By Scott Lutostanski
Imagine a 380-yard, dead-straight par 4. You take out your driver, step up to the tee box, and take a few practice swings. Feeling ready, you address the ball and aim right down the middle of the fairway. You gracefully take your backswing. As you begin to rotate back, your hands come down through the ball, striking it and sending it not down the middle of the fairway, but slicing it into the trees beyond the rough on the right side of the fairway.
Now it gets interesting. You find your ball near some wood chips. As you take a look towards the green, you can see that you have two options: chip the ball sideways back into the fairway or try to punch it through a low, tiny window underneath the protruding branches and towards the green. In your head, you quickly estimate that the safety chip you can probably hit accurately about 90% of the time. The punch shot has about a 20% chance of being successful. This is where it gets difficult. Do you go for broke or make the safe play and sacrifice a stroke by chipping back into the fairway?
Our executive functions play a role in our shot selection. Executive functions include emotional regulation and decision making. These two functions are very closely linked to each other. On the golf course, there’s a variety of emotions that may impact our decision of which shot to hit. After slicing into the the trees, the golfer may feel frustration, anger, desperation, or embarrassment. The more our emotions rise (or fall) out of the typical range, the more difficult it is for our executive functions to work properly. As emotions fluctuate, so does our ability to access and use or executive functions. In this golf example, frustration and anger win out, our executive functions shut down, and you decide to try and punch it through the trees. The ball squarely hits a tree trunk and heads backwards 30 yards to an even worse position. Frustrations and emotions go up even more, executive functions continue to turn off, and decision making becomes that much more difficult.
This is the same situation that happens with students in school. An assignment gets forgotten, a paper gets left until the last second, or a teacher’s style irritates. This causes students frustration, shame, anger, or any other emotion. As these feelings increase, the executive functioning decreases. It becomes even more difficult to organize, plan, manage time, and, most importantly, initiate. Take the typical paper that a student procrastinates on. They most likely are unable to execute the planning or initiation needed to map out and start working on the paper for until the last second. This is difficult enough for a student to do, but when we add in anxiety towards the assignment, the task becomes even more difficult to complete without less access to our executive functions. The strong link between emotions and executive functions is a treacherous cycle that can impact students (or anyone) in our quest to succeed.