Monday, February 28, 2011

Reading Greens Like a Kid

Lots of people think green reading is a mysterious skill, while others believe it is a science to be studied.  It is a actually neither mysterious or scientific.  It is a skill that lends itself to the mind of a child.  Kids are open to possibilities and rarely enter situations with preconceived ideas.  Kids have a vivid imagination and naturally visualize things and events.  Kids don't worry too much about consequences.  They putt a putt to see what happens.  They have fun rolling the ball to make the putt.  They don't worry about missing.

Is this how you approach putting?  Do you approach the green with open eyes and and open mind?  Do you see the fun in a big breaking putt?  Can you see the path of the putt in your mind and roll the ball without worry, second-guessing or fear?  If you can approach putting as though you are a child, you will have taken the first step toward being a good green reader.

What goes into reading greens?  First, a recognition of the big picture.  Pay attention before you get to the green.  Unless the green is elevated, the information you take in will help you understand the geography that will effect your putt.  Here is what you are looking for:

  • The shape and slope of the green.  Look for high spots and low spots.
  • Features that will influence slope or grain, such as hills, valleys, creeks or lakes, and contours
  • Color and wear.  If the green is dry or the grass is worn, the color will be shinier and the green faster.
This is a green on the Norman Course at Red Sky.  This is a perfect example of a course architect altering the slope of the green so that it is in opposition to the geography.  This large valley off the right of the green is a natural geographical magnet of both slope and water patterns.  However, Norman built this green complex to slope to the left and away from the valley.  This type of design is best seen from 50 to 100 yards off of the green.  Make sure you pay attention as you approach greens, whether you are walking or riding in a cart.  

When you get to the green, your first job is to figure out if the putt is uphill or downhill.  While your playing partners are lining up or walking around the green, you should walk around your putt.  You have to look at your putt from the side to see the slope effecting uphill and downhill.  From behind the ball or behind the hole, you can see the slopes to the left or right.  

After you figure out if it is downhill or uphill, you need to visualize the speed of the putt.  If it is a short putt, you can control the speed of the putt so it will be your choice.  If you want to be great at reading and making breaking putts, you first have to be great at controlling your speed.  Most people think that means long lag putts, but it is crucial to be able to control the speed of 5-15 footers, too.  On every putt, you should choose to visualize it dropping into the front of the cup, or diving into the hole as a snake dives in a hole or firmly hitting the back of the cup.  That gives you three speeds and three visualizations.    If you have a hard time seeing those, imagine a basketball hitting the front rim and dropping in, a ball going cleanly through the hoop and a ball hitting the backboard and falling into the basket.  
This is the green complex on the 2nd Hole at The Old Course at St. Andrews.  As I was writing today's blog, I thought about the craziest putt I ever faced and it was on this green.  I aimed away from the hole to get the ball close.  You need a great imagination to putt on this green with all of its contours.    

You cannot choose the path of your putt until you can visualize and control the speed!  If you don't have this skill, this is where you need to focus your practice. 

One technique that might help you visualize the putt is to break it down into 1/2s or 1/3s depending on its length.  For example, if you have a 30 foot putt that breaks left to right, the first 1/3 or 10' will be your aim point and the ball will be traveling at its fastest speed.  It is simplistic to assume that it will break down into exact thirds, but for our purposes, I will use 10 feet increments.  The next 10' will usually include the break point or the apex of the curve.  It is often the portion of the putt where the energy of your stroke runs out of steam and momentum or gravity take over.  The final third of the putt, the ball will be moving at its slowest speed and the slope will have the most effect.  Break will always be accentuated when the ball rolls slowly.  This is important to remember for both the final 1/3 of the putt and for a quick downhill putt that you have to baby to the hole.  When you face an uphill putt on the other hand, you are usually hitting it firmly and the slope won't have as much effect on the ball. 

This picture represents a typical breaking putt's curvature.  If you putt from the green dot, the green line represents  your aim point.  The red dot is the hole, which means that the red line represents the line the ball will be traveling on to go into the middle of the hole.  The apex or break point is a bit past halfway.

The important image to take away is the red line or the last portion of the roll of the ball.  Most amateurs don't see that line or angle into the hole, which causes them to miss putts on the low side.  Watch a professional event and you will often see pros pause and look at the hole from the angle the ball will enter.  That gives them a clear view of the center of the hole for their putt.  If the hole is represented with a clock face, a straight line from the green dot to the red dot would lead to 6:00, but the red line actually enters the hole somewhere between the 7:00 and 8:00.  Choosing where your ball will enter the hole and seeing a line back from that center is a crucial step in visualizing your putt.

You have done your homework.  You know if the putt is uphill or downhill, you have chosen the speed to roll the ball, you have visualized the putt from beginning to end, now it is time to roll the ball.  When it is your turn to putt, simply aim your putter down the green line or your aim point.  Commit to that point and keep the picture of the putt in mind.  Now is not the time to look only at the hole, because it will skew you to playing less break.  Stay committed and roll the ball at the speed you chose down the path.  You had three steps prior to putting that prepared you for this moment, so trust yourself and let the ball go, just as you would if you were a kid.  

The qualities of a child, openness, imagination and lack of worry or fear are all inherent in this process.  Keep your head up, your mind and eyes open, visualize and roll the ball.  These are the steps to help you read break, commit to what you see and fearlessly send the ball on its way.  

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Beware of the Model Golfer and I Don't Mean Anna Rawson!

This is a golfer who is a model, Anna Rawson.  
This is a model of a golfer, 3D Man.

It was a fine morning to have a broken leg!  I got to watch some great golf in the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.  Many of my favorite players were still in the mix.  Miguel-Angel Jiminez, Bubba Watson, Martin Kaymer, and Ryan Moore.  I like all of them for different reasons, but one thing that strikes me is how differently all of them swing the club.

Miguel is fascinating to watch in person.  I spent hours watching him hit balls at the Masters and the PGA at Medinah.  His nickname is "The Mechanic" but his motion reminds me of a dancer.  His swing is almost that of a pirouette, due to his hip turn back and through.  He has beautiful tempo and very active footwork.  Check out his swing here!  What happens to Miguel if he goes to a method teacher who demands that he quiets his footwork?  First, I would guess he has a lot of hip turn due to some tightness in his mid back.  If your teacher doesn't understand body differences, you can actually hurt yourself making a change to fit their model.  We are all built differently and great players learn to swing in a way that allows them maximum power no matter what holds them back.  Very few men have that much hip turn, but it was a lot more common in days gone by.  Second, I bet Miguel feels his rhythm and tempo in his feet.  His footwork is active, but very consistent.  I bet he is a great dancer!  Third, Miguel swings on a pretty flat plane, but he rotates so well that he releases the club with his turn.  If Miguel didn't rotate and clear his hips on his through swing, his flat plane would probably cause some big hooks.  In other words, all of Miguel's movements come together to create a swing that works.

Bubba is another guy with very active feet, legs and hips.  Here is a video of Bubba's swing.  Check out the film from :16 to :20 and you will see another dancer.  The only real similarity with Miguel's swing is the activity of the feet and legs.  Again, what happens if Bubba goes to a teacher who demands that all of his or her students have quiet feet?   What happens if his teacher wants his backswing to not go past parallel?  Bubba is a heck of an athlete.  I would imagine he could have been a great basketball player or tennis player as easily as he has become a great golfer.  His feel for leverage, his timing and his balance are all phenomenal.  If you are teaching an incredible athlete, do you allow him or her to have a lot of motion and tap into those talents, such as balance?  Bubba's athleticism reminds me of one of my former players at A&M, Jamie Hullett.  She swings with a lot of movement and great tempo.  Since she weighs only 98 lbs., she needs all of that movement to create as much momentum as possible.  Great athletes always figure out how to create power.

