Rory McIlroy and the quiet brain

By Dan Peterson

File this under the category of when life confirms research. Some great quotes about how Rory McIlroy prepared for the US Open, and how his approach toward putting differed from his meltdown at the Masters. Via

McIlroy stated that he worked with Dave Stockton on his approach to putting and that helped him improve. They didn’t work on changing his stroke, but instead his green reading and putting routine, which means the mental game of putting. “The work that I’ve done with Dave Stockton has been more about how to approach a putt, not focusing on technique so much, more like green reading, your routine, and everything like that,” said McIlroy.

Stockton wanted to speed up his routine on the greens, not slow it down. “And people often said to me ‘we think you’re too quick on the greens’. But he thought the opposite. You’re taking too much time, why are you taking three practice strokes? Don’t take any practice strokes anymore. See the target, where I want to hit it, and just go with it.”

“If I have any sort of technical thing in my thought, in my stroke, it would just be to keep the back of my left hand going towards the target, and that’s all we really worked on. It seemed to work.”

This echoes the research around choking and the quiet brain almost exactly. From a previous post on the subject:

Thinking and planning a movement is something that novices, who haven’t yet refined that skill, have to do in order to perform it more successfully. In fact, it has been observed that instructing skilled soccer and baseball players to consciously attend to the biomechanics of a simple task like dribbling a soccer ball or swinging a bat causes them to perform worse than when they perform a skill naturally. It has been theorized that high stakes cause athletes to overthink and become self-conscious about their movements, which in turn causes them to revert back to the rigid movement patterns of a less-experienced performer. This has been observed in disciplines from rock-climbers to weightlifters to piano players. The mind can get in the way of the body smoothly carrying out what it already knows how to do.

Still another way of describing what happens is through the lens of neuroscience and brain activity. Some of the best research around the brain activity patterns of experts has been done by Brad Hatfield at the University of Maryland. His research around expert marksmen (marksmen are easy to study with brain imaging equipment because their heads don’t move while they perform) has shown that their brains are, in fact, ‘quieter’ and more economical than the brains of novices. In effect, they tune everything else out so thoroughly that only the most essential brain areas associated with the task are turned on and working.

It will be interesting to see if McIlroy can maintain his quiet brain state at the British.

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