that verbal overshadowing can adversely affect motor skills.

Chi Chi Rodriguez has long lamented his poor putting. "If I could putt, you would've never heard of Arnold Palmer," he's been known to say. But Rodriguez wasn't always a poor putter. There was a time in his early career that he was a great putter. What happened?

"I never knew what I did putting," Rodriguez once told me. "I just knew that there was a hole, there was a ball, there was a putter, I was supposed to knock the ball in the hole. (But then) a magazine paid me $50 to figure out what I did putting, and I haven't putted good since."

This sort of thing doesn't happen to great players all that often. But it's much more likely to happen to the rest of us. We overthink every little detail and wind up tying ourselves in knots. Our games suffer.

Moral of the study: Save the focus on and analysis of mechanics and technique for the practice areas, and for after the round. During the round ... just play golf.

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