International Journal of Golf Science, 2012, 1, 2-9
© 2012 Human Kinetics, Inc.
Vickers is a Professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology University of Calgary, Alberta, Calgary, Canada.
Neuroscience of the Quiet Eye
in Golf Putting
Joan N. Vickers
University of Calgary
Over 50 refereed publications have been published on the quiet eye (QE, Vickers,
1996) in a wide range of motor tasks. Mean quiet eye duration in the golf putt
is longer for highly skilled golfers (handicap less than 4), averaging 2.5–3.0 s,
compared with 1.0–1.5 s for those with lower skill levels. A long duration QE not
only helps organize and sustain the neural networks underlying the organization
and control of the putt, but also may insulate the golfer from the normally debilitat-
ing effects of distracting thoughts, high arousal and high pressure. Research from
neuroscience using electroencephalograph (EEG) and imaging are beginning to
identify the neural structures underlying QE focus of attention. QE training in the
golf putt has proven to be effective and has been shown to increase performance
under high pressure.
Keywords: performance under pressure, vision, attention, brain, quiet eye, focus
Golf putting requires precise control of physical actions and vision is essential
in providing the information the movement systems needs to perform at a high level.
Vision and focus of attention play a critically important role as the ability to direct
the gaze (i.e., the eyes, the head, and the body) to optimal areas of the golf environ-
ment at the appropriate time is one characteristic of elite putting performance. One
variable that has been consistently found to discriminate elite performers from their
near-elite and novice counterparts is the quiet eye. In this paper the quiet eye is
dened and the neural pathways of the visual-motor system are explained. Follow-
ing there is a presentation of the results of recent neural imaging studies conducted
during long duration movements which show increased activation of a frontal area
that is central to both focus of visual attention and precise motor control. Following
this, there is an explanation how QE training not only improves the performance of
novice golfers, but also is of assistance to elite golfers in improving their accuracy
The quiet eye (QE) is a perceptual-motor variable applicable to a wide range
of motor skills (for review see Mann, Williams, Ward & Janelle, 2007; Vickers,
2007). The QE is dened as the nal xation or tracking gaze located on a specic
location or object in the visuo-motor workspace within 3° of visual angle (or less)
for more than 100 ms (Vickers, 1996; Vickers, 2007). The QE onset occurs before
Neuroscience Quiet Eye 3
a nal critical movement in the task and offset when the gaze deviates off the loca-
tion or object by more 100 ms. The onset of the QE in elite athletes occurs earlier
and the duration is longer compared to near-elite or non-elites. It is also earlier and
longer during higher levels of performance (success, fail). The QE in the golf putt
is the nal xation located on the top or back of the ball within 1° of visual angle
for more than 100 ms. The QE onset occurs before the onset of the backswing
and QE offset when the gaze deviates off the top or back of the ball by more than
100 ms. QE research in golf has grown over the years with some of the major stud-
ies shown in Table 1. Across the studies (with one exception), QE duration of low
handicap golfers averaged between 2.0-3.0 seconds compared to 1-1.5 seconds for
high handicap or lower skilled golfers (Vickers, 2007, 1992; Vine & Wilson, 2011;
Vine, Moore & Wilson, 2011; Mann, Coombes, Mousseau, & Janelle, 2011). The
one exception is Van Lier, van der Kamp & Savelsbergh (2010) who found a QE
of 1080 ms that did not differ due to expertise or accuracy. It appears the authors
dened the QE as the nal xation before the ball was contacted, instead of the
nal xation that had an onset prior to the backstroke.
Neural Pathways and Visuo-Motor Control of the Quiet Eye
Humans see with clear acuity when light falls on a small region of the retina called
the fovea. Because of this humans are able to see with full acuity over a relatively
small visual angle of 3° (Coren, Ward, & Enns, 2004). Elite golfers control their
gaze precisely to process critical aspects of the ball, hole, breakpoint and other
locations with full acuity. Researchers who use mobile eye trackers measure the
location of the gaze in space over this small visual angle, with two eye movements,
xations and saccades being of greatest interest. A xation occurs when the gaze is
held stable on an object (ball, club head, part of green, hole or other location) within
3° of visual angle for 100 ms or longer (Carpenter, 1988). The 100 ms threshold is
the minimum amount of time needed to recognize or become aware of a stimulus.
Saccades occur when the eyes move quickly from one xated location to another,
for example when looking from the hole to the ball when putting. During xations
information is processed by the brain, but during saccades it is suppressed.
During the QE visual information is registered rst by the retina, then passes
rapidly through the optic nerve, the lateral geniculate nucleus, and the optic/straite
Table 1 Mean Quiet Eye Duration of Low and Handicap Golfers
as Found in Selected Studies.
