The quiet eye: it’s the difference between a good putter and a poor one. Here’s proof
Joan N. Vickers
Why is putting so difficult for so many golfers? The problem isn’t the mechanics of the stroke. Almost anyone can take hold of a putter and hit the ball in an acceptable manner. The difficulty lies in using your eyes to detect the right information about distance and direction at the right time, then using your mind to relay that information so you can consistently make the ball go in the hole.
By recording under laboratory conditions precisely what golfers see while they putt, my team of researchers in the Neuro-Motor Psychology Laboratory at the University of Calgary are beginning to figure out the mystery–what separates really good putters from the rest. We call it The Quiet Eye.
Here’s what it is, and how you can develop it.
The Quiet Eye occurs when your gaze remains absolutely still on the ball just before and as the stroke is performed. There are two important aspects to this basic yet essential skill: location and duration. Our research has shown that golfers who putt well focus their gaze on either the back of the ball or the top of the ball. Which is better? Both locations are effective in improving accuracy, but a weight of evidence is beginning to favor the back of the ball.
We’ve also studied Quiet Eye duration. The expert putters had a Quiet Eye duration of two to three seconds on average, while the less-skilled players held their gaze steady for one to two seconds.
The same result has been found in a number of other sport skills such as rifle shooting, darts, billiards and the basketball free throw. In putting as well as in other hand-eye-target skills, The Quiet Eye is emerging as an indicator of optimal focus and concentration.
Why is it essential that you develop a Quiet Eye when you putt? It’s simple–your hands are controlled by your brain, which gets valuable information about what to do from your eyes. As you putt, your brain needs to organize more than 100 billion neurons. These neural networks are informed by your gaze, and control your hands, arms and body as the stroke is performed. These networks will stay organized for only a short period of time; a window of opportunity opens that must be used when it is at its most optimal. This is The Quiet Eye period.
Take two skilled golfers, one being a poor putter (above left) and the other a good putter (above right). In the illustrations, both are faced with a short putt on a flat surface. Using the sophisticated eye-movement tracker technology detailed below, we’re able to monitor precisely what the eyes focus on, and for how long.
This good putter fixates on the back of the ball where the putterhead will contact it. There is little uncertainty in the mind of this golfer about where the target is. A good putter picks out a specific location on the hole, such as a blade of grass on the lip. The target is not the hole itself, and certainly not around it. Instead, the gaze focuses on a target only a few millimeters wide.
Good putters use rapid shifts of gaze (head and eye movements combined) in which no conscious information is processed to link the specific spot on the hole with the specific location on the back of the ball. They fixate on the spot on the hole for one to two seconds and then use rapid shifts of the gaze between the spot and the back of the ball for 300 to 500 milliseconds. (There are 1,000 milliseconds in a second; you become aware of something when your gaze is stable on one location for at least 100ms. It takes about 180ms to see something and make or correct a movement.)
Our research has shown that The Quiet Eye is equally important on breaking putts. On a breaking putt, a good putter determines the break point and transposes the target from the hole to that location. A poor putter is much more indiscriminate with targeting and scan path, often relying on an inaccurate form of triangulation to locate a vague break point.
By recording movements of the center of the pupil and corneal reflex, we can also record the gaze throughout the putting stroke. The good putter maintains fixation on the same location at the back of the ball through the backswing, forward swing, contact and for almost half a second after the ball is struck. The gaze stays in exactly the same location relative to the position of the feet, indicating the gaze does not move. This is very difficult for most of us to achieve: Most often, the gaze moves when the club contacts the ball. When golfers stabilize this part of their routine they are more accurate.
Golfers who have trouble putting do not select a single spot on the target but let their gaze roam all over the hole and surrounding green. They have a shorter duration of fixation on the hole, and they use rapid shifts of the gaze that are either too fast or too slow between the hole and the ball. The poor putter’s gaze is unstable at impact–in our testing we often see that the poor putter’s gaze moves toward the front foot at impact. This erratic scan path and fixation clouds his focus and concentration. It’s evident that his brain is getting a jumble of signals about where the hole is and what he wants the ball to do. (As the article at right shows, researcher Dr. Debbie Crews of Arizona State University is also able to determine the brain-activation patterns among golfers during The Quiet Eye; the good putter achieves a “harmonic” state in the brain whereas the poor putter shows chaotic activity, particularly in the area of the brain that controls vision.)
