Inside Bryson DeChambeau's brain training
17 Min Read
Cutting-edge methods and an unquenchable thirst to tap into his full potential has helped Bryson DeChambeau reach the next level
Written by Mike McAllister @PGATOUR_MikeMc
Editor's note: This story originally ran on February 19, 2019.
Every week, Bryson DeChambeau watches a movie. Doesn’t matter if he’s stuck in a hotel room for an upcoming tournament or sitting comfortably at home in Dallas. Usually, it’s an action-adventure; one of his most recent choices is “Deadpool,” the wisecracking disfigured anti-superhero with the salty vocabulary.
The special effects and dark humor are entertaining, but DeChambeau’s not watching for pleasure. He’s working out his brain.
Using his travel-sized Neuropeak Pro brain-training unit, DeChambeau pops in the DVD, then attaches a gold-plated silver EEG sensor to his head. The real-time data he receives monitors the peaks and valleys of his brain’s electrical current as the movie unfolds. DeChambeau’s goal is to avoid the spikes that occur at the most stressful, intense parts; he wants to keep his high beta and theta ratios inside a pre-determined range.
If the activity in his brain fires too high, the movie will immediately stop. Only when DeChambeau relaxes his brain – controlling his breathing, reducing his heart rate, focusing his mind to reach a calm state -- will the movie resume playing.
Maintaining a proper balance between the parasympathetic and sympathetic states, flattening out his EEG reading to eliminate the highs and lows – that’s the end game. Since the unit’s software automatically adjusts the optimal range after each session as he improves his performance level, DeChambeau never makes it through an entire movie without it stopping. He is constantly forced to get better.
This learning process, called operant conditioning, modifies behavior through either reinforcement or punishment. For golfers, it’s generally limited to the range or practice rounds, made via physical adjustments to a swing following a wayward shot, swing coach critique or poor TrackMan reading.
DeChambeau and his team at Neuropeak Pro have taken it to the next level, determined to gain a key advantage in a sport that Jack Nicklaus’ swing coach Jim Flick once famously declared as “90 percent mental – and the other 10 percent is mental, too.”
The DVD exercise provides both instant negative feedback and positive reinforcement, teaching the brain the benefits of being calm, focused and stress-free. Thanks to the analytics that DeChambeau receives, he knows exactly what levels cause the movie to shut down and resume.
“Everything is data-driven for him,” says Tim Bergsma, the Managing Director at Neuropeak Pro who works directly with DeChambeau. “Some people might say, ‘It’s just a golf ball – step up and hit it.’ But that’s not his approach. Never has been. Never will be. …
“He doesn’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘Oh, I feel pretty relaxed. I feel like I slept OK. I feel like whatever muscle group is OK. That isn’t good enough. He wants data – and what we do is provide that data.”
DeChambeau has been working with Neuropeak Pro for more than a year, but he didn’t openly discuss the Michigan-based company until last fall, just about the time he began a hot streak that hasn’t subsided. He’s won four times in his last 11 worldwide starts; in the seven events he didn’t win, he finished inside the top 10 three times and inside the top 20 the other four starts. Thanks to his Tiger-esque success rate, DeChambeau has vaulted to fifth in the world and enters this week’s World Golf Championships-Mexico Championship as one of the favorites.
His team at Neuropeak Pro couldn’t be prouder. The company has worked with other athletes, including current Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, who was a pre-med major with aspirations of becoming a surgeon prior to recognizing the value of throwing a football. It has worked with other golfers, including former TOUR pro Blake Adams, and with other athletes – their identities remain private – who’ve reached the top of their professions. High-level executives and other top professionals also have trained with Neuropeak Pro.
Yet it’s doubtful any athlete has come along more suited for brain training that DeChambeau. The Mad Scientist – while not an official nickname, it’s in his PGA TOUR bio – was a physics major at SMU and has been relentless in his pursuit of optimizing his mind in search of an edge on the rest of the field. He’s quickly grasped the theories behind Neuropeak’s methods. While most of the company’s clients receive the basic client education – at one-sheet overview or list of bullet points -- DeChambeau was given the full book to consume. “He’s as educated as half of my staff,” Bergsma admits.
Adds Dr. Tim Royer, the founder of Neuropeak Pro who recently left the company in order to pursue clinical work: “Bryson is kind of like that perfect storm because he’s got the athletic ability and he also has the intellect to understand what it is that’s going on with his brain and body when we connect all that to the computer. So for him, it makes complete sense.
“It’s not like it's sports psychology ... it’s actual technology, teaching the brain to fire differently.”
Two months ago at Woods’ Hero World Challenge, DeChambeau made his last start of the 2018 calendar year. At that point, he had won three of his previous six starts, and four since May when he claimed the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide.
He wasn’t happy with his performance in the Bahamas (he would eventually finish T-12 in the 18-man field) and wanted to start rectifying the issues with a post-round range session. He delayed his practice, though, to take time to discuss his brain training. Asked how much it had contributed to his success, DeChambeau replied: “There’s a reason why I’ve won four times this year. That’s my statement on that.”
Helping athletes reach their optimum mental potential was not necessarily the primary objective when Dr. Royer created Neuropeak Pro. He wanted to address sleep problems, anxiety issues, depression, ADHD – neurological issues usually treated by a ligand-gated change in the brain, when a chemical or drug is the prescribed solution. Xanax, for instance, to slow down the brain.
Of course, a single pill is a temporary solution. Dr. Royer and his team sought a permanent solution through a voltage-gated change, with the brain actually forming new pathways through advanced training. No chemicals needed.
“If we step back and think about it, what is our brain doing all the time?” Royer explains. “It’s learning constantly. When you learned the alphabet at one point, that wasn’t a ligand-gated change; that was a voltage-gated change where your brain learned that this abstract shape called the letter ‘A’ is going to be the letter ‘A’ the rest of your life. That was a pathway that was formed. That’s much stronger than a ligand-gated change that wear off over time. The Xanax wears off, the stimulant wears off. …
“If you think about somebody who can’t focus and they’re taking a medicine to focus and they’ve been doing this for 20 years – and all of a sudden we’re able to do some technology and teach the brain to focus to the point that they don’t need that medicine anymore. They don’t need that anxiety medicine or depression medicine or the sleep medicine because we’re changing how the brain is firing.”
The results are encouraging. Royer says three months after clients begin working with Neuropeak Pro to solve a focusing problem, approximately 80 percent are able to eliminate at least half of their chemical usage. Some are able to wean themselves completely off drugs.
Eventually, the company began working with clients who weren’t battling neurological problems but simply wanted to get the most of their brain – especially in a competitive environment, whether it’s a board room, a football field or, in DeChambeau’s case, a golf course.
Knowing that a person’s body relies on electrical current – and that the brain chews up 20 percent of that electricity – is the first step in understanding the process. “We make electricity all the time, but unlike an iPhone, we don’t plug into the wall,” Royer says. “We’re actually our own internal power plant.”
So how does the body make electricity? Royer points to these four elements:
• Drinking water. “If you don’t have water, you can’t make electrical current. That’s why hydration is really big in sports.”
• Eating food. “I need food in order for the brain to function. The thing about that, though, is I can go for a while without food and my brain will still work.”
• Sleeping. “If I go seven days without sleep, I would go psychotic, and by day 13, I would die.”
• Breathing – the most important element. “90 percent of the electrical current we make comes from oxygen.”
Adds Royer: “If you go out on the TOUR and you’re watching these guys, everybody is into the shakes, the new bar, the new nutrition, new carbless diet, whatever it is. Those are super-important but they’re nowhere near as important as how we’re using oxygen. So one of the first phases before we ever get to the brain training is teaching the golfer how to use oxygen in a way that they can keep their brain in a balanced state.”
It starts with something simple: Counting breaths.
Neuropeak Pro has identified a golfer’s swing routine, from lining up his target to finishing his back swing, as a three-breath process. The breaths are not short and shallow, but elongated, with a nice, smooth rhythm.
Achieving consistency in how you breathe is key. Predictable breathing helps the heart achieve a predictable beat, and thus creates a point of action that’s predictable. Military snipers are trained on this technique – taking deep, calm breaths, then pulling the trigger at the point where their heart is at rest.
“The things we taught Bryson are the same things we taught special forces,” Royer says. “When he strikes the ball, it’s just like he’s pulling a trigger on a rifle.”