Now, lets change gears and watch Ryan Moore swing a club.  Here is Ryan's swing.  The first time I saw Ryan was at the PGA in Medinah.  He had an injury that prevented him from taking the club back normally, so he was using a drill swing where you set the club in front of you and then swing it back.  I couldn't believe my eyes.  I followed him for at least three holes because I was so intrigued.  As you can see by watching his swing on youtube, he sets the club very quickly and steeply, so the drill wasn't that far out for him.  What happens if Ryan goes to Hank Haney?  Hmmm, we don't know because it won't happen, but Ryan's shaft plane is as far from Hank's preferences as you could get.  Ryan's club sets early and very steeply.  He then drops it in beautifully.  He is still a bit steep at impact, but he clears so beautifully that it all works.  Check out his swing at :18 and you will see both butt cheeks clearly.  The average golfer I see on the lesson tee is equally as steep, but shows me no butt cheeks.  This causes a lot of problems, most of which end up with balls flying far to the right.

Many kids who start playing early often set the club the same way that Ryan does.  It is another way that kids create leverage.  There is a great teacher, Don Trahan, who teaches this method to all of his students.  Check out Don's son DJ's swing and you will see some similarities with Ryan Moore.  DJ Trahan is also playing on the PGA Tour.  If you compare him or Ryan to guys like Ricky Fowler, you will quickly see there are many ways to swing the golf club. 

The final guy, Martin Kaymer, probably has the most conventional swing of the four.  The things that stand out to me that make him unique are the width of his swing, the left leg straightening at impact like Laura Davies and the beautiful hand set at the top of his swing.  You can check him out here.  Watch that hand set at the top of his swing.  I just heard Johnny Miller say that Kaymer gets a bit long at the top.  To restrict that hand set at the top would be changing his rhythm.  Just as Jiminez has great feet, Kaymer has great hands.  There has to be a little loose in every swing if you expect to have great tempo.  You will never find a tight mechanical swing that produces a ton of power.  Power is reliant upon speed created by leverage and controlled with tempo.  Kaymer doesn't just have a beautiful swing, he also has a fantastic attitude.  I rarely see his focus waver and he seems to be a very positive player who doesn't beat himself up for mistakes. 

In keeping with our theme of the week to know yourself and your strengths, today we talked about the importance of finding a teacher who taps into those strengths and allows your mechanics to be based on your needs, not his or her model swing.

What Type of Player are You?

A few days ago we discussed playing to your strengths and being yourself on the course.  Today we will take it one step further and go into actual strategies to help you do this and what types of things could get in your way.

One of my favorite things is to wander through a big, book store, such as Barnes and Noble.  Books seem to jump off the shelf at me.  One of those books was the Clifton StrengthsFinder 2.0 by Tom Rath.  It was empowering to read something that reflected what I believed.  I have met many people who have the same beliefs that I do, but I had never seen it written quite like this.  I immediately bought the book, connected to the website provided by the book, took the test to find my strengths and read detailed explanations about my strengths and probable explanations of my shortcomings.  It was dead on for me.  It was powerful to read what I was good at and it was revealing to read about my shortcomings.  For example, one of my strengths was "ideation".  I love to think of new or different ways to solve a problem or start a project.  However, it also noted that I was happy to hand off projects half finished and start on a new one.  Yep, you got me.  My finishing power is never as strong as my starting power.  The author didn't bother to judge on either quality making me great or horrible, but simply stated the outcome of the tests and how I probably used my strengths.

The book is based on 50 years of study and is one of the most powerful tools out there for people of any age.  If you are young, I think it could help a lot in choosing a career path or in understanding how to move toward your strengths.  As you age and get more and more entrenched in a career, I think it gives you insight into where your energy should be spent.  It could also help you to hire people to offset your tendencies that aren't necessarily positive.  As you can see, I am a big fan of the book and I would love to have the same tool for golfers everywhere.

As a coach, this is the basis of my philosophy.  While it is important to understand and work to correct your weaknesses, that will never be what leads you to victory.  Your strengths will always be what carries you.  If you can game plan to highlight your strengths and minimize your weaknesses, you will have a chance to get the most out of your game whenever you tee it up.  Too many teachers, coaches and parents get too caught up in correcting weaknesses, which causes the confidence to diminish and the strengths to lose their power.  Luckily, human nature usually offsets this influence.  People are drawn to what they love, whether it is driving the ball, putting or hitting bunker shots.  A smart coach allows for that human nature and leads them to balance their time between practicing their strengths and improving their weaknesses. 

When we talk about a golfer's strengths, they can encompass a specific skill, a mindset, an approach to the game, a personality or an attitude.  As I watch the match play, I can see all of these things play out.  J.B. Holmes has incredible power.  Luke Donald has an incredible attitude.  Martin Kaymer prepares meticulously and his approach is one of leaving nothing to chance.  Bubba Watson's personality is flamboyant, fun and has some flair, much like his golf game.  Matt Kuchar's approach to the game is not very exciting.  He plugs along, hits a lot of fairways and greens, but his secret weapon is his putter.  He is one of the best putters on tour, so his approach is unexciting, but effective.  P.S. His approach to the game lead him to the top of the money list. 

What are these players' weaknesses?  We have all heard the commentators tell us that J.B. isn't a great putter, Bubba is twitchy, and Matt's swing is a bit flat.  However, all are making millions on tour, so I guess they figured it out.Weaknesses can become overwhelming and ruin a career, but when that happens, it seems they are usually not a weakness in skills, but character.  That is the type of weakness that is tough to overcome. 

What are your strengths?  Do you keep statistics to understand the nuts and bolts of your game?  Start off by keeping simple stats such as fairways hit, greens hit, and putts.  If you compare the greens hit with the putts, you will also have an up and down percentage.  You can either use a scorecard and do it manually or download a program on your phone or use a gps, like GolfLogix, that has stats built into their program.  It might seem like work at first, but when it becomes a habit, it doesn't use too much brainpower. 

Once you accumulate stats from a number of rounds (at least 10), you will begin to understand which skills are helping you and which are hurting you.  After stats, you need to think about other facets of your play that may be helping or hurting you.  What is it about your personality that might help you be a better player?  Do you have a good attitude on the course?  Are you disciplined about practice?  Can you commit to the shot you visualize?  Do you dwell on mistakes or let them go?  Is your temper ready to flame up at any time?  Are you methodical?  Are you a planner?  Are you a risk taker?  You can look at any of these qualities as both strengths and weaknesses.  The key isn't who you are, but how you handle yourself. I call this quality self-management and I believe it is every bit as important as course management or game management. 

Here are two examples of self-management; one positive and one negative. 
John is a risk taker.  He owns a motorcycle because he loves to drive fast.  He has started three businesses and the latest is doing well, but the other two failed.  No worries, that is life, win some, lose some, but never give up.  John is also a very good golfer.  Once in awhile his risk taking has ruined a round and John is smart enough to learn from his mistakes.  Here is what John learned.  "When I am facing a tough shot over water that I will have to nail to achieve, I am willing to take the risk.  I believe in myself and my game and I am willing to live with the consequences if I should fail to pull it off.  What I have learned about my game is, it isn't worth it for me to take big risks when I am already in trouble.  If I am deep in the woods, I now look for an easy way out instead of looking for the little gap leading to the pin.  Those risks are no longer worth the reward, because I have noticed they rarely work out just as I see them.  I am still a risk taker on the course, but I have learned to rein myself in and be a bit more conservative when I am in trouble.  My scores reflected this decision to minimize risk when I was already in trouble and my handicap is now down to a 3."

This is a great example of a player who understands himself, his game and the bottom line.  He wants to score and therefore, he must control his compulsion to take risks no matter the cost.  He hasn't changed who he is or how he thinks, but his self-management is focused on minimizing mistakes.  John Jacobs once said, "A double bogey is a bad shot followed by a stupid shot."  John learned that same principle and put it into play in his game. 

