Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Illogical World of Golf

Whew, it has been a while since I have blogged and I miss it a lot.  Life got a bit busy, but blogging was set aside mainly due to the fact that Sprint sent me a bill for $500.  It seems my $70/month internet account used too much data due to roaming.  They won't get me twice with that scam!  New internet sources to come...

Today's topic is decision making on the golf course.  Is your decision making logical?  Does it change based on how you are playing?  Golf seems to appeal to logical, math oriented people.  There are numbers at every turn.  However, I have found that those same math-oriented people lose their logical minds quickly when the heat is on.  Instead of choosing an action based on what is in front of them, they instead carry around past mistakes, fears, doubts, and hopes.  In other words, instead of being a golf robot, most golfers are humans with emotions.

Emotions are an important factor in all of our decision making, whether on or off the course.  Without emotions, we would be crippled by our choices in every day life.  I read a great book this summer about decision making called Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein.  Another book I hope to read very soon is The Invisible Gorilla by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons.  Both of these books are studies in decision making.  Nudge looks at how people make decisions and The Invisible Gorilla was written about how we pay attention.  These are both very simplified explanations and you can check out the blogs that accompany these author's works here:  Nudge Blog and Invisible Gorilla Blog.  I learned a lot from the authors of Nudge about how we all form our choices. 

Golfers make hundreds of choices in every round of golf they play.  I would like to talk about just one; the process of choosing a club for a shot.  As I stand on a par 3 or an approach to a green, my job as a coach is to take in the factors that could effect the shot and come up with a plan.  It is a pretty simple process, yet, it is also inherently complicated. 

Let's go through a typical club choice process:  Par 3, 168 yards to the hole, which is 25 yards deep and 10 from the left edge, green is slightly uphill from the tee, the wind is from right to left and hurting a bit, green is sloped back to front and tiered with the back tier falling off to the left, the green sits on a slope that goes right to left, there is a bunker in the front, left of the green and the green is narrower there.  The green is 38 yards deep, 18 yards wide on front tier and 27 yards wide on back tier.  These seem to be the important features.  Now add situational factors, such as the greens are firm today due to a lot of wind, which has also increased green speed.

Which one should I choose?

The first team member to the tee hits the ball low and consistently draws the ball.  Her landing point needs to be on the front, right side of the green.  As a player, it is her job to choose, commit and execute a shot to that target.  As a coach, it is my job to assist her with her choice of club and target.  I know that everything in the situation (slope, wind, ball flight) might lead her to miss the shot on the left side and leave herself a very tough shot at an up and down, but that knowledge has to stay unspoken and I must somehow nudge her towards the right choices.  On top of the facts of her ball flight, the wind, the green's shape and the distance of the shot is the role that emotion will play in her choices.  As I said before, emotion is a vital part of our decision making process, but how can we shape what we pay attention to and let go of what isn't helpful?

Even though this player knows she usually hits a draw and will need to start her shot at least 15 yards right of the hole, her last look might focus on the flag instead of her chosen target and that flag is mighty inviting.  This would be the emotion of greed.  Another popular emotion that might effect her choice is doubt.  Even though the player hits a low draw 90% of the time, her mind flashes to the 3rd hole of the day when she pushed the ball further right than her aim and it stayed there to end 30 yards right of the hole.  It is possible that could happen again.  Fear might also get in the way of commitment and it introduces itself in a lot of ways.  The bunker might loom large due to a few missed up and downs.  The possibility of going over the green might seem scary.  Just the fear of not executing the shot well sometimes messes with a player.  Emotions that play a part needn't be negative.  Confidence sometimes replaces game plans with intuition and creativity.  Adaptability allows a player to make the adjustments needed to play in a big wind or with a pronounced ball flight.  The emotions that help and hurt a golfer are many and completely individual both to the player and the situation.

Remember, there is a team of five in this event and the next player through the par 3 hits a high ball that moves left to right.  She puts a lot of spin on her shots.  Everything about her shot will be different from the player in front of her.  She will carry it farther on the green and aim closer to the hole.  The wind will not effect her ball as much as it did player #1 due to the shape of her shot.  The bunker will come into play more for this player than the first player.  Not only is every shot in golf unique from a player's standpoint, but as a coach, there can't be much carry over from one player to another since there is usually very few similarities in games.  

Too many times, players and coaches make decisions based on things that aren't important to the situation, but seem to be due to emotions.  Negative emotions based on past mistakes guide decisions.   For example, what a player did on the hole on the day before might seem important even though the wind, the hole location, and the player are all a bit different today.  The approach shot that was hit on the last hole might guide a decision even though it really has no bearing.  A coach might watch a player make a double from the bunker and guide the next player to hit it long or right to avoid the same fate, even though there is no real connection.

Every shot in golf is unique, but players and coaches often carry around memories that create patterns in their minds.  Focusing on patterns is a tricky skill in golf and usually misguided.  Useful patterns such as noticing that you are hitting the ball a bit shorter today or that your putts aren't getting to the hole might lead you to using 1/2 club more or judging the green speed differently.  Patterns that are based on random shots or events will lead to blurred decision making, such as I missed this green short yesterday and I don't want to be short again.

As coaches, our first job is to give players the tools to make decisions that will help them score on the course.  The first tool is to help the player know herself.  These are the questions that will help a player make good decisions:  How far do you carry each club in your bag?  What is your predominant ball flight?  What is your most common miss?  What are your strengths?  What are your weaknesses?

The next job of a coach is to be the Master of the Obvious.  My players tease me about this, because I actually state the title when pointing out important things to pay attention to on the golf course.  For example, being the Master of the Obvious might lead me to tell a player to watch the tops of the trees to see the wind even though she can't feel it where she is standing.  In the heat of competition, the simple act of looking up at the tree tops is out of character for most players, but it can be trained and come in handy on tree-lined courses.  Other M of the O comments would be about the firmness of the greens and choosing a landing point for an approach shot or the amount of green behind a hole to accommodate a shot rolling past the hole.  The reason for becoming a M of the O is explained in the book The Invisible Gorilla.  We choose what we pay attention to and often miss very obvious things.

Learning to formulate a game plan for each shot and for each round is another skill that is developed over time.  It is very common to see a player use a laser on each approach shot, but not use a hole location sheet.  There is so much information lost when a hole location sheet isn't used.  How much green do I have to use in front or behind the hole?  How much green is there left or right of the hole?  These are two very important questions that aren't answered very often these days. By forming a game plan using the terrain, the weather and the predominant ball flight, a player will gain an understanding of where to land the ball, how much spin or release to expect, and how to use the course design to get close to the hole.

A hugely important job of a coach is to trust the player and her intuition.  Coaches have as many emotions working as the players and they can get in the way just as easily as the player's emotions.  All conversations with players must be made as a consultant, not a boss.  Golfers need to steer their own boats and a strong coach who takes over the tiller will get in the way of a player and her development toward greatness.  Players learn through trial and error and overriding their decision making will cause the process to take longer or worse yet, will cause the players to lose confidence in their ability to form decisions.

Most of tournament play is dependent upon a player's preparation and hard work in practice. However, it is impossible to prepare completely for decision making under pressure.  For that, you must play and post your score in public.  The more often you post a score, the more chances you will have to make decisions, learn from them, adjust them and be better next time out.  One of the adjustments players learn to make is which emotions to tap into during a round and which emotions to set aside.  Players also learn to balance logical factors and emotional factors to come up with a style of play.  Coaches can help you with the process, but in the end, the golfer is in charge of her own destiny on the golf course.   If you understand what information you use to make decisions and how you act in different situations you can become a better player through the use of both emotion and logic.

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