Studies Low Handicap High Handicap
Vickers, 1992 2200 ms 900 ms
Vickers & Crews, 2004 2210 ms 1680 ms
VanLier et al., 2009** 1080 ms 1100 ms
Mann et al., 2011** 3300 ms 2900 ms
Vine et al., 2011 2794 ms 1405 ms
Mean QU Duration 2317 1597
** est. 1 s for stroke duration
radiations to the visual/cortex occipital lobe at the back of the head. Located in
the occipital cortex are visual sensors that begin the processing of registering and
interpreting what the golfer sees, with specic detectors for initial registration (V1),
shape (V2), angles (V3), motion (V3a), color (V4), V5 (motion with direction),
depth and self motion (V6) and depth of stereo motion (V7) (Carter, 2009; Kolb &
Whishaw, 2009; Corbetta, Patel, & Shulman, 2008; Corbetta, & Shulman, 2002).
During a long duration QE the gaze is stable for 2-3 seconds depending on the
distance of the putt; therefore, from the outset of the xation the golfer perceives a
constant and relatively stable stream of information about the ball and its location
relative to the club face and intended target as determined before onset. Extensive
testing of golfers has shown that only highly skilled golfers are consistently able
to hold the QE stable on the ball for about one second before the backswing, one
second during the stroke, and a half second after contact. Instead, for lower skilled
golfers it is more common for the gaze to shift once the stroke begins as indicated
by higher xation rates to more locations (Vickers, 1992; Vickers, 2004) therefore,
the brain registers information from multiple sources using the V1-V7 sensors.
Instead of receiving input about one location re the position of the ball and its
relationship to the intended target as occurs with elite golfers, lower skilled golfers
take more information from many sources and therefore may be unable to maintain
the precise alignment of the club face on the ball that must occur in order for high
levels of putting accuracy to occur (Pelz, 2000).
Role of Dorsal Attention Network (DAN)
and Ventral Attention Networks (VAN)
Once an object is perceived by the visual cortex, visual information moves rapidly
forward in the brain, along two routes (Corbetta, Patel, & Shulman, 2008; Corbetta,
& Shulman, 2002; Milner & Goodale, 1995). The dorsal attention network (DAN)
projects from the occipital lobe to parietal lobe and forward to the frontal lobe in
a journey that goes over the top of your head to the frontal lobe, while the ventral
attention network (VAN) projects forward along the sides of the head through the
temporal lobes to the frontal areas (Corbetta, Patel, & Shulman, 2008; Corbetta,
& Shulman, 2002). The primary function of the DAN is to sustain spatial focus of
attention on one location, thereby blocking out competing stimuli that may intrude
from the VAN system. The VAN includes the hippocampus and amygdala, which
are located on the inside of the temporal lobe on each the side of the head. The hip-
pocampus is responsible for recording memories and the amygdala for emotional
control and regulation. Imagine for example, that a golfer has had a particularly
bad experience. This would be dually registered by the hippocampus and amygdala.
When a long duration QE is maintained on an optimal location a mental buffer
or barrier is created that prevents intruding thoughts or bad experiences arising in
the hippocampus and amygdala from distracting attention and leading to higher
levels of anxiety. Evidence in support of this is provided in studies by Land (2009),
Corbetta, Patel, & Shulman, (2008), and Corbetta, & Shulman, 2002, which show
the VAN network is activated when visual attention switches from one location to
another. We can speculate that when the QE duration is lower the DAN system has
been deactivated and the gateway is opened to potentially harmful memories and
emotions that contribute to higher levels of anxiety and lower levels of performance.
Neuroscience Quiet Eye 5
Evidence in support of this speculation comes from QE studies conducted under
conditions of high pressure and/or anxiety which show that when the QE duration
declines, performance also decreases. This has been shown in table tennis (Wil-
liams, Vickers & Rodrigues, 2002), shooting (Vickers & Williams, 2007; Causer,
Holmes, Smith & Williams, 2011) basketball shooting and golf (Vine, Moore &
Wilson, 2011; Wilson, Vine & Wood, 2009).
Both the DAN and VAN send information to the frontal lobes, where the stroke
is planned, initiated and controlled. Only recently have imaging studies provided
some insight into the role of the frontal areas during long duration movements like
the putt. This is due to the vast majority of EEG and MRI studies concentrating on
the preparation of the stroke and/or the use of tasks that require rapid movements
(such as a key press). In contrast, studies by Swinnen and colleagues have suc-
ceeded in imaging the brain not only before, but during, long duration movements
with time spans similar to the one second found in the putting stroke. Callaert et
al. (2011) have shown that a new dorsal spatial attention frontal area is activated
during long duration movement planning and control, irrespective of which hand
is used, having the eyes open or closed, or whether feedback is available or not.
