A centrifugal dance

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Aug. 2, 2007

Dear Leslie,

I can't dance. I think I might know why.

When I was a boy a laughing cousin revealed that she'd looked through the window of my Granny's spare bedroom and seen me dancing in front of a mirror. I was mortified.

I wonder if I still am.

Back in the 1980s I took two-step lessons because I no longer wanted to go out where people danced and not dance myself. I followed all the directions.

I still can't dance.

I think too much about what I'm doing. I wonder if someone's watching.

This could be pathological.

One of the things that makes golf difficult is that someone's usually watching. On the first tee at St. Andrews in Scotland, usually about 100 people are watching. That's why we golfers so often belittle our abilities. It is a way of inoculating us for the certain eventuality of hitting at least a few shots every round that look like they sprang from a lawn sprinkler.

It's also easy to be victimized by a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate. It monitors human behavior and detects the conditions in which errors are possible. The anterior cingulate also can make you concerned about how a performance will be judged.

This monitoring can be helpful, especially in protecting us from danger. But if you are monitoring your performance, whether athletic, musical, social or whatever you're doing, you are not expressing your abilities freely.

Often while playing golf I catch myself paying attention to the angle of one leg or the other, to whatever my hands and arms are doing, the position of my head and on and on. That's monitoring your swing. That isn't playing golf.

It is the opposite of the "effortless present." The term is Dr. Richard Keefe's. He is the director of sport psychology at Duke University and author of "On the Sweet Spot: Stalking the Effortless Present."

The effortless present is the place where you aren't thinking about what you just did, what you hope to do, what you're afraid you're going to do or thinking of anything else. You are simply doing.

The anterior cingulate says no. The effortless present says yes.

Keefe writes: "When I am on the golf course, I am no more and no less than who I am. Every shot confirms this and, if I need to learn the lesson again, golf will give it to me. If it hit a poor approach shot into a bunker, yet focus on how much I wanted to have hit it close to the pin, my regret over the past will sour the sand shot as well. Only if I accept my place in the bunker, submit fully to what is true, and focus on the shot in front of me in the present, will I be able to blast out of the sand as I intend to."

I don't play golf because I want to beat the buddies I play with or because swinging a club gives me something to do while taking a four-hour walk. I play golf because its challenges enable me to understand myself and other people better. Golf asks you for the courage and tenderness to do a little centrifugal dance. It asks you to spend some childlike time in the present. Golf asks you to come out and play.

Love, Sam

Sam Blackwell is a reporter for the Southeast Missourian.]

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