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Colbert Hills Golf Course

Manhattan, Kan.


Sports psychologist gets inside golfers, athlete's head

By Keener A. Tippin II



golfers hitting balls in sand pit

File photo

Tackling the link between the mind and the body may be the key to overcoming obstacles and dealing with the mental aspect of the game. But, at Colbert Hills Golf Course's groundbreaking in 2000, these golfers didn't have to worry about tournament pressures.


On the strength of his unique style and vocabulary, ESPN sportscaster Stuart Scott has become an icon for his conveyance of adjectives like "cool as the other side of the pillow," or "cool as a cucumber," to describe sports highlights like the 45-foot putt sunk on the 17th hole by PGA golfer Justin Leonard to clinch the 1999 Ryder Cup or Tiger Woods' unforgettable charge from seven strokes back with seven holes to play to capture the Pebble Beach Pro-Am Golf Tournament in February.

Scott's delivery may be in the vernacular of today's youth, but the analogy is a bit misleading. According to a counselor in Kansas State University's counseling services, "coolness," as in relation to body temperature, probably had little to do with Leonard and the rest of the Ryder Cup team launching the biggest comeback in the tournament's history or Woods' remarkable assault to garner his sixth straight win on the PGA TOUR. In fact, it might have resulted in a different conclusion.

While lesser talents may have folded or "choked" under the pressure, Arthur Rathbun attributes these successes to those athletes who deal effectively with the mental aspect of the game, tackling the link between the mind and the body, and controlling their level of physiological and emotional arousal.

According to Rathbun, if athletes are stressed and worried that they have to hit the ball a certain way or need a shot for their team, they might "freeze," experiencing a racing heart and tense muscles which could contribute to a poor golf shot. The delay technique of calling a time-out is often employed in football on a kicker prior to a field goal or in basketball on a player shooting free throws to get inside their head and make them think of all the consequences of missing that shot or kick.

"During this state of emotional and physiological arousal, blood moves from the peripheral of the body to the center," Rathbun said. Sweat production increases, respiration changes, muscle tension increases and various hormonal changes occur. "These changes can be helpful to us if they are in an optimal amount, " Rathbun said. "If the physiological and emotional arousal goes beyond what is helpful, then our performance begins to diminish."

Rathbun, along with counseling services interns Bob Harmison and Brock Boekhout, both graduate students in education from Manhattan, has been working on the mental aspect of the game with the K-State men's and women's golf teams.

They are attempting to help the golfers develop certain skills to self-regulate skin temperature, sweat production and muscle production. By using self-regulation skills and "biofeedback" techniques, they hope the golfers will be better able to manage the physiological and emotional arousal associated with competition. Correctly learning and applying these techniques could result in the golfers being at a more optimal level of arousal during competition, thereby achieving better scores.

"What we know is if your skin temperature is high or going up, you are moving toward a lower physiological level of arousal or calm state," Rathbun said. "Correspondingly, your emotional state will be calmer."

He likens the process to the jerking motions associated with first attempts to drive a car with a stick shift.

"In those kinds of situations, the brain processes the feedback automatically," Rathbun said. "Eventually, after trial, feedback, adjustment, trial, feedback, adjustment, you learn how to drive a stick shift. When learning relaxation physiological self-regulation skills, you have to intentionally make adjustments in what you're doing, but the feedback will tell you if what you're doing is working. Eventually you'll learn to regulate within yourself what is happening to you physiologically and emotionally."

The back tees of Colbert Hills are designed with golfers wanting to play on a championship course in mind. The course is home for the Wildcat women's and men's golf teams, but also serves as a unique living laboratory for K-State researchers.


August 2002