Low Net

There is a proven scientific way to follow through on your golf goal

Insight into the brain explains why we stick with certain objectives and abandon others
October 14, 2023

Many golfers will struggle to identify a single culprit holding their golf games back, but at least with me it’s apparent: A lack of distance isn’t my only deficiency, but it’s the most glaring obstacle in my pursuit of a single-digit handicap.

Recently, I remarked to a friend that I’m determined to address my distance problem over the winter months, which is harder than it sounds. I know there are worthy speed-training programs to follow, so my concern isn’t even really about what my plan should entail. Mostly it’s about my ability to stick to it.

This familiar challenge was actually the subject of a recent podcast by the popular Stanford University neuroscientist Andrew Huberman, who cites the intricate workings of our brains to explain the best way to set and achieve goals. It’s roughly 90 minutes long and I’m not sure the word “golf” is spoken once. But since my nature is to find a golf connection in pretty much everything, it wasn’t hard to apply Huberman’s insights to the game we play.

The whole podcast is really worth your time but at least as it relates to one editor’s pursuit of a few more yards off the tee, I can share some valuable takeaways.

Pick one goal and make it ambitious

Like I said, it’s not as if distance is my only problem. You could pick any club in my bag and there’s work to do. But Huberman argues the “overhaul approach” in which you nibble around the edges of several goals isn’t as effective as consolidating all of your focus into one targeted priority.

So in my case, a measurable improvement in clubhead speed is a worthy offseason goal. And not just a little improvement, either. If at one point I assumed the best way to achieve a goal is to start small—maybe two to three miles an hour—Huberman discourages against setting the bar too low. Why? Because a modest goal doesn’t command your attention in the same way. Granted, ambitious shouldn’t be confused with unrealistic—I’m looking to hit longer drives, not keep up with Rory McIlroy—but stretching yourself enough to be on edge still has merit.

“In order to learn something, we have to shift our nervous system into states that are somewhat uncomfortable. All of those states of mind and body, in fact, shift the brain into modes of so-called neuroplasticity,” Huberman said. “They give it the ability to change."

Build your plan around doing instead of results

Even if I’ve identified a sizable gain in clubhead speed—a five-mile increase to 98 mph would put me in the average range of a single-digit handicap—that number has little meaning on a day-to-day basis. Instead, Huberman stresses the importance of goals built around verbs. In other words, what are the actual things I plan to do in pursuit of my goal? For clubhead speed, it might be using a program like the Stack System, which would mean I need to download the app, then buy the equipment. Plus I need to work out following the program for the prescribed amount of time. These specific actions—as opposed to more nebulous goals around “longer drives” or “a tangible difference”—are the building blocks of progress, and Huberman advocates even writing the goals down in pen or pencil on a regular basis as a means of reinforcing their importance.

“Seeing things on paper and writing them out by hand with pen or pencil really has been shown to engage neural circuitry in a way that is different than typing with your thumbs into your phone,” Huberman says.

Keep the goal to yourself

It seemed harmless when I recently shared with a friend my goal of increasing my clubhead speed over the winter. I’ve since learned this was a mistake. The reason Huberman is opposed to making our goals public is because even when sharing our intentions, as we might on social media, our motivation goes down.

“The positive feedback that we get from others when we announce that we're going after a goal activates certain reward systems and motivation systems within our brains that then quickly dissipate, and then diminish the probability that we will engage in the type of behaviors that actually lead us to achieve that goal,” Huberman said.

In other words, the danger in sharing a goal is it feels almost as good to tell people about it as it does to actually achieve the goal. Keeping it to yourself, meanwhile, keeps the fire burning.

When needing motivation, both the carrot and the stick are options

It’s fair to assume your pursuit of a goal is going to hit pockets of resistance. It’s why Huberman advocates containing your goal to a 12-week period that provides enough time for progress, but is still short enough to be sustainable. But some days in that span will still be harder than others, and when motivation lags, Huberman says visualization exercises that draw on both positive and negative emotions can be effective. For instance, I might consider visualizing what greater clubhead speed could yield, whether it’s reaching a par 5 in two, or accepting cash from my arch golf rival Joe after beating him in a match. But motivation might also stem from what I’m looking to avoid, which in my case, might be an endless string of hybrids and and long irons into greens. Whichever tactic is best for you, both have a place.

Reward yourself sometimes, but not every time

Huberman also cites the role of dopamine when discussing giving ourselves rewards. It would seem that if you check a certain box in your goal program, you might want to treat yourself in some fashion, but doing so too often actually inhibits dopamine as well. For instance, I hit balls in a simulator in the winter. If every time I have a practice session I stop by the market for a Chipwich (kind of a weakness), then it’s proven that my motivation to practice becomes more about ice cream and chocolate chip cookies than golf. Hence, Huberman suggests what is known as “random intermittent reinforcement”, where I allow myself rewards sometimes, but not always. It’s a practice casinos use to keep people gambling, and in my case, it could be as simple as flipping a coin. Heads and I get a chipwich, tails and I go straight home.

It might seem extreme that we need to employ all these little brain hacks to keep ourselves on track in a program. Shouldn’t self-discipline be enough? Maybe, but think about how often you’ve announced a goal in the past and fallen short of it. The brain is a complicated organ. We need all the help we can in trying to outsmart it.

You can see Huberman's full talk below: