Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Power of Habit for Golfers

I just finished a great book, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. The book compiles and reflects on what scientists have discovered through studies, what philosophers have written about for centuries and even how our justice system deals with the power of habits.

This book is a great read for coaches and athletes who want to achieve greatness. First, it shows us that we have the free will needed to make changes in life by changing our habits. Duhigg gives us a blue print for the process, but warns that it is unique, personal and tough to accomplish. He outlines the process by explaining there is a cue that causes us to act a certain way, a routine of action and a perceived reward that occurs after the action. In order to change the habit, you must look at your routines closely, figure out what cues them and how you reward yourself for them.

How is this important for you as a golfer? You can use this knowledge for better preparation, better mental habits, better game management and better shot making. It is infinite in its usage if you can closely study your habits and figure out which ones aid you and which ones hinder you.

Coaches watch a lot of golf. We spend a lot of time watching recruits and our teams practice and play. What do we learn through our observations? We figure out the player's habit and we learn to predict outcomes by watching behavior. How do I know that a player will miss a 3 footer when she has made every one she faced that day? Because I can see the little habits that precede a miss. It might be a change in tempo leading into the shot. Perhaps it was the reaction after the previous putt that changed the body language. Sometimes it is simply that the putt breaks left to right and is downhill and the player's body language shows nervousness when faced with those putts. The longer I watch golf, the better I am at predicting success and I know that I base my predictions on the habits I am witnessing. How can I use this experience to positively effect the players I work with? That is the question.

First, we have to think about the habits we have. This is often easy for incoming freshmen, because they join a team with habits and have to adjust theirs or even give them up. I have had parents tell me that their daughter has to listen to a certain song on her ipod prior to getting out of the car or that she has to have a certain breakfast or two hours to warm up prior to a round. Well, those habits will probably have to change. First, she won't be in control of the radio in the van and she isn't allowed to have her ipod on when she is with her teammates. She could listen to the song as soon as she hops out of the team van if she wants to maintain the habit. She probably won't be doing it two hours prior to her tee time, because that means the team would arrive at the course at 6 AM after eating breakfast. Nope, not gonna happen. As for breakfast, if that item is served on the free buffett at the Hampton or at the golf course, she will get to eat it. Otherwise, another habit has fallen by the wayside.

These are just a few of the habits a player might have prior to a round of golf. We haven't even gotten out of the van to hit balls yet and we are already three habits in to a player's routine. Amazingly, the habits of freshmen do change and quickly. On a team with a strong and positive culture, this is helped by good results in the past, positive peer pressure and the desire to be a part of something bigger than yourself. There are a lot of teams that have negative habits that freshmen can fall into also. A team's culture is simply the collection of accepted habits that are encouraged or overlooked. If you are a recruit looking for a place where you can excel, watch all the little stuff the team does as they go through their days. What habits do they have in regard to their communication, their preparation, their focus, their warm up, their post round practice, and on and on....

We have so many habits that guide us through our day that it would be impossible to question all of them. Why would we want to think about how we brush our teeth each day or the order we wash things in the shower? Lots of habits don't create a negative or positive outcome in and of themselves. They are positive in that they take away the necessity of thinking of everything we do. That would bog down our day and our brains. Instead, think of a few habits you have that help you succeed. Most good golfers are a bundle of these habits.

Here is a blog post outlining Luke Donald's pre tournament routine on the driving range. http://www.golfcentraldaily.com/2012/05/luke-donalds-practice-ground-routine.html

This is a habit that works for Luke. Ittakes away the need to think about how many balls to hit. It also stops that desire to hit one more because he didn't hit the last one very well. That, in turn, stops the need to judge the warm up shots for how well they flew or felt. I am merely guessing at the whys of this habit, but I like it!

What is your warm up habit? Is your pre tournament warm up more of a practice session? Can it spiral downward if you hit one or two big hooks with your driver? Does it get you ready for good tempo, or a focused routine? Do you start thinking of mechanics or do you clearly visualize the shots you want to hit? Before you even step to the first tee, the habit of how you warm up will effect your round. Can you be like Luke and set a routine that helps your round go as you plan?

As you start thinking of your habits, one of the best ways to do it is to write in a journal. Think about some part of your competition every day and write about it. Discuss what works and what doesn't. Don't try to do everything all at once. Just pick one thing and work on it for that tournament or until you make a change that helps you. Sometimes habits are so ingrained that they feel natural instead of learned. These are the truly insidious ones that create habit loops that feel about as automatic as breathing. Here is a habit loop that many players have ingrained:

Cue: You hit a bad shot.
Routine: It makes you _________. You can insert the emotion you feel after a bad shot. Some people get angry, some feel fear that it will happen again, some feel disheartened, some feel it is unfair given their practice time, etc. Next comes the reaction to the emotion. Lets say your mind gets busy wondering what caused the bad shot. You start thinking about the mechanics needed to hit good golf shots instead of bad ones. You might even make a practice swing that imprints the mechanics needed.
Reward: Perhaps the mechanical thoughts give the player something concrete to think about when things don't go right. It feels like "working hard" instead of "giving in to it".

There are a thousand scenarios for this reward. Perhaps you want to please your coach by making a perfect swing. Perhaps your mom is watching for you to do a drill that cues the proper mechanics. What is your reward?

Here is a habit loop you could adopt instead of the one above:
Cue: Any shot you hit will start this loop.
Routine: If I did a good job of "seeing it, feeling it, hitting it" I get a check mark on my score card.
Reward: Lots of check marks. Hopefully, these check marks lead to lower scores, too.

For this habit, you must choose either yes or no. Yes, I saw and felt the shot prior to hitting it and then I stepped in and hit it. Or no, I didn't visualize it prior to hitting it.

How are the two habits different? They aren't different. They both have a cue, a routine and a reward. I have coached enough of you to know that the first scenario seems like the right one. The fact that you hit a bad shot must mean something is wrong with your mechanics. If something is wrong with your mechanics, it needs to be fixed. If you can fix it, you can play better golf. The problem with this habit is, you are in a constant mode of fixing instead of playing, scoring or swinging freely. The idea of fixing means you are a broken player. Think about what your habits tell you about yourself and how they effect your actions on the golf course.

We are using mechanical thoughts as an example of a bad habit, but this process is unique and you might need something completely different. This is the type of scenario we work through with all of our players at SMU by talking openly about our play. One player found success this year by learning to accept the shot she hit before she moved into her next shot. That sounds almost silly in its simplicity, but it was a very hard habit to change. By learning to accomplish it, the player had a clear mind on her next shot. If she chipped the ball to 8 feet in the past, she would feel like the chip was a failure and she didn't deserve to make the putt. If she had chipped to 2 feet, she felt deserving of the up and down. She had a habit of thinking after every shot of whether or not it was good enough to lead to success. It is not easy to change habits, even ones that seem to take us in obvious wrong directions. First, you have to admit to the habit and then it takes real dedication to the act of change.

As a player, your first step is figuring out what habits are hurting you. A good way to do this is to look at what happens when you hit a great shot vs. when you hit a bad shot. Do you have the same routine? Could you imagine it being the same? When you hit a great shot, do you smile? Do you walk more upright? Do you walk faster? Do you think about the shot? Do you think about your greatness? When you hit a bad shot, do you frown? Do you question your routine, your swing, your mechanics, your ability to play this stupid game? Do you walk slower? Do you hang your head? Do you take longer to hit your next shot?

We had the opportunity to work with Fred Shoemaker while I was at A&M. He has had a huge impact on how I coach. He presented the mental game to us as a series of habits based on reactions. Here is the scenario that he put to the team that was truly a season changer for us:

What if....
you top it off the first tee.

What is your reaction?
What do you think?
What emotions occur?
What does your body language say?
How do you prepare for your next shot?

What if....
you top if off the first tee and go on to win the tournament.

Ask yourself all the same questions.
Did your answers change?