Christie is a very outgoing, talkative girl.  She loves to be the center of attention and has a lot of energy.  She hasn't been playing very well since she got to college and she is pretty miserable.  Here is what she has to say.  "I didn't think the adjustment to college golf would be so big.  Everyone is so serious and focused.  My coach thinks I talk too much when I play and that my focus would be better if I was more of a grinder.  I am trying to do what he wants, but I am really getting bored and I feel boring, too.  Some of the girls I am paired with want to tell me about their boyfriends or what school is like, but I am supposed to walk and think, so I have to walk away.  If I would have known college golf was going to be this serious, I might have just gone to college to study and have fun.  I am not sure if I will keep playing." 

Here is a player who doesn't understand that she is being asked to flip a switch and become another person when she plays the game.  At a young age, she probably doesn't understand the importance of being herself to play her best.  She is doing what she is told, trusting her coach and working to be a better player.  Her coach's idea of what it takes to be a great player is based on a quiet grinder and that works for a lot of people, but for Christie, it is removing her from the very reasons she loves the game.  He means well and wants her to succeed, but he is working off of a model of what he believes will lead to that success.  Christie is outgoing and the opposite of the model.  She loves to chat up her playing partners.  She loves to show her energy with fist pumps and squeals when putts fall.  She loves to play well and have a gallery.  It will be important for her to understand what she loves about playing golf and tap into it so she doesn't get so bored that she quits the game. 

This is an area of the game that is truly personal and when coaches, teachers and parents understand that each player is an individual, not molded or modeled after another, they will allow that player to develop her own strengths and her own style of self-management.  If you are a player who wants to improve, one tool that might help you is to keep a journal or diary of your golf experiences.  When you have a great day, what happened?  Did you play with a favorite playing partner?  If so, what makes her a favorite?  Did you listen to a great song that was inspiring when you warmed up?  Were you rushed this morning and never felt your tempo?  Did you make it a point to use your pre shot routine on the range and the putting green and find that it really helped your focus?  Did you talk to your dad before the round and remember how much you loved to play golf with him?  The things that go into a great round of golf are countless, but what is it that leads you to your best day?  That is the question you should be asking yourself. 

If you aren't an introspective person and the thought of a journal curls your hair, just keep it simple.  If your bunker stats are poor, don't go for pins cut over bunkers.  Instead, play to the center of the green.  If you aren't good at 50 yard shots, leave yourself a full wedge on par 5's instead of busting a 3 wood on your second shot.  If you have a bad temper that is close to the surface, count to 10 after a poor shot and carry a stress ball in your bag to work out your anger with your hands.  The important thing to understand is, no one is perfect, but we don't have to let our imperfections ruin our game.  Instead, we can recognize what type of player we are and manage ourselves to get the most from ourselves and our games.  John Wooden, the wisest coach I have studied said it best, "Never allow what you can't do to get in the way of what you can do."  Remember, play to your strengths, manage your weaknesses and revel in being yourself.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Expectations - Belief or Anticipation?

Expectations can be thought of as either beliefs or anticipation.  Belief in yourself is powerful, while anticipation is weakening.  If you have expectations for yourself, you are walking a tight rope and it is important to understand their role in your development as a player.

First, expectations need to be personal.  As a golfer, you should have goals for yourself each season.  If you keep statistics, you might base your goals on those, such as increase the number of green hits or reduce the number of putts per round.  The next step is to use your practice time to support those goals.  Then when you step on the golf course, your game plan is also designed to help you hit more greens and put the ball in positions to make putts.  You begin the year with an expectation of improvement and then you work hard to make it happen.  In this case, expectations are powerful and useful.

However, in my experience, expectations are often not personal and usually not tied into the goals and actions of a player.  Instead, they are often conveyed by others, such as teachers, coaches, parents, fans and if we look at tour players, the media.  These folks have good things in mind for the player and base their expectations on promise or potential.  No harm is meant, but the measuring stick is no longer real but imaginary.  A friend of mine, Dr. John Eliot, told me once that the very definition of potential means you will never reach it.  It is the proverbial carrot on a stick.  The famous book, Don't Sweat the Small Stuff, advises us to "live in the present".  Dwelling on what is to come creates fear and stress.  Dr. Richard Carlson, the author, also gives simple advice, such as "one thing at a time."  It is impossible to tap into excellence as a golfer if you are focused on the results instead of the process.  That pertains to the shot in front of you, as well as your career.

Golf is a unique sport in that 120 people compete, but only one wins.  It is rare to truly dominate the field, so you have to understand and celebrate your own progress to greatness.  In most sports, the percentage of winners is a lot higher.  In football or tennis, 50% of the players win every time they play.  In track or swimming, 1 of 8 competitors win the race.  With the odds presented in golf, it is important to weigh the desire to win with the understanding of improvement.  It is crucial to set performance goals based on an individual's level of play and her goals for improvement.  Expectations are big things that are often overwhelming to a player, while performance goals that are both short and long term provide a plan for success.

The first time I broke 70 in competition was a spring break trip to Arizona when I was in college.  We were in the midst of a horrible winter in Iowa, so I hit some balls inside, but hadn't yet been outside to play.  I teed it up in the first round of the tournament in shorts and a polo, reveling in the sun and warmth and thrilled to be playing golf.  I had no expectations for myself, because I had nothing on which to base them.  I shot 68 with no effort.  What happened the next day?  A smooth 80 with a lot of effort.  Instead of feeling even more freedom with the knowledge of shooting a 68, I played with expectations of greatness.  I was tense.  I got angry when I hit a bad shot and I turned one mistake into a bad hole and a bad hole into a bad round.  My mindset on day one was one of appreciation for the weather and the chance to play the game I loved.  My mindset on day two was winning the tournament or results.

Are you appreciative of the great day you get to spend on the golf course?

Or does the game stress you out because you can't live up to your expectations?

A mindset of appreciation was freeing, while a mindset of expectations caused stressful reactions to every shot I hit.  This is an example of how expectations can ruin one round, but they have also ruined many a career.  Every time a player moves to a new level of competition, he needs to begin the process anew and set performance goals.  If you are winning your men's club events and decide to enter USGA qualifiers, the same level of play you are producing at home may produce very different results.  If your expectations are based on your past wins, you will be disappointed.  Instead, whenever you move up a level of play, it should be viewed as an opportunity to look closely at your game to see where it needs to improve and evolve to compete at the new level of competition.

We haven't even discussed the question of are your expectations valid.  This is another topic altogether and one that is almost humorous to someone who sees the work a high performance player puts into his game.  Most of us don't have the right to high expectations due to the fact that we don't practice enough, practice the most important skills or keep our minds and bodies sharp enough to really play the game.  That is another reason you should let go of the expectations you carry on the course.  When I see a 25 handicapper who plays once a week throw a club, I have to hold back the laughter.  That is a case of misplaced anger.  His real anger should be aimed at his lack of practice or the approach he is taking to the game.

If you use expectations as a basis of your belief in yourself and your abilities and then move on to plan for your future with goals and hard work, you are on the right track.  However, if your expectations are provided by others or if they aren't accompanied by a strong belief in yourself, you need to figure out how to replace that mindset with one of appreciation or growth.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Play to Your Strengths

I just hung up the phone after a great conversation with a fellow coach.  Inevitably, coaches trade niceties, but then the conversation delves into performance, relationships and how to get the most out of your teams.  This is where our conversation went and both of us hung up with some new ideas, a heightened motivation and some direction for our teaching and coaching.  One of the topics we covered was how to get players to be themselves.

In order to play to your strengths on the golf course, you first have to be yourself.  It is impossible to be the best you can be if you are trying to be someone else.  That is one of the reasons that coaching college athletes is so challenging, no matter what the sport.  Players of that age are trying to figure out who they are and what they really want.  The challenge for coaching college golf is often in helping the player figure out who she is, what her strengths are and how to use those qualities and traits to compete.

