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.


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