Don't Think Twice--Or At All, For That Matter

"Half the game is 90 percent mental," Yogi Berra once said, or something like that, and science is now getting around to putting his aphorism to the test. Researchers including Debbie Crews of Arizona State University and John Milton of the University of Chicago have been studying patterns of brain activation--not in baseball players but in golfers, who make better subjects because they don't move around as much and the electrodes stay stuck to their heads. Yogi might have been surprised by the researchers' conclusion, though: the better the golfer, the less brain activity he shows in the seconds before he makes his shot.

Crews, a sports psychologist who studies putting--even the minimal agitation of a chip shot can upset her experimental apparatus--has found that a key difference between amateurs and pros lies in the left hemisphere. This is the seat of logic, analysis, verbal reasoning and the kinds of thoughts--Maybe I should just kind of squinch over a little more to the left--that you never imagine crossing Tiger Woods's mind. Professionals, once they've determined how to make a shot, follow an invariable routine that renders conscious thought unnecessary. "How you think is probably more important than what you think," Crews says. "Quieting the left hemisphere is really critical."

Or, to put it another way, when Milton asked some LPGA golfers what they thought about just before taking a shot, they answered: nothing. To test this, he rounded up a half-dozen pros and an equal number of amateurs and had them imagine making a specific shot--a wedge shot of 100 yards to the green, with no wind--while monitoring their brains in a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine. "The professionals are just much more specialized and efficient," Milton says. "You put in a quarter and you get your shot." The amateurs, by contrast, showed more total brain activation, involving more areas of the brain. In particular, amateurs activated the basal ganglia--involved in learning motor functions--and the basal forebrain and amygdala, responsible for, among other functions, emotions. "They're not fearful or anxious," Milton says, "but they get overwhelmed by details, by the memories of all the shots they've missed in the past." Some of his subjects worried about hitting the ball into the water, which was curious, because he hadn't even mentioned a water hazard in describing the imaginary shot to them.

Professional athletes, as a rule, know how to keep focus, although there are exceptions, like Chuck Knoblauch, the Yankee second baseman who suddenly lost the ability to make a routine throw to first base. Milton is already trying to apply these lessons to stroke and other rehabilitation patients who have to relearn skills like walking; he recommends putting more emphasis on visualization and improving mental focus. In many aspects of life, it seems, half the game really is 90 percent mental.