Wednesday, November 17, 2010

In Touch With Competition

It is important as a teacher to stay in touch with competition.  The way that I manage to do that is to caddy for my students.  Caddying is a job that teaches you a lot about your students and their games.  It is also a job that teaches the importance of separating playing the game from working on the game.  That is what I want to talk about today.

As a teaching pro, I spend a great deal of time helping people with their technique.  We work on swings, putting strokes, short game shots and wedges.  There is a lot of energy and thought given to the movements needed to produce shots.  Hopefully, after a lesson, there is also a lot of energy given to practicing those movements.  The practice needed to learn a shot should be thought of as the transition from learning to doing.  Remember when you learned to drive?  There was a thought process to everything, from looking in your rearview mirror to using your turn signals.  All the little things seemed like a lot to remember, but in no time at all, you were checking the mirrors, using your turn signals, changing the channel on the radio and checking out other cars for your friends.  With time, you made the transition from conscious movements to unconscious movements.  That is what we hope for in golf.

However, many people never make that transition to unconscious movements and therefore are constantly working on their game instead of playing it.  An example of a conversation a caddy might have with her player would be something like this:  "We have 158 yards to the hole.  The green is firm so you want to land the ball at about 150 yards.  You have a little wind behind you and the ball is a bit below your feet.  Do you like the 8 aimed a few yards left of the hole?"  Hopefully, your suggestion is the same as what the player has in mind and you can then talk about a specific target and perhaps the trajectory of the shot.  By the time the player is over the ball, she is completely into the target you have talked about and can clearly picture the ball's flight.

LPGA Member Amanda Blumenhurst with her caddy at Wegman's.

This is very different than the lesson tee, where the conversation for that shot might go like this:  "The ball is below your feet so you want to have a little more bend from the waist and keep your head very centered as you swing the club.  There isn't as much movement for this shot, so don't worry about making a big finish, just let your arms do the work.  The slope will cause the club face to be a bit open through impact which will make the ball fall to the right and perhaps take a little distance off of it.  It helps to get a wider stance when the ball is below your feet.  That will lower your shoulders without too much knee or waist bend.  This shot will fly a bit higher because you are coming in steeper than a regular iron shot due to your posture.

In the first conversation, the player is completely focused on what the ball will do when she hits it.  In the second conversation, the player is focused on how to stand to hit the shot, staying centered, letting the arms swing, how the club face will look and how much knee and waist bend is right.  These are all important things when learning how to hit a shot with the ball below your feet.  However, this checklist has to be the same as your driving checklist and become automatic prior to playing the game.  Otherwise, your body will not perform with freedom, but will be robotic.  Freedom is what allows the brain to visualize the shot and the muscles to perform it.  That is what we are all working toward when we learn the game of golf.  Freedom allows us to get lost in shots and have joy in the outcomes.  It also seems to take away some of the pain when shots fail, because you know in your heart that you did all that you could to hit a good shot.  When a golfer stays in the work mode on the golf course and has a lengthy checklist needed to successfully hit a shot, bad shots will always have a reason.  Something in that checklist wasn't accomplished and that was clearly the problem.

What should you take from this blog?  First, balance.  Your game should include lessons, practice, play and competition.  All of these actions will require a different mindset and there should be a progression from the lesson tee to competition.  Many of you are thinking that you don't compete, but if you tee it up and have a chance for your personal best, that is a competition.  If you keep score, you compete.  If you post a score in public, you are truly competing.  The angst that comes with posting a score is perhaps the most important emotion that we need to learn to handle.  

Second, you should understand that analysis on the golf course happens when planning the shot to hit, but not when thinking of how to move to produce the shot.  Analysis used in this way will tighten your muscles and slow them down.  

The next time you take a lesson, ask the pro how to practice what you learned.  Then ask how to take it to the course and finally, figure out how to use what you learned without thinking about it.  That is golf!

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