Dr. Michael Lardon with Pro Golfer Rich Beem
It’s not a word that appears with regularity in psychiatry’s manual of mental illnesses, but Dr. Michael Lardon knows precisely what his patients mean when they say they’re plagues by “demons.” They’re not talking about the Loch Ness monster or Godzilla or some blood-curdling creature from a Stephen King novel. They’re talking about a force field within themselves that can turn a lovely weekend golf outing into a nightmare.
So when Lardon puts that most fragile of patients “the golfer” on the couch it can often feel like banishing demons from the possessed.
Lardon, therapist to some of the PGA’s biggest names, is trying to become the Freud of the links. But unlike Freud, who traced neuroses to the sublimation of our most basic urges and instincts, Lardon believes the path to a healthier score lies in some form of repression. In this counter-intuitive game, he says, it’s best to keep a lid on the very reflex that’s so prized in other sport, adrenaline.
“When an athlete is at his highest level, or “in the zone,” we hypothesize that he has dissociated into a cocoon of concentration.” Lardon says, “It’s a glassy-eyed, trance-like state in which those natural primal reaction-increased heart rate and sweaty palms-aren’t recognized.
He goes on, “Time may slow down in the zone… it is a place in us where our mind is free from worries, free from thoughts, free from out own self-doubt and self-limitations. The zone is a place where confidence soars. It is not a place one can control. It is a state of being we can facilitate.”
“You’re in the zone,” a familiar mantra to anyone who spends time on golf courses, it is the highest compliment one duffer can offer another. It’s also a favorite saying of television commentators. In the tongue-twisting vernacular of psychiatry, however, “the zone” is a far-flung destination reached only after a series of complex biochemical reactions that involve the mid-brain and cerebral cortex, among other sections of the brain and central nervous system.
A decade ago, Lardon, who was on a psychobiology fellowship at the time, helped direct a study involving some of the world’s top athletes. It was conducted at the University of California’s San Diego campus, and it focused on whether brain waves and other variables could be harnessed in order to put athletes in “the zone.”
“It’s like being on auto-pilot” is how Lardon explained it to the study’s subjects.
A native of suburban New York City, Lardon, known as “Doc” to friends and patients, practices in the San Diego area, with its balmy, golf-friendly climate. Professional canons of ethics prevent him from identifying his patients by name, but they include a world’s former No. 1 and a winner of one of the tour’s four major events. He occasionally caddies for his brother Brad, a pro, and his shambling gait, inky black hair and kind face are well-known inside and outside the ropes at hallowed venues like Augusta National, Pebble Beach, and Torrey Pines.
Sports psychology is an established and fast-growing specialty, but in its frustration and fragility, golf is fairways beyond other athletics. “A good walk spoiled” is how Mark Twain described it.
In baseball, a batter can be fooled by a crackling curve ball, but a golf ball just sits there until a golfer hits it. And if the ball is struck improperly, who is there to blame? What you hit is what you get.
Knowing this, Lardon, a scratch golfer himself, borrows scenarios from other sports as part of his therapy.
A successful hitter tunes out the distractions of the ballpark and sees only “the curvature of the baseball,” he says, and the successful putter sees only the bottom of the cup. “We all have the ability to dissociate,” Lardon says. “Some dissociate more than others.”
There’s that word again. And in some contexts, it’s not flattering. “The criminal mind dissociates and compartmentalizes,” Lardon says. “The criminal cuts someone’s throat and his heart rate doesn’t change. You and I steal a pack of gum from a 7-11 and our heart is off to the races.”
Do you have to be a sociopath to shoot par? Of course not.
According to “Doc,” “if you can take a car ride and avoid the hazards of the highway, you can negotiate 18 holes and avoid the water, sand, and trees.” “Don’t let the water bubble up in your subconscious,” Lardon advises. “The unconscious mind is the most powerful determinant of behavior.”
Think of those who have inspired athletes to lofty heights and it’s unlikely that a psychiatrist comes to mind. Bear Bryant was a quintessential southern daddy whom you didn’t want to disappoint and Vince Lombardi’s gridiron axioms (“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” was one of them) could whip his team into an adrenal fury. Then there’s “Doc,” who tries to keep adrenaline to a minimum with nuggets such as “the only thing at stake in sports is your ego.”
Sounds a bit like Freud, doesn’t it?