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How You Handle Stress is in Your Genes

How You Handle Stress is in Your Genes
By Dr. T. J. Tomasi
Keiser University College of Golf Senior Faculty and Director of Research

In a previous article, we saw the dangers of the swing compensation where the player, instead of fixing the problem, introduces another error as a tenuous fix. The problem is that all compensations have a fail ratio that is over-sensitive to the circumstances, and, as Murphy’s Law dictates, the failure of the compensation inevitably comes at just the wrong time – so the rule is: Put enough pressure on the compensation and it will crack.

Fortunately, as we saw, there is a relatively simple solution to a swing failing under pressure due to compensations – i.e., take lessons from a teacher who will show you how to clean up your swing. Unfortunately, there is another factor involved in holding up under pressure, and it is neither easy to recognize nor simple to treat. According to Silvia Bunge, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, there is a gene named COMT in every human genome that regulates the amount of dopamine in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. “Our brains work best when dopamine is maintained at an optimal level,” she explains – “You don’t want too much, or too little. By removing dopamine, the COMT enzyme helps regulate neural activity and maintain mental function.” Sustained high levels of dopamine can lead to irregular heartbeat, vascular damage, impaired reasoning and diseases such as schizophrenia. Neither is it good to run low levels, which causes tremors, depression, and diseases such as ADD and Parkinson’s. So, it’s no wonder that we have a body mechanism that tries to keep the amount of dopamine in our brains at optimal levels.

Stress and Dopamine

In any stressful situation [e.g. a golf tournament] the brain is flooded with excess levels of both stress chemicals like cortisol and the neurotransmitter dopamine, making it very hard to make correct decisions and execute already-learned skills housed in permanent memory. Here’s the problem golfers have: High levels of dopamine are designed to be temporary, but in golf, you’re out there for five hours or more, much too long to safely keep dopamine at such high levels and still perform well. Even two people watching can cause stress, but to be a player, you have to learn to hit the shots even if there are 20,000 people looking on. Experience/training is the underpinning to performance under pressure, and no one can ‘do’ your experience for you. The good news is that anyone can learn to manage their COMT gene to max out performance no matter which version of the gene they have.

According to Dr. Bunge, here is what is going on as your brain under stress seeks to regulate your levels of this key neural transmitter. There are two variants of the regulatory gene — one that depletes the dopamine in your brain very quickly, and one that works much more slowly so that the levels stay high for a much longer time. Under normal circumstances (low stress), those with the slow version of COMT perform much better than those with the fast COMT edition. But as stress rises and the competition heats up, dopamine floods the brain of both groups, and the performance curve begins to shift in favor of the fast COMT performer, whose brain returns to optimal function sooner. Of course, both groups must have the competitive skills already learned, but the gene difference helps explain why players with the slow gene who have not received stress-resistance training (how to hit the ball under stress) can be great range players, but as soon as the pressure is on, their performance suffers.

Likewise, fast-gene players who act lackadaisical and underperform in practice can turn out to be much better in competition. As is often the case, the new research raises many issues: What about the third, much larger group of people who have inherited both variants of COMT? And, what role does training play in this nature vs. nurture battle? Most research shows that performance under stress increases with proper stress resistance training, no matter what variant you inherit. But whether that training should be different for slow or fast variants and what the effect is of something as specific as diet or as mutable as human perception, are questions yet to be answered.

Note: Because we all get one COMT gene from our father and one from our mother, about half of all people inherit one of each gene variation, so they have a mix of the enzymes [50%] with response time somewhere in between the slow [25%] and the fast [25%].

If you’d like to study with Dr. Tomasi and other PGA Master Professionals, contact The College of Golf today.