So often, teachers, coaches and parents unknowingly move players away from their strengths.  It is sometimes a battle for control or sometimes a player's strengths don't fit with the model the advice givers have in mind.  An obvious example is Phil Mickleson.  Imagine if Phil's college coach had a team rule that prohibited players from going for par 5's in two.  I know that would be a stupid rule, but sometimes coaches make what seem to be stupid rules to get control or to make a point.  So, all of a sudden, the persona of Phil the Risk Taker is changed to Phil the Strategic Player.  Would he play his best golf?  Would he feel comfortable in competition?  Would he rebel or buckle under?  How could he make decisions if his basic persona was taken away?

Phil is a golfing swashbuckler!

This is a fictitious example and very extreme, but all of us need to be careful to understand what makes an individual tick and coach those qualities.  If you are the type of person who moves quickly through life and doesn't do anything slowly, I would bet you have been told your backswing is too quick.  It happens all the time.  I am often on the lesson tee asking people to speed up their backswing so it matches their style.  I have found that it usually improves balance, overall tempo, distance and confidence.  Don't get me wrong, I am not standing on the lesson tee teaching quick backswings, but it is sometimes obvious to me that a student finds her own tempo to be foreign or forced.

These two illustrations are both examples of a teacher's style, methods or preferences clashing with the student's style.  This is one reason why players such as Aaron Baddeley or Justin Leonard find new success when they switch to their old teachers.  The old teacher probably doesn't know more about the swing or how to teach than the new teacher did, but he or she usually know more about the player.  They understand the personality and style that took the player to success in the first place and tap back into those qualities to bring out the best in the player.

This article by Kirk Oguri sums up exactly what today's blog is about - find a teacher who fits with you and you believe in.  Here is an article about Justin's return to Randy Smith.

If you are reading this as a player, think about how you spend your time away from the course.  Are you a calm and mellow person who takes things as they come?  If so, your game might reflect those traits.  You may be in need of a good game plan prior to play to assure that you don't wander through a round and play from poor positions.  You will probably be a natural at letting go of mistakes.  Are you a perfectionist who wants to be in control?  If so, you will have to script your reactions to mistakes, because they will be tough to take during the round and may disrupt your focus.  You will be well prepared and your practice will generally leave nothing to chance.  Are you an athlete who plays every sport well and loves to compete?  If so, be careful of choosing a very methodical and technical teacher or coach who might demand a lot of thinking over the ball.  These are some examples of how you need to think through your strengths as a person, how they can help you and how they can hurt you.  All of us have a unique set of characteristics that we bring to the table and there is no one combination that will trigger success.  Instead, each of us needs to rely on our strengths while working hard to diminish our weaknesses.  Our weaknesses should never become the full focus of our practice time.  When that happens, our strengths will fail to carry our game and it will suffer.

Tomorrow, I will talk about how you can help young players figure out their strengths and weaknesses and use them to their advantage.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Chipping for Dummies

The title of this blog is really a joke.  Most golfers think that chipping should be easy for them.  It seems like a simple shot and not much needs to happen, right?  No, it isn't the simplest shot in golf and here are the reasons why. 

First, if you aren't confident, it will show in your chipping.  I have seen more golfers have chipping yips than putting yips.  We aren't going to talk about the yips today, because that is a big can of worms we will open at another time. 

Second, the chipping motion is short and should be efficient and crisp.  There is no room in this small motion to hide inefficiencies or poor technique.  You cannot recover if you get the club in the wrong position.  Your technique in chipping is crucial. 

Finally, most golfers are too caught up in mechanics when they chip and they rarely have a clear idea of what they want to do with the golf ball.  Your chipping should be reliant upon the picture you have in your mind for the shot.  Without a picture, you have little chance to get the ball close to the hole.

Here are the ingredients needed to hit a good chip shot.  I hope this helps you become a great chipper!
  1. Start with a clear picture of the shot.
    • Choose a landing spot where you can predict the outcome.  Usually a flat spot.
    • Visualize the trajectory needed for the shot and choose a club that will reproduce that trajectory.
    • Now see the shot in your mind from beginning to end.
  2. Club face aim is very important to hitting the shot on line.
    • Make sure your alignment is good and based on the landing point, not the hole.
    • Your club face and the back of your left hand should be doing the right thing at impact and this is the biggest fault I see on the lesson tee.  Your left arm should hang straight, but not locked, because you want to keep the back of your left hand working down through the shot and if you lock up your elbow, the opposite will happen.  The only way to keep both your club face and the back of your left hand working down through the shot is to keep your hands moving, keep your wrists firm and allow your left elbow to fold into the body after impact. Here is a shot of Tseng, the hottest player in woman's golf today, showing how her left arm folds and allows her wrists to stay firm and match her club face.

  3. Set up is half of the battle in chipping.
    • Your weight should be balanced over your left hip.  This will help you have a downward motion into the ball and also alleviate a lot of leg movement, which is unneeded.
    • Your hands should be set in front of the ball and they should match the position you want to have when you hit the ball.  By setting up with your hands forward, you are creating the shaft lean that will enable you to control the trajectory of the shot.  Make sure you maintain the alignment of the club face when you set your hands forward.  One way to ensure this is to check how far your hands are from your thighs prior to forward lean of the shaft.  When you set your hands ahead, your hands should remain the same distance from your thighs.  If your hands move closer to you, your club face will be closed.
    • This final set up step seems to help people who scoop the ball, which is a large percentage of the population.  Keep your eyes on the front of the golf ball.  Focus on a dimple on the front of the ball and don't allow your eyes to move to the back of the ball.  So many people try to help the ball up when they chip and their weight goes to the right side, their eyes go to the back of the ball and their hands scoop at the ball.  This is all the opposite of how a good chip shot is hit.  Just stay focused on the front of the ball and get that club moving down through the shot with your weight stable on that left hip center.  
  4. The mechanics of the shot
    • Your club is set up with shaft lean to the left.  Your job is to swing the club and return it to that position with that shaft lean and the proper amount of speed.  The tricky part for most people is maintaining shaft lean.  See above where we talk about how your left hand and arm works.  If you hit behind the ball sometimes and send the ball scooting across the green sometimes, you are losing your shaft lean.  Picture yourself sweeping your kitchen floor.  If you keep the broom handle constant as you sweep, you can control the dirt.  However, if your handle flips back and forth, you are throwing the dirt all over the kitchen.  Your club's shaft should work the same way as a broom handle and maintain its angle through the shot.  
    • The angle of attack is fairly important to hitting crisp chip shots.  You will set your angle with both your wrist cock and the bend of your right elbow.  Both of these things move a little, not a lot.  Too much wrist cock will give you too steep of a swing and too much speed to control.  Too little wrist cock will cause you to catch too much grass behind the ball.  I can't tell you exactly how much wrist cock you need, but if you are sticking the club in the ground, it is too much.  If you are sweeping the grass on the way back to the ball, you have too little.  Also, keeping your arms hanging straight but loose is very important to creating a bit of angle with your right elbow bend.  Too many people are too tense and tight with their arms and that makes them overuse their wrists and usually release the club early and scoop on the way through.  Check out this video of Shingo Katayama chipping.  You might think it is a pitch because of the length of the backswing, but chips can have long back swings.  The difference is in the shaft lean at and past impact.  Anyway, you will see a very tight looking left arm on Shingo, but watch him as he finishes and you will see that his left arm rotates, folds and ends up next to his chest.  We often watch the pros and pick up the wrong things, like how straight his left arm is through the shot.  What is really important is how the back of his left hand stays down through impact and the shaft lean remains constant until after impact.  Here is a shot of Henrik Stenson after impact on a chip shot.  Notice how the back of his left hand and his club face match perfectly!