When DeChambeau was first tested, his breathing while swinging a club was already at a high level of consistency. “But naturally, with anything he does, he wanted to fine-tune it because pretty good isn’t good enough,” Bergsma said. “Perfection is the goal.”
Ideally, on the breath when DeChambeau makes contact with the ball, it comes at the end of inhale and a mid-point of exhale. Being able to monitor exactly when he strikes the ball – either by wearing a breathing belt, a chest strap or other sensors while on the range – allows him to work toward that goal.
Just stepping onto the course and immediately inducing a predictive breathing pattern is not realistic, of course. It has to be part of your body’s 24/7 routine.
The average human, according to Bergsma, takes between 12 and 18 breaths a minute. The higher end of the range, the more stress is involved. That’s called the sympathetic state, otherwise known as fight or flight. Fewer breaths results in a parasympathetic state – rest and digest.
From Neuropeak Pro’s perspective, they would like to see DeChambeau somewhere around six controlled breaths per minute. Time yourself – it’s not easy.
“Well, it’s a standard,” DeChambeau smiles when told how tough it seems. “Everybody’s different. Depending on how much you’ve used your body and other factors, it’s going to change based on what your heart wants and needs.
“Your heart is an organ and sometimes it has a mind of its own, but it’s all about how the brain is working. The more you can get the brain to unleash its potential by providing oxygen and giving it in the right environment, the better you’re going to be able to think and understand certain situations.”
Let’s try to explain it with a lion and a zebra.
PRACTICE YOUR BREATHING
Consider the central nervous system of the brain as a thermostat that’s constantly reading the environment and making adjustments based on the body’s five senses.
When a zebra sees a lion, the zebra’s nervous system will speed up for fear of its life. That’s the sympathetic fight-or-flight state – and hopefully the zebra will successfully flee to live another day.
But when the zebra doesn’t see a lion, it lives a peaceful, calm existence, relaxing by the nearest watering hole. It is not thinking about the lion. It has returned to a parasympathetic state, with calm, controlled breathing.
Stanford neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky wrote a wonderfully titled book about this, “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers,” which explains that the zebra’s stress was episodic.
Unfortunately, stress for most humans is chronic. We’re constant worriers.
“The zebra isn’t sitting down by the river with the baby zebras and wondering how to get them into Harvard or what his 401k is doing. He lives in the environment,” Royer says. “As humans, we have the capacity to override our environment with our frontal lobe. That’s what makes us unique from animals. The frontal lobe is bigger than an animal’s, so it lets me think about the future, the present and the past all in just a few seconds.
“So I don’t have to see the lion to create a sympathetic response. I can just be sitting here looking out at the lake, and all of a sudden I start thinking about things that make me act as if I’m seeing the lion.
“This is the problem in sports. Instead of being present and getting direct input from the environment, we start to override that with our thought process that says, ‘What if I miss this putt? What about the last putt where I didn’t see it right?’ …
“We start to think about the past and the present and the future all at once. I’m not going to die from hitting that golf ball. It’s not going to kill me. It’s not life or death – but my brain makes it as if it is, and therefore I slip into sympathetic.”
As a result, pupils start to dilate. Depth perception and peripheral vision are constricted by about 50 percent. The heart rate accelerates while cortisol and adrenaline are produced. Breathing that averaged 16 or 18 breaths per minute now spikes into the 20s or more.
Thus, learning how to avoid those slippages is a big part of DeChambeau’s brain training. Since the Neuropeak Pro team isn’t about to stick him in a game reserve to face an uncaged lion, they have movies with stress points, putting him in situations that he must control in order to continue watching.
They also challenge him with stimuli that test his ability to understand and adapt. For instance, DeChambeau has a playlist of music that he loves listening to – he’ll close his eyes, and his brain will immediately go into a calm, creative no-stress state. But then the music will flip to something he doesn’t favor – death metal, for instance – and his stress level will spike.
Essentially, he’s creating a speedometer for his brain, knowing what it’s like to be at 0 mph to, say, 120 mph.
“With that speedometer, he has the skill to get himself right where he needs to be, where he can be laser-focused,” Bergsma says. “To stay calm and execute and not letting that noise getting in the way.”