The dorsal spatial attention frontal area is located in the right inferior, medial and
superior frontal gyrus and activated when spatial information must be continuously
exploited to maintain accurate long duration movements.
Quiet Eye Training
QE training studies are designed to help novices acquire the quiet eye charac-
teristics of experts (Vickers, 2009, 2007). Table 2 provides an overview of some
studies completed to date, in the volleyball serve reception (Adolphe, Vickers &
LaPlante, 1997), basketball free throw (Harle & Vickers, 2001), golf putt (Vickers,
2007; Vine, Moore & Wilson, 2011) and skeet shooting (Causer et al., 2011). Using
this approach, Vine, Moore and Wilson (2011) randomly placed 22 elite golfers
into 2 groups (QE trained; Control) based on their handicaps. Changes in putting
performance and QE duration were determined during a pretest, a posttest under
pressure in the laboratory and a follow-up transfer test of 10 rounds of competi-
tive golf. Although both groups had similar accuracy and QE scores in the pretest,
the QE-trained group was signicantly more accurate and lagged the ball closer
to the hole than the Control group during the pressure test. They also increased
the QE duration by 800 ms while the control group decreased their QE duration
by 400 ms. Over the course of 10 competitive rounds the QE-trained group made
1.9 fewer putts per round (p < .05) compared with their pretest while the Control
group showed no change in their putting statistics.
Neuroplasticity in Golf
The concluding topic now considers the type of neural structures that may change
as a result of QE training. Jancke, Koeneke, Hoppe, Rominger and Hanggi (2009)
scanned 40 golfers using MRI: 10 professional golfers (handicap 0), 10 highly-
skilled golfers (handicap range 1–14); 10 golfers at the intermediate level (handicaps
15 and 36), and 10 individuals with no golf experience. Signicant differences were
found between the two high skilled groups (handicap range 0–14) when compared
with the lower skilled (handicap range 15–36 plus novices). Specically, changes
Table 2 Selected Quiet Eye Training Studies by Sport, Skill Level and Increase in Performance with and
without Quiet Eye Training.
Study Sport & Task Skill Level QE Trained Control
Adolphe et al. 1997 Volleyball Team Canada +7% 0
Harle & Vickers 2001 Basketball Varsity +23% +6%
Ouedjans et al., 2005 Basketball Professional +14% 0%
Vine et al., 2011 Golf Putt Low Handicap -1.9 putts/ round 0/round
Causer et al., 2011 Skeet Shooting Olympic +5% 0%
Vine et al., 2011 Basketball Novices +34% +23%
Neuroscience Quiet Eye 7
occurred primarily in the dorsal premotor and parietal cortex, the area also identied
by Callaert et al. The authors concluded that extensive practice in golf, which is
necessary to achieve a handicap ranging from 0 to 14, leads to signicant changes
in the dorsal spatial attention frontal area. In a follow-up study, Bezzola, Merillat,
Gaser and Jancke (2011) trained novice golfers using 40 hours of golf practice
and play and compared with a control group with no experience in golf. The pre-/
post MRI showed signicant increases in the dorsal spatial attention frontal area
of the trained group that were not present in the control group. In particular there
were changes in the parietal-occipital junction (POJ) which is functionally and
anatomically connected to the visual system. Increases in gray matter in this area
provide an additional clue why a long duration QE is essential to golf success; it
assists and establishes, in a consistent manner, visuospatial attention control that
is associated with enhanced spatial learning and body perception/control. Similar
results have been shown for elite ballet dancers (Hangii, et al 2010).
Recently Wood & Wilson (2012) have established that when athletes receive
QE training this endows them with a higher sense of perceived control and con-
dence. In a study of skilled penalty takers in soccer, not only did the QE trained
group increase their QE duration on locations further from the goalkeeper, but
they also were more accurate to these locations than a control group in both
a laboratory based retention test and a high stress shootout. Perceived control
was determined from a questionnaire developed by the authors based on the work
of Jordet et al. (2006) that assessed perceptions of contingency and competence.
The authors are the rst to show that QE training not only increases QE duration
and performance but also positively alters control beliefs when performing under
In summary, a long duration QE is an objective measure of a golfer’s ability to
detect the critical cues underlying putting success and maintain visual focus under
conditions of high anxiety and pressure. The QE prevents a loss of visual focus
and task relevant attention by providing the information the brain needs to control
the hands and club face as precise contact with the ball is made. In support of this
notion, MRI studies of subjects, including golfers, show increased activation of a
neural area within the dorsal spatial attention frontal network and decreased activa-
tion in ventral temporal areas, areas central to attention switching and emotional
activation. A long duration QE appears to help maintain focus on the task at hand
while at the same time blocking out destructive thoughts known to lead to lower
levels of performance.
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