Monkey See Monkey Do

Monkey see, monkey do

Congratulations to Yuka Saso on winning the 2021 U.S. Women’s Open. Saso had a pretty amazing week playing four rounds of phenomenal golf, overcoming two double bogeys in her first three holes and a five shot deficit on the final day, winning in a sudden death playoff, tying Inbee Park for the youngest woman to win the tournament, and becoming the first Filipina to hoist a Major trophy. From a mental perspective, Saso aspires to be #1 in the world and given the grit and determination she demonstrated last week, no one will be surprised when she gets there.

Whenever an athlete has success on a big stage like the Women’s U.S. Open, we always want to know why, not just because it makes for a good story, but I believe, it’s for a more personal reason. We want to know why because it gives us hope; hope that we might find something to improve our own lives.

Interestingly, one of the things Saso has attributed to her success has been to mimic one of her idols. Every night before going to bed, Saso watches videos of Rory McIlory playing golf. Not only does Saso admire and actively try to replicate his swing mechanics, but she also watches in an effort to emulate his character.  “I like his swing,” Saso said, “I like how he hits the ball and I like how he plays, how he manages the golf course and I like his attitude on the course.”

So, why does imitating others matter? And, how can it help us play better golf? Let’s ask a monkey! Over 30 years ago, a team of scientists at the University of Parma, in Italy, discovered special brain cells, called mirror neurons, in macaque monkeys. What the researchers discovered was that a specific set of neurons that fired when a monkey performed a specific behavior, amazingly also fired when that same monkey just watched another monkey doing the same thing.

Since that time, much more has been learned about mirror neurons including the fact that all mammals have them and they play an important role in learning. By watching another person perform a behavior, the motor cortex in our brains activates as if we were performing the behavior ourselves. In essence, we get to practice and thereby learn how to do something simply through observation. This makes perfect sense from an evolutionary perspective to help ensure our survival and can also help us become better golfers. Obviously, there are physical limitations to what an individual is capable of doing and watching Rory McIlroy videos won’t result in a perfect replication of his swing. However, knowing that by watching an expert performer behave in a way we ourselves aspire to be will activate similar neural patterns in our own brains seems to be worth consideration. It may have even helped Yuka Sas win the U.S. Women’s Open.