    • The chip shot should be rhythmic with a swing that works an equal amount behind and in front of the ball.  For most of you, that means you need to shorten your follow through.  The best chippers in golf rely a great deal on momentum to swing the club forward.  If you are taking the club back a short distance because of a tip your buddy gave you, you are probably not swinging through, but pulling the club.  A chipping motion based on momentum looks smooth and rhythmic.  If you are pulling the club through because you don't have a big enough back swing, your swing will feel jerky, you will not maintain your shaft lean (big mistake) and your follow through will be too long.  
    • The body motion in a chip is quiet, yet very important.  Sometimes on the lesson tee, teaching a student to gently point her right knee at the ball is the key that gets her to put it all together.  Here is a great video of Tiger hitting chips.  Watch how he pivots on that left leg and allows his body to turn to the target ahead of the club.
  5. Learning and practicing - Use drills and practice aids to help you learn this skill.
    • Can you chip with a hockey stick?  Because a hockey stick is so long, you cannot cup your hands at or after impact.  A hockey stick forces you to keep your left hand solid and your left arm soft and close to the body.
    • Do a drop drill.  Simply lift the club and drop it on the ball with no follow through.  What happened?  I would guess the ball jumped up, went forward and rolled out.  This is a great drill to teach you how to form and use momentum and how important the angle of attack is on the trajectory of the shot.
    • Find and hit an impact bag.  Impact bags transform the form of 30 handicappers and make them look like single digit handicappers.  There is no compulsion to cup your wrists when you hit an impact bag and you will naturally keep your shaft angle and keep the hands leading into impact. 
    • Learn to land the ball on a spot.  Put a small towel down and get great at landing your ball on it with any club you use for chipping.  This will teach you many things innately.  First, you will learn how much momentum is needed to fly the ball that distance.  Second, you will learn how different clubs react and the angle the ball comes off of each.  Don't worry about how far the ball runs when you do this.  Instead, just get a feel for the trajectory of each club and figure out how much momentum is needed for each.  
    • When you get pretty good at landing the ball where you want to land it, you can then learn about the roll out of each.  You can also start to figure out how to put a bit of spin on the shot.  We will talk about this in a later blog.  When you swing the club, you create momentum and set the ball off at a trajectory.  How far will that ball roll?  If you add momentum, what changes?  You have to answer all of these questions yourself.  It is like learning to play the guitar.  Your teacher can tell you where your fingers go for certain chords, but it is up to you to make music with these chords.  You have to practice!  This is fun stuff and it is easy to lose yourself in the variations.  
  6. Now it is time to go to the course and take this knowledge and technique with you WITHOUT over thinking.  This means you have to rely on a routine.
    • Approach the shot and check out the lie of the ball.  If you deem it a good lie, your options are many, but if you deem it a poor lie, you will need a steeper approach and more loft, so your options for club choice are your lob or sand wedge.  
    • Can you putt?  If you have a flat lie, a fairly flat approach and you aren't going into the grain, putting might be the best option.  
    • If you can't putt, can you find a flat spot to land the ball on the green so you can predict its first bounce?  Pick the spot to land it.  Check out Phil picking his spot!
    • Now picture your ball flying to that spot and rolling to the hole.  Which club matches your picture?  
    • Choose the club, aim the face at your landing spot, and execute the shot.  If you need a practice swing, go ahead and take it.  See it, feel it with your practice swing and trust it. 
    • This process should be fairly fast.  In other words, make your decisions quickly, trust your gut and your first impression and commit to your decision.  This is key to the process of being a great chipper.  If a shot makes you uncomfortable, don't hit it! Don't do it to impress someone, don't do it to prove to yourself you can do it!  Don't do it because it is the "right" shot to hit!  Choose the shot you are comfortable hitting.
I hope you enjoyed Chipping for Dummies.  The reason I liked that title is because only a dummy would think that chipping is a "no-brainer" and the easiest shot in golf.  There is no such thing as an easy shot in golf.  All shots require technique, focus and trust.  Good luck with your chipping!

This blog and all of my blogs are very prejudiced and speak only to right handers.  If you are left handed, my apologies.  Please change all rights to lefts and all lefts to rights and you will be in good shape.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Get Out of Your Way!

What?  No, I didn't mean to say get out of my way, I meant to say your way.  Can you play a round of golf and stay out of your own way?  And what exactly does that mean?

I have the opportunity to watch tournament golf these days and I have seen a lot of players who are obviously feeling the heat.  The player who best handles the heat on the final nine holes will often win the tournament.  This morning, the Golf Channel covered the final round of the Avantha Masters from New Delhi, India.  I had never seen many of these players, so I settled in to watch.  Pairings were messy due to fog delays throughout the week, so the leaders were sprinkled throughout the field.  A young Indian, SSP Chowrasia had it going.  He got to -7 with really solid play and great putting.  He has an incredibly smooth stroke and I really liked his routine.  It reminded me of Jenny Chuasiraporn's routine when she played in college and on tour.  He stood behind the putt and then walked the line and did an "air putt" over the line on the break point.  You could tell that he visualized the entire putt quite well.

SSP Chowrasia

So SSP was cruising.  He was eight groups ahead of the leaders and playing with no pressure, until he suddenly realized he was -7 and leading the tournament.  On the par 3 16th hole, SSP got noticeably quicker.  He is a fast player, but suddenly everything speeded up.  A change in tempo is one of the first signs that a player is thinking about more than he or she should.  Speeding up often signals impatience or a focus on results.  It happens when a player gets out of the moment and feels the weight of the situation.  Things went from very easy and smooth for SSP, to tight and quick.  He failed to finish his backswing on the par 3 and pulled the shot well left of the green.  He quickly chose an option without going through the possibility of a drop from an awkward stance close to the cart path.  He hit a very tough chip shot with a bit of a hitch and was still short of the green.  He then chose a putter where he probably would have chipped had he not been feeling pressure and jammed the ball a good 12 feet past the hole.  He missed the come back putt and made a double.  Suddenly, everything had changed.

Meanwhile, eight groups behind him, Robert Coles was now tied with SSP at -15.  Coles has been on the European Tour for 15 years and has never won.  He is a true journeyman, but a solid player.  Because Coles was eight groups back, he had a very clear goal.  He needed to finish the final four holes at -1 to win and at even to get into a playoff.  Coles didn't speed up, but instead, he slowed down.  He got bogged down in his decision making and took longer over the ball before pulling the trigger.  His tightness led to a bogey on the final hole and left him one shot back at the finish of the event.

Both players lost their rhythm.  These changes in rhythm aren't the problem per se, but instead, they are the effect of the problem.  The cause is usually seeing a situation bigger than the shot at hand.  Experience in tense situations is usually a good teacher.  If you are struggling to break 90 or 80 and start thinking about it when you get close to the 18th hole, you might fail once or twice and then learn that you need to just focus on the shots.  Many of my students shoot 80, 81 and 82 a bunch and then suddenly shoot a 75.  Most don't have scoring breakthroughs of a shot or two, but five or six.  They fail enough to learn and when they completely let go of worrying about their score on the final two or three holes, they find that shots magically drop away.

Here are different heart rhythms and the effect of the different emotions.

I talked about mental game last week and covered the importance of scripting or planning how you will think and act on the golf course.  Experience is simply failing to act as you would like and telling yourself what will be different next time.  You are in effect, scripting your success.

Was he trying too hard for his first win?  Did he "want" it too much?  Was he thinking about the fact that this might be his only chance?  Did he try to play perfect golf?  Any of these scenarios are possible and he may keep only his own counsel so we may never know.  However, the way that it shows itself to us, the viewer, is a change in rhythm.

