March 31, 2012


I think, therefore I choke: But the new science of head games could turn shanks into scores (Jaimal Yogis, 3/08/12, ESPN The Magazine)

SOON AFTER Cundiff's kick sent the Ravens back to Baltimore, I travel to the Institute of HeartMath in Boulder Creek, Calif. In an office shaded by mountain redwoods, White hooks me up to an emWave and rigs it to a computer screen. There is my heart rate -- the rhythm looked far more like a jagged mountain range than the uniform pulse I'd expected.

"This is perfectly healthy," White says, but not so ideal for performance. The anxiety I was feeling with all those scientists staring at me was causing the wild heartbeats that can harm academic and athletic results. Feelings of gratitude and love, on the other hand, create gentle, repeating HRV waves that HeartMath terms "coherence." That's the state in which expert archers shoot more accurately, pro golfers hit the ball farther and kickers (though there hasn't yet been an official study) get closer to Cundiff circa 2010 and 2011.

It's easy to be skeptical of coherence -- until you see it. White asks me to breathe -- five seconds in and five seconds out -- visualizing each breath entering and exiting my heart. Instantly the peaks become more even slopes. One minute later, White asks me to conjure up people I love, and the wave looks even more consistent. "It's not perfect," says White, "but close." That is in just two minutes. Imagine, White adds, how coherent athletes and soldiers who practice every day could be.

If the zone is real -- a biologically measurable state -- how could Cundiff have gotten back into it during the chaotic last seconds against the Patriots? Ask 15 psychologists, psychiatrists or biologists this question and you'll get somewhere around three times as many answers.

Still, a semiconsensus is developing among the most advanced scientists. In the typical fight-or-flight scenario, scary high-pressure moment X assaults the senses and is routed to the amygdala, aka the unconscious fear center. For well-trained athletes, that's not a problem: A field goal kick, golf swing or free throw is for them an ingrained action stored in the striatum, the brain's autopilot. The prefrontal cortex, our analytical thinker, doesn't even need to show up. But under the gun, that super-smart part of the brain thinks it's so great and tries to butt in. University of Maryland scientist Bradley Hatfield got expert dart throwers and marksmen to practice while wearing a cumbersome cap full of electrodes. Without an audience, their brains show very little chatter among regions. But in another study, when dart throwers were faced with a roomful of people, the pros' neural activity began to resemble that of a novice, with more communication from the prefrontal cortex.

"Stress and worry aren't what necessarily cause the problem," says Sian Beilock, a University of Chicago psychologist and author of the book Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To. "But if they lead to trying to control performance" -- that is, trigger the prefrontal cortex -- "it's more likely to end in a choke."

The body's reaction to that is akin to what happens when your computer runs on RAM rather than the hard drive, says Dr. Michael Lardon, author of Finding Your Zone and a trainer for many PGA golfers, Olympians and NFL players: "Reaction and accuracy decrease."

It's the athlete's job to shut up the prefrontal cortex, and Cundiff -- given his leading-edge routine -- surely could have done this under normal circumstances. (The kicker refused The Mag's interview requests.) But he simply may not have had the time, or enough experience with a scoreboard snafu, to get back out of his head.

That's why the most advanced mental trainers now discourage thinking...
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Posted by at March 31, 2012 5:30 AM

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