You’ve just hit your 5-iron into the water on the left side of the green. How do you react? Do you slam your club into the turf and use words that your mother would be ashamed of, or do you shrug your shoulders, take your drop and spend your energy figuring out how you are going to save bogie (or even make par) in the hole?
If your standard reaction is the club slam followed by a stream of epithets, there’s a good chance that the next time you see a hole with water on the left, you’ll immediately recall that 5-iron you dumped in the water. With that thought in mind, there’s a good chance that you’ll hit another wayward iron resulting in another slammed club and more “bad” words.
What makes us react in this way? Why, is it that when we respond emotionally to bad shots, they keep coming back to haunt us again and again?
How We Make Memories
Making new memories, like that missed 5-iron, is a function of the hippocampus region of our brains. The hippocampus resides near the cerebral cortex and is also responsible for spatial navigation. When we miss a 5-iron into the water, the hippocampus registers the memory. However, when we get angry, slam the club into the turf and launch a stream of expletives – the extra emotion triggers another part of the brain, the amygdala.
The amygdala is responsible for long-term memory and memory modulation. Researchers have found that emotional arousal during a “learning event” strengthens the memory of that event (see “Researchers Prove A Single Memory Is Processed In Three Separate Parts Of The Brain”). The angrier you are about that missed shot, the more you’ll remember it. And because the amygdala is also associated with fear conditioning, remembering the shot will probably make you feel tense and tight. The result? Another missed shot, more anger, another negative memory, and more tension over the next shot.
Managing Your Memory
The key for golfers, therefore, is to manage their memory. If you miss a shot, don’t allow emotion to etch the shot into your memory bank. Forget it. Think about how to hit a great recovery shot. And when you chip in for a great par, allow yourself a fist pump, or an “Oh Yeah!” to ingrain the positive. (You want to remember a great save!) Managing your memory will help you hit your best shots more often, improve your scores, and make golf for you and your playing partners more enjoyable.