SSP sped up and Coles slowed down.  Do you think it is possible to simply control your rhythm to control your game when the pressure is on?  That is certainly a great approach to take.  By controlling your rhythm, you are taking a proactive approach to your game.  Your mind is on something within your control.  Your pre shot routine will be an important part of this strategy, as will the tension in your muscles.  Check out this video of Annika stating how long her pre shot routine took on each and every shot.  Annika on her pre shot routine  She states in the video that her routine takes 22-24 seconds.  Brilliant!  She is the only woman to shoot 59 in competition, so she obviously has played solidly while out of her comfort zone.  The only difference between touring pros and those of us trying to win a side bet is, the pros generally have a caddy to help remind them of the importance of routine or to keep them loose so they don't tighten up over the ball.  We will have to serve as our own caddy when we get a bit out of our comfort zone.

What do caddies do?  First, they understand that your skills haven't left you.  A simple reminder of what got you to the 70th hole in the lead is often calming enough to keep you loose.  Caddies are also crucial in helping to choose the right option.  If you are indecisive, they take the bull by the horns for you and if you are rushing into the shot, they slow you down and talk through the options.  One other thing that caddies do is paint a picture.  To keep a player completely focused on the shot at hand, they get involved in the shot.  They talk about where it should start, how it should fly, where it will land, how it will release or check and how close it will be.  They get so completely into the shot, that the player has no choice but to join them in the vision. Decide how you will talk to yourself when you are close to achieving a great round or a win on the course.  Be your own best caddy on the golf course.
Fred Couples and long time caddy Joe LaCava

It is a great time of year to start setting your golf goals.  I used to play in a foursome every Sunday morning and each spring, we would all write down our personal best score.  If we bettered that number on a Sunday morning playing with the group, each of the three would pay $100.  That alone was a great goal to focus on throughout the summer.  We cheered each other on and if we had to shell out $100, we were generally pretty happy about it.  We knew it wasn't an easy task.  Do you have a goal going into the spring?  What is going to make you nervous or throw you off of your rhythm?  You should aim to get out of your comfort zone and learn a bit each time you are uncomfortable.  The goal is to stay out of your own way by staying focused on the shot at hand and not allowing the big picture to be more important than the small picture in front of you.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Have Fun When You Practice

Are you a range rat?  We all know that guy who is on the range whenever you head out there.  He hits balls for hours.  You rarely see him on the putting green or chipping, but he is a fixture on the range.  What is that guy getting out of his practice? 

What you get from a practice session depends on a few factors.  First, are you enjoying yourself?  I don't mean you have to be laughing and cutting up with buddies, but I do think there needs to be enjoyment to stay focused.  If you become bored, your mind will wander or you will start to "make stuff up" about your game.  So how do you make it enjoyable? 

First, the thing to remember is you "play" golf.  If you can learn to make it enjoyable, instead of drudgery, that same attitude will hit you when you are in a tense situation in competition.  The fun of the game is in the process.  We all know golf takes repetitions.  You have to groove your swing and make it reliable.  You need to hit putts and chips until your motion is competent and effortless.  You need to know your game and trust it in any circumstance.  When all of these things happen and you feel as though you have a repeatable action, you can then form real mastery and move away from repeatable into creation.  The repeatable movement is a baseline, but when you are on the golf course and have a funky lie and need to work the ball around the trees in front of you, the repeatable swing won't work.  You now get to take what you have learned and create something new.  You get to experiment and perform a motion that is both unique to you and fitted to the situation you face.  This is the essence of learning the game.  The repetition is the foundation and upon it you build your creativity.

Here is a great video of Keith Richards talking about exactly this process in music.  Spot on!

When you are on the range, you first need to understand what you are practicing.  If it is a practice focused on repetition, then your practice should include your pre-shot routine, particular focus on alignment, a definite target and whatever swing key needed to execute an effective swing.  I have often heard the phrase, "quality, not quantity" and I think there is much wisdom in that.  However, I have found that champions in any sport have figured out how to have both.  They understand that each of the above pieces of the process of hitting a golf shot are important and they focus on the steps so often that it becomes second nature.  Have you ever seen a pro stop his pre-shot routine and start over?  Have you seen one over a shot and suddenly step away and begin her routine again from the beginning?  In both cases, these players understand that they left something out of the process that is crucial to their executions.  The ability to understand the process of executing a golf shot is ingrained through repetition and becomes fundamental to the shot itself.

How would this understanding of process make practice enjoyable?  A focused mind is a content mind.  It matters not what your avocation.  If you love music and are learning to play the guitar, you could play the same 3 chords in sequence hundreds of times and be completely entranced.  Allowing yourself to be caught up in the process is to be conscious of your actions and intentions and a crucial step in training.

There is also repetition involved in learning mechanics.  Some golfers get so caught up in this step of learning that they never move past it and flourish as a player.  I believe there are professionals playing on tour who might still be stuck in this mode and never truly play the game without a basis in mechanics.  By saying that, I admit that you can play at a truly high level with a focus on the repetition of mechanics, but I also think you might be missing the true mastery of the game and therefore the opportunity for the most fun. 

Repetition in mechanics is a crucial step in learning.  It is developing an understanding of what your club face must do to hit a straight shot, relating that to your hands, and swinging the club and getting those two things matched up.  You can talk about all kinds of different parts of the golf swing, but that is the true essence of mechanics.  If your parents were keeping a baby book of your golf swing, that would be the magical first step.  As you progress and learn to hit more shots with a squared face, you will soon want to "run" and get some power into the swing.  Now your mechanics are happening at a faster pace.  You have to now have flow, rhythm and speed and couple these things with that ability to put the club face squarely on the ball.  It helps to have a guide - a good teacher - as you go through this process, but there have been a lot of great players who were self-taught.  The thing that all of us must realize is, even if we were self-taught, we watched others and learned. 

The time you spend on the range thinking about mechanics and repeating shots is so valuable in and of itself.  It forms your basic swing or game.  In the process, there are feelings that are relayed from the hands to the brain.  There are images that are relayed from the eyes to the brain and there are sounds of pure contact brought into the brain.  The learning process is overwhelming in that you are taking so much in.  Because of that, you need to pare down and focus on what one thing will make you better today.  This is where a lot of golfers make the mistake of listening to everything and not focusing on the essence of what is needed.  They are searchers, experimenters, tinkerers and thinkers.  They are learning a golf swing, but they are not focused on what their needs are.  When you are practicing your mechanics, decide what you want to accomplish in that session.  If you want to hit the ball higher, that is the goal of the day.  Don't allow yourself to get off track.  Don't start thinking about not hitting it to the right or about the thin shots you hit.  When you are working through a mechanical thought or change, you will hit bad shots.  Don't let them lead you down the path of tinkerer.  Instead, focus on what you want as a player and decide what will make you better in that session.  This is a great way to stay on track with "quality vs. quantity" and also a real commitment to moving toward greatness.  Truly learn your own swing.  Make it perform as you want it to perform.  Know your own mechanics and what makes your swing work. 

Now that we have talked about the importance of repetition, it is crucial to spend some practice time being creative.  When you walk off of the first tee, you will be presented with a shot that is unique.  Something about each shot makes it unique, whether it is the wind, the grass, the trees, the temperature, where the hole is cut, how the ground is sloped or how you are feeling at that time.  The best thing about golf is that you are constantly presented with unique situation.  It is a problem solvers sport and one that is best played with an open mind. 

Creative practice means simply that you create shots.  You don't hit a ball and then try to copy that swing.  Instead, you create a unique swing that accomplishes something entirely different than the shot before.  David Cook, a fantastic sports psychologist, wrote a practice schedule called "88 Shots" for people to use to understand the idea of creative practice.  In it, you are hitting hooks, slices, from your knees, with one hand and all kinds of different ways.  It is prescribed creative practice, which is a bit of an oxymoron, but it is a great tool.  It returns us to our childhood when we tried stuff just for the fun of trying it.  By learning to create a hook, we will in turn be able to control our slice.  By learning to hit with one hand, we will feel the balance of the club.  By hitting off of our knees, we start to understand swing plane.  Even by leading a player into creativity with a formula, the player learns the benefits of being inventive and experimenting. 