What if...
you approached every shot in every round of golf as though you were the winner of the tournament before it happens.

Wow, the power of that talk we had with Fred was palpable. The players who listened and truly changed how they thought were helped by it for years to come. The simplicity of this habit changed the state of mind of the team. It is powerful. To make the change wasn't easy.

Put yourself on the first tee of a big event. Now picture yourself topping it into deep rough 40 yards in front of the tee box. Do you turn red with embarrassment? Do you hurriedly try to hit the next shot and get out of there? Do you get angry and slam your club into the ground? Do you apologize to your playing partners? Do you sheepishly look over at your Dad, your Coach, your caddy? Do you question your right to play this event? Any or all of these might happen. Now, remember that you go on to win the event. What changes? You top it into the deep rough 40 yards in front of the tee box. You laugh and pick up your tee. You smile at your playing partners because golf is such a goofy game to play. You look at your Dad, your Coach, your caddy with confidence. You calmly walk to your ball and assess the lie. Your body language is that of a winner.

How can you change your habit loop in this way? What stands in your way?

Over the years, I have heard players tell me that anger shows that they care. They have told me that happy body language after a bad shot is impossible. They have told me that repeated misses on downhill left to right putts proves that they can't make them. They have told me that slowing down their routine helps them when things start to go wrong. You can put speeding up in that sentence also. They have told me that thinking about mechanics is essential to a good swing. They have told me that they can't control how they think on the course. They have told me that things "happen" to them on the course.

As a coach, it is imperative that I believe that people can change behavior. It changes through changing habits. All of the things that players give me as roadblocks to change are simply the habits they have built over the years as they learn the game of golf. It is my job to help them replace their bad habits with good ones that help them be successful. I gently lead them to recognize their habits, point out possibilities for change, encourage the effort, support the failures with motivation to persevere and reward the changes with praise. This is the very essence of coaching.

Your homework is to journal a habit you want to change. Figure out the cue, the routine, and the reward. Then script what you want to do instead. Understand the cue, change the routine and give yourself a reward of some kind. Don't expect it to all happen at once or to be easy. Instead, do a bit better every single time you play. If you have a tough day, vow to do a little better the next day. Good luck!


Sunday, May 13, 2012

Goal Setting - Teacher Teach Thyself

Goal Setting- Teacher Teach Thyself

As a coach, one of the most important things I can do for my players is to help them set and reach goals. With that being said, I could do a lot better job with it. It is an inexact science at best. We sit down as a group and talk about our dreams. What do we want to accomplish? I sit down with each player individually and we do the same thing. Most of it is pretty straightforward. I was especially proud of this year's team. They had the wisdom to understand that if they acted like a family, had fun along the way and worked to win, they would achieve a lot. They had three words that encompassed their goals; fun, family and win. It also supported how we coach and how to get through a long season of up and downs keeping our perspective. For the most part, we achieved our goals. We won, we had a lot of fun and we acted like a family. Was that effective goal setting? In some ways yes and in some ways no. We got a win right out of the box, so that goal was accomplished and not replaced. I learned from that! Overall, I wanted to be more effective with my goals and in helping my player set goals. That is what lead to this blog post.

Lately, I have been helping individual players set goals. I had this feeling that something was missing as we worked together. I was talking about what needed to happen for goals to be achieved, but I knew that the player's belief system didn't support the changes. As a coach, you need a firm belief that people can change in order to go to work every day. When you see a young player without that belief in him or herself, you have run up against a brick wall.

I tackled it by doing what I normally do, I started reading. In today's world, I no longer have to drive to Barnes and Noble. Now, I simply go to the Kindle Store and start downloading. This is extremely convenient, but a bit costly. I found a fantastic book. It is Setting Goals In Line With Your Belief System by Andrew Ostoja. It is a very short read and only cost a few dollars, but those were dollars well spent. For the first time ever, someone explained why the best efforts to set and reach goals fell short. If you set a goal that you don't see yourself achieving, you probably won't get it.

