Sunday, November 25, 2012

A Tool to Understand Stress: Better Golf, Better Parenting?

The Week End Wall Street Journal reports on new technology to measure stress in golfers.

Using a wristband loaded with sensors and a Bluetooth connection, an iPhone and some inferential physiology, cognitive neuroscientist Robert Goldberg developed a tool that seems able to conveniently measure stress in real time.

There are some interesting parallels to be drawn between the performance anxiety of golfers and the anxiety of new parents, and more that could be explored.

For example, when the device was tested on a couple of MIT golfers, the less experienced golfer was learning a new putting stroke; while his body indicated he had a high stress response, he said he  wasn't aware of it.  Yet, once it was identified, his coach emphasized a different technique and his stress level declined.

If the device proves to be a reliable and effective tool, there are lots of interesting questions relevant to prevention that could be explored:

- are there differences between men and women in the stress levels experienced by new parent (a question that certainly applies to golfers too...)?  [a pair of interesting studies from Sweden looked into m/f differences in reported stress levels - link1 - link2 - (interesting, fathers report less anxiety about incompetence than mothers.  Does that reflect society's lower expectations? ]
- how does learning and experience affect individual responses to stress?
- how does the learning curve of parenting correlate with stress levels?  Behavior changes is fairly rapid during early childhood.  Do parents who learn how to learn about developmental behavior fare better than those who don't?
- how do learned stress responses change during early childhood developmental stages?  In the article, one experienced golfer shows diminished stress when he follows his routine to set up a put.  That works well for the routine of golf, but what happens when parents learn a routine that comforts the needs of their three month old, then continue their behavior when it no longer is relevant to the growing child's needs?  Toddler conflict may prove to have roots in stress cycles...
- what individual factors affect the stress response?  Are there markers for adverse responses?
- do parents experience and acknowledge their actual stress levels?  What factors make it easier to acknowledge their experience?  Knowing that it's a common response?   Just knowing what is happening to them?  Given reports of people who give birth without knowing they were pregnant, perhaps prevention education needs to focus on how to normalize the experience.

Given that one common prevention, just put the baby down and walk away, is premised on the caregiver being able to recognize that their stress level is increasing, it would seem worthwhile to validate that assumption on some inexperienced caregivers.

If not, the primary caregivers may need to learn some coaching techniques.

The article mentions that the developer is exploring the possibility of marketing the device to pregnant women.  Wouldn't it be great if this start up expanded that vision to pair up with a parenting education program on a prevention research initiative?

Could lead to a marketing edge:

"We'll help you get comfortable with your new child, and your golf game."

Might just pique the interest of a few guys...

November 23, 2012
Using Science to Ward Off the 'Yips' 
Brain Scientist Designs App to Measure Stress While Golfing
The golf course is a treacherous, unforgiving place, where even the world's best players are vulnerable to stress-induced fits of madness.
For years, PGA Tour player Kevin Na has agonized over his swing as he waggles his club in the tee box six, seven, eight times—and then waggles it some more. Robert Karlsson abruptly withdrew from the British Open in July after finding that he simply couldn't swing, so tortured was his mental state. Just this month, Charlie Beljan was hospitalized after an early-round panic attack at a PGA Tour event in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., before he somehow summoned the wherewithal to return for the final 36 holes and win the tournament.
Lest we forget, golf is as much about the mind as it is the body—ask anyone who has had the "yips." The game can be so debilitating that the help of a neuroscientist sometimes seems required. Enter Robert Goldberg, a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience who has spent the last two years chipping away at one of the sports world's greatest challenges: How do you prevent golfers from blowing a gasket?

The result of Goldberg's research is a wristband that measures stress in real time by shooting small electrical charges into sweat glands. That data is then relayed via Bluetooth to an iPhone app, which displays stress as a line graph, with peaks and valleys, depending on how rattled the player feels. Goldberg hopes that golfers—and their coaches—can use that information to understand what triggers stress on the course and then go about unearthing solutions.
Goldberg, who recently left his post as a visiting scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said he first considered the intersection of sports and stress when he was 12 years old and working as a standard-bearer at the Greater Hartford Open. The playing group that he accompanied one afternoon included Ken Green, a PGA Tour professional and notorious hothead who "lost his s—," as Goldberg put it. By the end of his round, Green was so disgusted with his play that he gave young Goldberg his Ping putter. Even then, Goldberg was fascinated by the mental aspect of the game.
"It got me wondering: How do things like that hold people back from peak performance?" Goldberg said. "There are guys who have all the physical skills but don't have the right mind-set."
Goldberg said his work focuses on the adrenal system—glands near the kidneys that release hormones in response to stress. When that happens, the body attempts to cool itself by perspiring. The small electrical charges in his device essentially measure how much sweat accumulates in the skin. "We can see a response in under a half a second," Goldberg said. To isolate these fluctuations in stress, the device has a built-in "accelerometer" that accounts for the effect of motion, as well as a temperature gauge.
Goldberg recently tested his work on two MIT golfers—one of the team's top players and one of its most inexperienced. There were patterns, he said. With the top player, a sophomore named Jon Warneke, Goldberg found that Warneke's stress level remained static during his swing—an indication that Warneke felt comfortable with his mechanics. And his stress level actually decreased during the act of replacing his ball on the green before putting. "There must be something about that routine that I find very calming," said Warneke, a double major in theoretical math and physics.
Putting was a different story: His stress level skyrocketed. Though putting is a self-described weakness, Warneke said he had no idea that his body was enduring physiological changes as a result of stress. He was too focused on the task at hand to notice. But even small amounts of stress can cause shortness of breath, an increased heart rate and/or butterflies in the stomach, any of which are kryptonite for a golfer who's trying to keep his hands steady as he lines up an 8-foot par putt.
Once the problem areas are identified, however, there are solutions, Goldberg said—breathing techniques, for example, or a revamped pre-shot routine. The graph won't lie: It will show whether the new approach is effective.
"MIT kids in general don't really show stress," MIT golf coach Jesse Struebing said. "So it's neat for me to see what's going on inside their heads. You don't know exactly what they're thinking about, but you can see from the graph that there's stuff going on up there."
As for the relatively inexperienced MIT player, his stress level always spiked at the exact moment of impact—just as his club face struck the ball. Struebing said he'd been working with the player on his swing, and it was a sign to him that the player wasn't confident in what he was doing. "It told me that maybe I needed to take a new approach," Struebing said. Once he did, he found that the player's stress level at impact decreased over the course of the round and his play improved.
Golf is one subset of a larger project for Goldberg, who has formed a company called Neumitra with two colleagues, Anand Yadav and Safiyy Momen. The idea, Goldberg said, is that anyone can use the device to monitor and manage stress. Of particular interest to the group are those who have post-traumatic stress disorder, though Goldberg said the company plans to target a broad mix of consumers—students, pregnant women, tech geeks. He said he expects the device, known as "Bandu," to hit the market in 2014.

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