Good putters have developed an efficiency in their gaze control that differs greatly from poor putters. When good putters make putts, they take about eight seconds per putt and use an average of 10 gazes (fixations, rapid eye movements and blinks combined). When they miss, they take longer–about 10 seconds–and use more gazes. The poor putters have a completely different gaze-control strategy. They are more accurate when they take more time, and use more gazes per putt.
These results reveal an important point: With golf skill, there is a quality in the information absorbed that translates to better performance. Beginners, who are just developing their putting skills, do not have the same ability to extract meaning from each gaze or to help the brain solve the location, slope, curvature and distance problems. It’s better to take more time and use more gazes to build up the putt over time, until you begin to develop understanding of what you are seeing. However, the key is to get out of the novice gaze routine and develop the shorter, more focused routine used by good putters.
Under stress, The Quiet Eye is often the first thing to go. It moves with the stroke, and golfers lose their ability to stabilize their gaze as they putt. When you choke, the billion cells in your brain lose their effective complexity in solving the slope, curvature, distance and location problems.
Golfers have long been told to hold their head still when they putt, and certainly this is important. As Tiger Woods has said, “If you’re like me, you can’t wait to see if the ball is tracking toward the hole right after the ball leaves the putterface. But the urge to glance up too soon has some nasty consequences. The tendency to peek too soon causes my head to move and leads to sloppy contact.” It may be that the stability in the gaze that is The Quiet Eye is even more important, as this is the source of the information you need to make the putt. If your gaze is moving when you hit the ball, the commands that set your gaze in motion were sent through your brain about 180 milliseconds before contact–sometime during your stroke.
The notion of being in The Zone or of “flow” in sport has been around for a long time. But until now there has been little scientific evidence that The Zone exists, let alone has measurable characteristics. Perhaps The Quiet Eye will emerge as one of the objective measures.
The Quiet Eye is the glue that keeps your neurons from being scrambled when under stress. It supplies the right information at the right time. Over all, The Quiet Eye has the essence of simplicity alluded to when a golfer is in The Zone. More research will tell. In the meantime, The Quiet Eye is something you can learn and add to your putting game today.
WHAT YOU SEE ON STRAIGHT PUTTS
These overhead views show the differences between a skilled golfer who has trouble putting (below) and a skilled golfer who is good at putting (right). The good putter focuses his gaze on a precise spot on the back of the ball, his scans from the ball to the hole are more precise, and he fixates his gaze on a specific spot inside the cup. The poor putter does not fixate on a specific target, but instead directs his gaze to a number of locations on and around the hole. There is no clear definition of his target or his line of gaze from the ball to the target. His gaze on the ball is all over the place. He has a shorter Quiet Eye duration because he is unable to keep his gaze quiet as he strokes the ball.
Tests of skilled golfers who are poor putters reveal that they fail to fix their gaze on a specific location on the ball. Where you fix your gaze matters as much as for how long.
Good putters keep their gaze very still on a specific location on the ball just before and as the stroke is performed. The duration of The Quiet Eye averages two to three seconds.
HOW WE MEASURE THE QUIET EYE
TO DETECT THE QUIET EYE DURING THE PUTTING STROKE WE USE a device called an eye tracker (far left). It is a lightweight helmet outfitted with two miniature cameras and a visor that looks like clear glass but acts like a mirror to the cameras (recently simplified to a headband-like apparatus with a monocle visor). The first camera (labeled “A”) focuses on the center of the pupil and the corneal reflex, which is the reflection of a small light source on the cornea. Two sets of crosshairs record their locations. By measuring both, the system tracks eye-line of gaze in the scene viewed. The second camera (labeled “B”) records the golfer’s gaze, which is indicated by the yellow cursor. The location of the gaze is accurate to less than 1 degree of visual angle–a degree of visual angle is about a third the width of your thumb held out at arm’s length. Last, a third camera is positioned to record the golfer’s movements at the same time (image “C”). All three images are sequenced so we can record what your eye, gaze and stroke are doing every 33.33 milliseconds. Because images A, B and C are synchronized we can answer questions like: What did you look at the moment the club hit the ball? How did this affect your accuracy? What did you look at as you read the green, and how did this affect the result?
