Saturday, March 19, 2011

Decision Making on the Golf Course

How many decisions do you make in a round of golf?  I would guess the answer is thousands.  Does that sound like a lot of decisions to you?  Well, let's think about the first hole and what you will decide.
What club should I hit?  Where should I aim?  How high should I tee up the ball?  How many practice swings should I take?  Should I retie my shoe?  Should I take off my jacket?  How should the ball face on the tee?  What should I do in my pre-shot routine?  How long should it take?  Am I focused?  If not, should I step off?  Should I acknowledge my playing partner's compliment?  Should I chat a bit as we walk down the fairway?  How much should I tell him?  Is he going to talk all day?  Perhaps I should walk more quickly...  Should I carry my bag on my right or left shoulder?  Should I check my hole location sheet?  Should I walk off the yardage from this sprinkler head?  Whew, I think you got the point.  There are indeed thousands of decisions to be made during a round of golf.  Which ones are you conscious of and which decisions are unconscious?

Decisions such as how high you tee your ball or what you do in your pre-shot routine are probably based on practice, trial and error, previous experiences, what you see the pros do and what you read in last month's Golf Digest.  They are for the most part unconscious decisions that you make during a round of golf and based largely on your experiences.  Are they important?  Yes, all decisions you make add up to either a good or bad day on the golf course.  Conscious decisions are ones such as what club to hit from 155 yards into the wind and uphill.  Is there any difference between putting your ball on a tee at a particular height and choosing a 6 iron to hit the shot described?  Probably less than you think.

In David Brook's book, The Social Animal:  The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement, he talks about how much information we take into the brain in a minute time period.  It is estimated to be about 11 million pieces of information.  However, we are conscience of only 40 or so.  If this is the case, what leads our decision making on the golf course?  Is it the 40 things we choose to be conscious of or the millions of things that we are taking in just below our awareness?  I would say both, but is it possible to control what we become conscious of?  For example, if our playing partner is making a lot of long putts, can we consciously decide how we will react to it or is it an unconscious reaction?

One of my primary coaching philosophies is to learn to "act" as you want to on the course instead of "reacting".  It is a way of thinking that is active and attuned to things on the course that are realistic, in step with your game plan and goals and will help you focus on executing.  If we do indeed take in 11 million pieces of information in a minute as science believes, how do we decide what we will be conscious of and what effect does the other information have on us and our game?  Check out this quote from Mr. Brooks book,

"The key to a well-lived life is to have trained the emotions to send the right signals and to be sensitive to their subtle calls."  David Brooks

Check out the faces of Bubba.  Has Bubba figured out what makes him great?  It is definitely a process that the best in the world have a good grip on.  One of my favorite players on the LPGA Tour, Angela Stanford, shows her great smile as often on the course as she does off the course.  Her emotions seem to have a basis in happiness and humor and she has figured out how to use those emotions to play well on the course.  She celebrates after good shots and laughs off her poor shots.

In his book, Brooks talks about the importance of emotion in making decisions.  It has been found that people who feel no emotion, usually due to a brain injury, are almost incapable of making even the simplest of decisions.  We can try to set emotions aside, but that isn't how we as humans are wired.  Instead, the emotions are what make us capable of seeming to be reasonable or logical.  In fact, we are all basing our decisions on these millions of things that we see, feel, hear, touch and in turn process unconsciously.  Here is another quote on the subject, also from The Social Animal:

"All information processing is emotional, in that emotion is the energy that drives, organizes, amplifies and attenuates cognitive activity and in turn is the experience and expression of this activity."  Kenneth Dodge

Have you been paired with someone with whom you love to play?  His attitude, body language and way of playing seems to relax you.  On the other hand, how do you feel when you are paired with one of those golfers you can't stand?  He complains about everything, thinks your shots are lucky while his are unlucky and his pace is slow due to the drama he revels in after every shot.  Do either of these playing partners have an effect on your emotions, your decisions and ultimately your score?  Probably, unless you have made a determined effort to decide what you will be conscious of and how you will channel your emotions throughout the day.  Both scenarios could be harmful or helpful.  Imagine that you're so happy with your playing partner that you relax a bit much and enjoy his presence to the point of losing focus.  Or, you are paired with the complainer and get so irritated that you lose your patience with him, yourself and your game.  In either case, it will be up to you to process what is happening in a realistic manner that allows you to channel the same emotions you tap into when you play great golf.

How do you do that, especially if so much of what we take in is unconscious?  First, it is important to decide before a round how you will "act".  Part of your game plan should include your focus points, the emotions you will acknowledge and how much energy you will give to your decisions and shotmaking.  Here is an example:

"Today, I am going to keep it simple on the course.  My goal on each shot will be to choose a conservative target and be aggressive to that target.  If I execute a good shot, I will give it a fist pump and a smile.  If I hit a poor shot, I will put the club in the bag right away and walk quickly until I let it go.  I will let it go before I get close to my next pre-shot routine.  I am going to connect with each shot I hit by seeing it clearly before I hit it and committing fully to that vision.  If I am in trouble, I will go through the same process, remembering to pick a conservative target and being aggressive to it.  I will see it and commit to it, just as I do in the fairway.  I am going to play at my own pace today and keep my rhythm quick and smooth.  If I have a slow playing partner, I will continue to walk quickly to help me keep my pace.  I plan to have the same pace of walking, pre shot and swing from the 1st hole to the 18th hole."

This is a script of a player who knows what he needs as far as making decisions and keeping his rhythm.  Those are his two points of focus.  He also plans his reactions to both good and bad shots.  By doing so, he gives himself a way to release emotions that might get in the way of his decision making on the shot after a great or poor one.  I have seen as many players lose a round of golf from being too pumped or too confident after a great shot as I have from players who lose their focus after a poor shot.  Emotion of any sort needs to have a ground.

If you believe that this type of a script will cause you to be robotic or "not yourself" you need to understand that we are our behavior, not our thoughts.  To be natural and to be yourself on the course is and should be your goal.  That is exactly why you make these decisions prior to your round.  I am not telling you to act in any way but the way you decide.  If you play your best with a little anger, then figure out how to get a little angry.  If you play your best in a calm, happy mood, you better get calm and happy out there.

Here are some questions to ask yourself?  How do you act when you are playing great golf?  How do you make decisions?  How emotional are you?  What is your rhythm like on those days?  Do your playing partners have an effect on you when you are in your zone?  Does your game plan remain constant?  Does your confidence waver?  These are the questions you need to ask yourself if you want to turn an occasional great round into a career of great rounds.  When you play great and things seem easy, what are your emotions telling you?  Where is your energy?  Where is your focus?  Answer these questions as quickly and as intuitively as possible. Don't think about it, just spout out the first thing that comes to you.  These answers are who you are when you are at your best on the course.  Use the answers to script a mental game plan and see how it works.  This will give you an active approach to your on course character instead of a reactive or susceptible character reliant upon good pairings or good bounces.

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