If you feel as though you aren't learning anything in your practice sessions, quit trying to learn and simply be outrageous.  See how big of a hook you can hit.  You will learn and have fun doing it. 

The ideas today for making your practice more fun are to get lost in the process, learn to control your mechanics instead of striving for a perfection or a model of mechanics and finally, be creative.  These are three ways to stay focused and three things that I have long witnessed in great players. 

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Clubbing for Perfection

How far do you hit a 7 iron?  Was your answer based on the best shot you ever hit with that club?

If you want to be an effective course manager, you need to know how far you carry each club in your bag.  Your knowledge needs to be realistic. You can gauge this by hitting ten balls with each club and seeing where the middle of the cluster falls.  Let's say for this article that you carry your 7 iron 150 yards.

Now that you know that information, how you use it is as important as the knowledge itself.  Therese Hession, the Ohio State Women's Golf Coach, shared this course management lesson with me when we were both coaching and it was simple, but striking.  The easiest way to share it is to draw a few pictures and caption them.  Below, there will be explanations.

 This is a picture of a green with the hole dead center, 15 yards from the front edge.  Assuming there are no extenuating circumstances, we would like to land our ball hole high.  The blue shaded area represents the shot pattern of your 7 iron, which we decided you hit 150 yards when well struck.  That means that when not well struck it probably goes anywhere from 135 to 145.  The pro's mishits are closer to 5-7 yards from being max.  That means if you hit your shot great, you will be at best, pin high and at worst, off of the green.
Below is the same green, but the grey shaded area represents your six iron.  A well struck 6 iron will carry 160 yards, which is 10 yards past the pin.  However, a mishit will land anywhere from 145 to 155 yards.  If you are like most players, you are much better off putting, than chipping for birdie.  Any shot with your six iron will give you a putt, while probably half of your seven irons will result in a chip shot.                                   

Scoring is pretty simple.  Check out this link, Probable Golf Instruction and you will see that your greens in regulation statistic is extremely important to your scoring.  I love it when other golf pros share their knowledge and do the math to back it up.  I am a big believer in statistics.  Statistics tell the story in black and white and if you hit more greens, you have a better shot at making more pars.  If you make more pars, you will bring your handicap down.

By deciding not to club for perfection, you will greatly increase the odds that you will hit more greens, putt for birdie more often and therefore score lower.  When I was coaching full time, I always noticed that the best players were never afraid of being past the pin, but the struggling players often played to the front of the green or up to the lip of the hole.  At the time, I believed it was an aggressive mindset, but I now understand that the better players hit more good shots and that put their variance around the hole, while the poor ball strikers' variances were short of the hole.

Learning to club by giving yourself more room in front and past the hole will also free up your golf swing.  That mindset of ease often translates into smoother swings that are better controlled.

This strategy works most of the time, but you need to be aware that there are circumstances when it won't work.  If the greens are firm, if you are playing downwind, if the green is sloped severely back to front, if the hole is cut on the back of the green, you have a flier lie or if you are pumped with adrenaline, you can go ahead and club for your perfect shot.  On the other hand, this strategy is especially crucial if the hole is cut on the front of the green, you are into the wind, you aren't on your game, your normal ball flight is low or you have a lie that will produce a lot of spin.

This strategy for choosing clubs is tough for many people to adopt, because their mind is focused on the area between them and the hole.  It is as if the world stops at the hole and the area past it is a wasteland.  Golf course designers understand this tendency and you will find a lot more trouble short of greens than you will over greens.  How many bunkers are past the green at your home course?  Where is the water?  Where is the green the smallest?  You have played the course hundreds of times and you know the answer to these questions, yet how many times do you visit those bunkers, that water or chip from the front of the green?  The sooner you learn to use the entire green complex, including choosing to be off the green when severe slopes present themselves, the sooner you will make more pars and drop your handicap.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Thinking Good Thoughts! Plan to Think Like Mr. Rogers on the Course.

We have had more than a few articles on detailed mechanics and we need to shift gears.  As I lay here healing from my "EPIC" (the most overused word in Vail history) fall, I am clinging to the idea of thinking good thoughts.  Sometimes it is visualizing goals, like walking 18 with a friend or taking Max on a hike.  Sometimes it is saying a rosary and meditating on faith.  Sometimes it is simply shaking the bad thoughts out of my head physically and shifting gears to a little bio-feedback.  I don't really know bio-feedback, but I have some weird mental picture of muscle fibers adhering to my femur.  Okay, I know that is far out, but it is a good thought for me.  When you are on the golf course, you need to think good thoughts, too!

It sounds easy to think good thoughts, but so often we slip into spirals that take us deeper and deeper into bad thoughts, mechanical thoughts, outcome thoughts or useless thoughts.  These are the thoughts we will work to get rid of today.  Because our habits are formed, it will take practice to change and give ourselves a chance to play 18 holes thinking good thoughts.  Do I sound a bit like Mr. Rogers?  Wow, if so, what an honor that would be.  Mr. Rogers accepted all as a friend.  It make me happy to just think about him.  What if we took Mr. Roger's attitude toward ourselves on the golf course?  Think of the power of acceptance.  It would be a huge first step toward thinking good thoughts out there.  In case you need a reminder of the man that Mr. Rogers was, check out this tribute to him on the emmys in 1997.  Stick with it til the end and you will be inspired, too!

Okay, so we are here to talk about golf.  My goal today is to give you a plan to use to think good thoughts and to remind you of the pitfalls you will encounter in each round of golf.

The Plan:

