Sunday, August 28, 2011

Start with Simplicity

When things seem overwhelming to you, no matter what the sport or venue, the beginning of a focused approach starts with simplicity.  What is the most important thing right this second?  In golf, it might be as basic as breathing deeply and from the stomach, not the chest.  It isn't a coincidence that a failure to perform in sports is called a choke.  There is a physiological event that accompanies failure and it often starts with a change in our breathing patterns.

Breathe deeply from your belly!

When overwhelmed, athletes describe the experience with phrases such as, "things seem to be going too fast" or "my mind was racing".  Losing your focus in competition is usually accompanied by a speeding up of all that is happening around you.  The opposite would be when athletes describe being in the zone as when the game slows down to a crystal clear perfection and seems to be moving in slow motion.  Not having a clear plan in place for when things go wrong will cause the mind to race as it jumps from thought to thought looking for a solution to the problem at hand.
Once the mind starts racing, your breathing will go with it and now you have lost the deep, belly breathing and instead you are breathing shallowly from high in your chest.  Your body is busy with simply getting enough oxygen and athletic performance becomes secondary.  What do you do to gain control?

While it is simple to say that you need to be in the moment, it is often very hard to accomplish.  First, get the belly moving.  Put your hand on your belly button and move it when you take a deep breath.  Next, take a close look at one, small, specific thing, like a blade of grass or a rock.  I like to suggest things on the ground, because our goal is to help you get grounded.  Focus completely on that one thing.  Don't let your mind wander anywhere else.  Notice the tones of green, the sharpness of the blade, any imperfections in the grass and how it lines up with other blades.  If you do all of this, you are completely in the moment.  You are breathing, your mind is calm and focused and your next job is to move it to your next task on the golf course.

When you look up, what shot are you facing?  How would you like to hit it?  Come up with a very simple plan.  Perhaps this is a time when you choose an extra club and hit a smooth shot to the middle of the green in front of you.  In other words, take the pressure off of yourself and focus on the smoothness, the tempo or the fullness of the shot.  Take it a step further and picture the green as a big, absorbent sponge that will suck your ball into it.  Any type of vivid picture will help you accomplish your goal of being completely in the moment and making it as simple as possible.

Imagine the green is actually Spongebob Squarepants laying on his back.  Silly?  Yes, but fun, vivid, colorful and it will get you into the moment.  Hit Bob right between the eyes.

This is the time to let go of any mechanical thoughts you have been thinking of during your round.  Trust one clear swing thought that is tried and true.  A good swing thought that creates the rhythm you want along with a cue that quiets your mind is like a comforting old friend  A swing thought doesn't have to be mechanical or even make sense to anyone but you.  Saying to yourself, "swing slow and sweet" might give you the right picture and put you in your "sweet spot" for making a nice, rhythmic swing.

One of the sweetest and smoothest swings I have seen is Steve Elkington's.

This is the process you can put in place whenever things seem to start spinning or quit making sense on the golf course.  This happens to all of us at some point in time.  We have witnessed countless touring pros lose "it" on the course and the same stuff is happening to them that happens to you or me.  Time speeds up, confusion sets in, focus is lost, there are no clear goals and after hitting a shot, it seems as though you weren't even present for it.  Worry, doubt, fear, and confusion take the places of focus, clarity, commitment, and trust.  To reverse the process, go to the most basic and simple thing possible, your breathing pattern.  Then follow the steps outlined above to get yourself into the state of mind you need to perform on the course.  Have patience with yourself and with the process.  If it doesn't all happen for you on the first shot, hang in there and stick with the process.  Nothing will be accomplished by giving up on the process or on yourself.  As I have blogged many times before, your mental game takes as much practice as your physical game, so work hard at it and it will improve.

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