WHAT YOUR BRAIN IS DOING WHEN YOU PUTT
PATTERNS OF BRAIN ACTIVITY VARY FROM THE POOR PUTTER TO THE GOOD PUTTER. Poor putters and golfers who are developing their putting ability tend to have lower activity scattered throughout the brain. Good putters tend to know what to focus on and do this with more intensity and activity. Over all, the good putter shows “harmonized” activity throughout the brain. This is similar to the keys on the piano. Certain combinations of notes create greater harmony than other combinations. They may not all sound the same but are beautiful when put together in specific patterns.
The electroencephalogram (EEG) maps shown above right represent the amount of activity at 10 locations in the brain for two groups of individuals–poor putters and good putters. The brain maps are shown from overhead, with the forehead toward the top. The activity is averaged over the final second before initiating the stroke. The two components of importance include the amount of activity (red is high, blue is low) and the balance of activity between the left and the right hemispheres of the brain. Of these two components, the balance of activity is more important. The optimal state is harmony, all areas of the brain firing synchronously and creating a coherent state of activity. You can see this higher state of harmony in the more balanced brain-activity patterns of the good putter (measured in Hertz frequency ranges) versus the unharmonized, lower patterns of the poor putter.
During each look at the hole or target the golfer needs to have time to go there in the mind and return. These looks are meaningful as the brain gathers the information it needs to create the motor program. Poor putters and beginners look repeatedly at their targets at a fast rate and have diffuse brain activity. In contrast, good putters look to the hole slowly, with focused intensity. When the brain reaches a harmonic state, there is nothing left to do except putt the ball in the hole.
Interestingly, the occipital area of the brain, the area that controls vision, shows a reverse pattern compared with the other brain regions (top maps). Good putters show less activity at this location just before the stroke compared to poor putters because the processing is complete and no new information is being provided. The good putter knows where to look; the occipital area has completed its work. It simply harmonizes with the rest of the brain. Poor putters with varied eye patterns remain active in this brain region as if the processing is never complete. They lack The Quiet Eye.
DR. DEBBIE CREWS, Arizona State University
HOW TO DEVELOP YOUR QUIET EYE
A Quiet Eye routine on straight, flat putts has the following characteristics that you can learn. Repeat this on each putt.
* FOCUS ON THE HOLE: As soon as your putterhead is set behind the ball, pick a specific location on the hole where you want the ball to go, such as a blade of grass or a small feature on the front of the cup.
* ‘SEE’ THE BALL GO IN: Look at this location for about two seconds, and visualize the ball going into the hole.
* SCAN FROM HOLE TO BALL: Smoothly shift your gaze without interruption from the target to the back of the ball. Your gaze should move calmly and efficiently.
* EYE ON THE BALL: Fixate on the back of the ball, and imagine just the right contact of the putterhead on the ball. Picture a line through this contact point to your spot on the hole.
* STAY STEADY: Maintain a Quiet Eye on the one spot on the back of the ball during the backstroke and forward stroke and through contact. Don’t peek! Only after you’ve done this, take a look at your ball going in the hole.
A word of caution: Some golfers I work with have a putting routine that goes like this: Focus for a couple of seconds on the hole, a half-second from the hole to the ball and back, repeat two times, then focus on the back of the ball during and after the stroke for two to three seconds total. Their timing routine becomes everything to them. They forget the reason The Quiet Eye routine is used in the first place: to optimize the information needed for each putt.
Your Quiet Eye routine should not become a rigid counting exercise; this is not the main reason it’s important. It is important because it allows you to become smarter about each putt. The Quiet Eye should in no way lead to slow play. You might even play faster, with fewer putts. Once your brain has its information, the stroke is easier to perform and your confidence will rise as your scores improve.
Dr. Joan N. Vickers is a professor of kinesiology at the University of Calgary, in Alberta, Canada. For more detailed information on The Quiet Eye, visit www.kin.ucalgary.ca/nm/.
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