Before the Round
  • Sometimes we have nerves prior to a round of golf.  That is very normal and a good indicator that you care about your performance, which is a positive.  However, nerves are usually caused by anxiety of performance and are based on outcome thoughts.  When the nerves seem to get the better of you, it is good to have a scripted warm up plan.  Know what you are going to do when you get to the course and throw yourself into your warm up.  If you want to listen to your ipod or chat with fellow competitors, go ahead!  You can do whatever you want to help you prepare to play well.  Over the years, I have seen players who spend so much time chatting I wonder how they could possibly get ready, but they do.  Others have a desire to be left alone and want silence and isolation.  Whatever you do is okay, but make sure you know what you want and stay within your script.
  • If you have nerves before you even arrive at the course, visualization is a great tool to use to keep thinking good thoughts.  If you know the course, see yourself teeing off on the first hole.  Stripe it down the middle with gusto!  Snuggle your approach next to the hole and roll in that birdie.  Visualize yourself playing and playing well.  If you don't know the course, simply visualize a great warm up session.  Go through your bag and hit great shots.  See yourself putting and draining the ball from all over the green.  You are taking control of your fear of the unknown and replacing it with good thoughts.
  • As I said above, everyone is an individual in their preparation for a round of golf, but no one is more individual than Ben Crane.  Check out his pre-round antics
The First Tee
  • Many people tell me that this is the worst time for them in a round of golf.  There are usually people around and many of my students feel judged or in the spotlight.  Whenever your thoughts are based on what other people think of you, you are in trouble on the course.  This type of thinking is useless thinking.  Playing for others puts you in the wrong frame of mind.  It makes people self-conscious and invites outward shows of emotion such as anger, frustration and embarrassment.  Golf is a tough game and everyone playing it has hit bad shots.  We have all been there.  If you can accept yourself and your mistakes, your emotional state will be much calmer and your thoughts will stay focused on what you need to do to recover, instead of the negative emotions you feel when you are showing off for others.  What others think of you is totally out of your control.  The sooner you let go of that useless thought, the easier it will be to hit from the first tee.
  • There wasn't really a plan in that paragraph for how to handle it if you are worried about impressing others.  I guess you could take the tactic taught in public speaking of picturing your gallery naked, but I don't think I could go that far.  I would be laughing too hard to hit the ball.  Instead, work on a really solid and focused pre shot routine.  Use it to get you into the frame of mind needed to step into your bubble and hit the shot with only the target in your mind.  Touring pros believe their pre shot routines are kryptonite.  Yours can be too!  Here is a great youtube video of Tiger explaining his routine. 
After a Bad Shot
  • Everyone, and I do mean everyone, will hit bad shots in a round of golf.  The mark of a champion is how he or she acts after a bad shot.  I am always careful to say act versus react when talking about this, because action is powerful, while reaction is impulsive.  Someone who takes action is moving toward something while a reaction is usually a backlash.  Do you want to go forward or backward on the golf course?  Now that we know we must act, how do we want to act?  There are so many options that are all positive here.  
    • You can simply forgive and forget.  It will be tough to forget without forgiveness, so make sure you don't beat yourself up after a bad shot.  Rehearse a saying, such as "bad shots happen to the best of us, but I am going to act like a champ and hit a solid recovery shot".  While that may sound corny, the act of scripting and rehearsing your action after a bad shot will help you immensely in moving on.  
    • You can learn from the bad shot.  High level athletes learn from mistakes.  They understand that mistakes will be made and they think of the mistake as useful in the process of becoming great.  While this is a great strategy, you have to be careful using it to not slip into mechanical thoughts.  Simply note the mistake, correct it in a practice swing or two and let it go.
    • For those of us who play golf in an emotional state, it is tough to let go of anger and disappointment.  I have found that perfectionists love golf for its accountability, but struggle with the imperfections they bring to the game.  For those golfers, there must be an emotional trade.  Trade in your anger for humor.  Trade your disappointment for hope.  Always remember that the emotion you choose to embrace at any given time is a choice and decide the choices available to you in a round of golf.  Teaching highly emotional players to simply smile is like putting a 15th club in their bag.  A smile lets off the steam and changes the mood whether you want it to or not.  Once again, you must plan for this for it to happen.  Highly emotional players will not come to this easily without deciding it beforehand.  
    • One last way to deal with a bad swing is to be in the moment.  This is so often given as advice that it is almost cliche.  However, it is also simple.  If you are standing in the trees, you can choose to think about how you got there or how to get out of there.  Great players will leave the first thought until they get to the range after the round and focus entirely on how to get out.  When you focus on a bad swing, you are immediately in a past mindset, not in the moment.
Mechanical Thoughts
  • When you are on the golf course it is time to PLAY the game of golf.  Here is the definition of play: 
    to exercise or employ oneself in diversion, amusement, or recreation.
    Here is the definition of work: 
    exertion or effort directed to produce or accomplish something; labor; toil
    • Which of these two comes to mind when you think of mechanics on the golf course?  Learning to play the game without mechanics is freeing.  When I have a student who learns it, he or she is amazed at the difference.  They tell me things like, "that round went so fast" or "I was able to stay focused on the target all day" or simply "that was so much fun".  As a teacher and coach, their reactions put a huge smile on my face, because golf should be fun.  It shouldn't be a grind or work.  So, how do you quit thinking mechanics after doing it for years and years?  First, learn to practice without mechanics.  Have a day when you go to the range and simply hit shots at the target.  If you hit a bad shot or if someone mentions your "position", simply back off, go through your routine (see above), focus on your target and hit the golf shot.  Don't expect to be able to play without mechanics if you can't get through a 30 minute practice session without them.  Many people feel that they must work on mechanics to have a productive practice, but you must spend time practicing how you will play and this is a crucial step. 
    • When your thoughts on the course jump to mechanics, have a plan to be more focused on another facet of the game.  You know the old saying?  Don't think of an elephant!
     The question isn't "did you think of an elephant?" but instead, was it pink, Asian or African.  Instead, when I tell you not to think of an elephant, this time picture a big, bright yellow, juicy looking lemon.  Don't THINK of an Elephant!!!

    •  That simple technique of replacing one picture with another is powerful.  Using this power, you can move from mechanical thoughts to visualization instead.  Or you can simply choose to think of what you will have for lunch.  It doesn't matter what you think of on the golf course as long as you stay in the "play" mode and out of the mechanical mode.  Planning is crucial to where your mind goes. 
    • Finally, you might be one of those people who believe that thinking mechanics helps you on the course.  If so, I will challenge you to try to play one round without them.  You will feel a bit lost at times and it will seem like a cop out to not try to fix what you are doing.  However, if you maintain your focus on your routine, your target and hitting the shot at hand, you may begin to feel the power in outward focus.  Keeping your focus on what the ball does instead of what you do will allow you to play from a totally different perspective for perhaps the first time ever.

    Outcome Thoughts
      If Confucious had been a golfer, he would have struggled with downhill sliding putts just like the rest of us.  His strength, though would have been in his understanding of becoming the ball that rolled down the hill and fell into the hole.  Click here for a modern day Confucious' take on being in the moment.
    • When you are over the ball, are you worried about the outcome of the shot to come?  When you miss an important putt, do you carry anger with you to the next tee shot?  When you need to hit a high, soft shot over a bunker, does the bunker appear to be the size of Godzilla?  If any of these things happen to you on the course, you are a victim to outcome thoughts.  When the outcome becomes a bigger concern than the process of executing the shot, your focus is marginalized.  If you hit a downhill, right-sliding, 8 foot putt worried about what should happen if it goes past the hole, you will probably miss it short and on the low side.  You are simply not focused on the right thing.  Instead, if you approach that putt with the idea of rolling it over a point outside the cup to the left of the hole at a slow speed, you are into the process and giving your mind a chance to help your body execute the shot.
    • Outcome thoughts effect more than just the execution of single golf shots.  They also cause anxiety, doubt and fear on the course.  Is there a hole on your home course that has your number?  If so, I would guess that these emotions come into play on that hole.  If you have doubt that you can hit the fairway on the 18th hole, when do you start to think about it?  When you get to the tee, do you hit and hope?  Do you announce to your friends that you never hit a good shot here?  These are pretty typical responses to past failures and fear of the future.  If you let go of the doubt and decide to change how you think on that hole, you will have the opportunity to come up with a new plan.  You can use a different club off of the tee, you can decide to shape a shot, you can pick a new target or you can visualize a successful shot.  If you let go of the past failures, you can be proactive and change your approach.  If you are hung up on the past, then those old familiar feelings of doubt and fear will overtake you every time.
    • Rosie Jones of the LPGA Tour once said in a seminar, that being in the moment was as simple as looking at the grass she was standing on and noticing how green it was or focusing on a single blade.  Even the best in the world get out of the moment, but they understand how to get their mind in the right place, too.  When you see Tiger tug on his shirt sleeve, that might be his cue to get focused.  Figure out a good cue for yourself.  That will help you realize when your thoughts are in the past or future and give you a way to get yourself back into the shot at hand.

    Relax Between Shots

    • The final word I have about thinking good thoughts is to relax between shots.  If you hit a great drive, think about something funny your kid said or what you will buy for your wife for Valentine's Day.  There is no need to think only of golf for a four hour round.  As you approach your golf ball, you can slip back into the focus you will need to evaluate your shot by looking at the lie, checking the wind, figuring out where you need to be and visualizing the shot.  Over thinking on the golf course will create too much tension and make your four hours drag along.  A good conversation or some funny thoughts will go a long way toward keeping you loose and focused at the right time.  
    • By choosing when to focus, you are putting yourself into the mindset of performance.  If you try to focus all of the time, your mind will tire and slip into other things.  Learning to relax and focus at will is powerful and will help you manage yourself both between shots and over the ball.


Enthusiasm or Dread

We had a great camp with 10 junior girls this past weekend.  We focused our time on how to practice, how to prepare for competition, how to ...