Dear Bonnie,

Why am I able to hit the ball well on the driving range and unable to bring those good shots to the course?

The reason is because the driving range is safe, and the course is dangerous.  At least, that’s what your brain thinks.

Human thoughts flow from two major sections of our brain.  The oldest section, the “primitive brain,” has been with us since caveman times and focuses mainly on seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Its main responsibility is our survival.  It’s the brain that kept our ancestors alive by instinctively scanning for dangerous saber-toothed tigers, threatening strangers and a multitude of other potentially harmful situations.  It’s the part of our brain that internally issues the fight, flight or paralyze command when we sense a potentially dangerous environment.

It’s companion, the “modern brain,” is the more evolved part of the brain and is responsible for judgment, impulse control and reasoning.  When our primitive brain senses danger and sends signals to our body to get prepared for trouble, it is this part of the brain that is in control.  Not until the primitive brain calms, is the modern brain able to restore rationality and clearer thinking to the situation.

The dangers we face today often appear in different forms than dangers humans encountered in the past.  As we evolved, we’ve learned to better manage our minds to meet changing societal and environmental conditions.

On the driving range our thoughts allow us to feel safe.  There are no narrow fairways, trees, bunkers, water holes or scorecard.  We are more relaxed and can put our full attention on our target.  However, when we move to the course, we are in a different environment. Our primitive brain wants to think about all the types of dangerous obstacles between us and where we want to go.  Unless we are in control of our mind, we become less focused on our target and less relaxed in our movements, which affects our play.

Learning to notice and manage our thoughts takes practice.  Noted sports psychologists Dr. Bob Rotella says, “You may think your thoughts and emotions are involuntary, that you can’t control them.  I am going to tell you, you can.”  Learning to consciously manage your thoughts is a necessary skill towards playing better golf.  It’s a skill that will improve your golf score and, in addition, will serve you well in any “dangerous” situation, on the course and off.