Respiration rate is one touchpoint. Cardiovascular data is also analyzed, including how much resiliency the heart has for stress. The higher the stress, the less capacity for the heart to handle more stress. Being able to determine DeChambeau’s allostatic bandwidth helps with the measurements and metrics.
For some sessions with DeChambeau, either at home or at a hotel room the night before a round, Bergsma will hook up his client to a monitor and evaluate 18 different data points. One of the key factors is the high beta number that measures fast brain waves.
An ideal high beta number is anything under 1. In a test of 1,000 people, the average high beta is usually 1.7.
“High beta is what’s killing our culture,” Royer says. “It’s what’s causing all the stress-related illnesses. We’re not getting enough sleep and our brains are racing too much because we’re addicted to multitasking.
“Performance in golf is a microcosm of the problem that exists in our overall culture. It’s hard for us to make a putt because we’re overthinking. We’re not resting enough. In golf, too much high beta means sporadic performance. Can’t focus under pressure.”
Neuropeak Pro has worked with a former world No. 1 golfer whose high beta measured 0.65, who had the ability to stay present and avoid the electrical spikes of stress. A former No. 1 in tennis was measured at 0.68. A former basketball MVP also was at 0.68.
When DeChambeau first started, his high beta exceeded 1.0, but he has since lowered it to a much more desirable level (Neuropeak would not reveal the actual number). He’s made that improvement because he constantly works on his autonomic nervous system, even when he’s not at the course. Royer calls it “continuous golf.” The physical swinging of clubs in any given round may add up to only 80 seconds, but it’s the hours before and after the round that dictate how stress is handled.
“I couldn’t care less when he’s swinging the club,” Royer said. “I care more about what he was doing the night before, what he was doing when he woke up, what he was doing as he’s walking towards the ball. “
Avoiding peaks and valleys are key, and DeChambeau’s ability to stay constant and present are reflected in his consistency on the course. In his last 28 worldwide starts, he’s missed only one cut and had just seven finishes outside the top 25. Scoring wise, of his 93 rounds on the PGA TOUR last season, 61 were under par, and another 10 were at par. He never shot lower than 63 nor higher than 76. In other words, not the lowest scores on TOUR, but also not the highest.
“His ability to maintain consistency – that’s true on the golf course but it’s also true with his brain numbers,” Bergsma says. “… Think about it like stepping on a scale. There are things you could do, but once you step on the scale, that number is the number. You can’t just close your eyes and try to make it go up and down.
“That’s true of most people’s brains as well. But what Bryson has the ability to do is to step on the brain scale and then take a couple of minutes and change what the number is because of his ability to shift and move and sway his own brain.”
The importance of achieving consistency is even reflected in what he wears to cover his brain – a flat cap that honors Ben Hogan, whom DeChambeau greatly admires for his “ability to repeat motion, consistently execute shots.”
Hogan did it through relentless hours of practice, famously digging it out of the dirt. Likewise, few put in more hours on the range than DeChambeau, but he’s adding another layer with mental consistency.
“It’s just a part of learning every week, every day, every hour, every golf shot,” DeChambeau says. “We’re trying to get better every single moment.”
While all this information seems like next-level thinking, it’s obviously not for every golfer. Not everybody wants to dance with the latest technology.
Bergsma recalls being on a practice green at a TOUR event last season. DeChambeau is hooked up to his monitors and is putting towards a coaster he brought with him that was the exact size of a cup. Meanwhile, another golfer had simply picked up a nearby leaf to aim at. “Everybody has a different approach,” laughs Bergsma.
But clearly DeChambeau’s approach is working for him.
Less than a year ago, he was 93rd in the world rankings. Now he’s the world’s highest-ranked golfer without a major. Yes, his approach may seem unconventional – the brain training, the single-length shafts, the other scientific methods he explains in ways that often are difficult to comprehend.
Yet there’s one thing every golf fan can understand: Number of wins.
DeChambeau has five on TOUR -- four coming in the calendar year of 2018. At age 25, he's only getting started.
“You guys haven’t seen what he’s going to become yet,” Royer says. “The way he’s applying himself and what his abilities are neurologically under the surface – I mean, we haven’t even really started.
“Over the next year or two, if he keeps going at the rate he’s going, from a neurological standpoint he’ll be untouchable.”