I set up some exercises to help my players figure out where their goals didn't match their beliefs. Oh, it was brilliant. Then, I realized, I needed this more than they did. Why am I fat when I have been lamenting for six months that something has to change? For exactly the same reasons; my beliefs didn't support my goals.

Not only did I ask players to do these exercises, but I got busy myself. Whew, this is tough work. Lots of things happen every day to drag me back to a lack of belief, but now that I know the foundation to build on, I can better refocus on what I want. Here is the process I gleaned from the book and tweaked a bit here and there to fit the circumstances. I will share some of my journey and some of my student's journeys, but I hope you understand, this process works for anything. I hope you can use this to help yourself set some goals for things you want to accomplish. I would love to hear from you as you go through the process!

First, what is it you want?
I want to get fit and lose weight.
Here are some goals that others have:
I want to win on tour this year.
I want to be a great putter.
I want to quiet my nerves when I play golf.

Whatever you want, its okay. By that I mean, don't let anyone talk you out of it before you start. That is more common than you think. People will help you fail before you even start.

Your goal should be something you really want. Something that you can sit and think about that brings a smile to you. It doesn't have to conform to what other people think you should have or need. It can be about having fun, achieving a big dream, doing something outrageous or doing something so small and seemingly inconsequential that no one can understand why it would be a goal.

Next, think about what that goal is and write down some statements about where you are now. These statements should start with the words "I am..." Here are some of mine: I am weak. I am out of shape. I am not getting any younger.

Here are some I have heard from others: I am a bad putter on left to right putts. I am not good at controlling my speed. I am really nervous over my putts. I am always thinking about the result of the putt. I am not sure I can win. I am more worried about the cut line than winning.

All of these are truthful observances about where we are at the time we make them. Maybe they aren't realistic, but in your mind they are real. If I am fat or weak, how can I see myself as fit or strong? That is the main question you need to ask yourself about your "I am..." statements. For you to make a change and reach your goal, you have to first change how you view yourself.

Okay, lets back up and talk about change. Achieving goals means making changes, right? I am not asking you to change as a person, or am I? Yes, you might need to tweak your beliefs to reach your goal. You will probably also have to change some habits you have. Do you have to become a different person? Probably not. If you are a book junkie, like I am, you should also take a look at The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. It talks about how habits guide us through life and hold the power to also guide change.

So, the first thing I need to change is my belief system. Since my past year has been spent healing from injuries, my body is weak. However, I could choose to believe that I am weak, but getting stronger every day. Or, I could have the belief that I am strong in will and that will lead me to be strong in all ways. Can you see what I am doing? I am adopting beliefs that will help me achieve my goals. It isn't a bunch of smoke that I don't believe. Instead, it is using what is true to reframe things that aren't helping me change.

How can you do the same? First, figure out what it is from which you get strength. Are you a hard worker? If so, weave that into your negative "I am..." statements to change them. An example would be, I am working hard to control my speed on the putting green when I practice. I am sure my putting practice will pay off on the golf course. I am going to look for opportunities to show great speed control when I putt at this course.

Perhaps you are a great athlete, but you struggle with nerves. Your "I am..." statement might go from I am nervous, to I am a great athlete and I will face my nerves by quieting my eyes and my mind and relying on my athleticism. All athletes are nervous, but most learn to perform by focusing on the process, the competition or even a mantra. Changing your "I am..." statement to discount your nerves won't work, but you can incorporate a way to deal with your nerves in the statement. That means you won't change who you are as a person, but you will change the habit of focusing on your nerves instead of what is needed in the moment.

Okay, you are ready for the next step. Figure out what is important about what you want and write it down. Let's say you want to win on tour. Why is that important? Well, it will allow you stay out on tour and continue to make a living. It will be a lot of fun to win. It will confirm that you have worked hard for years and earned a good result. How about the person who wants to be a great putter? That person will see her scores go down. She will feel confident when she is putting. She will put less pressure on her short game and approach shots. She will have fun making putts. Mine was easy. My body is the source of my health and I will be dependent upon it for my quality of life for years to come. Also, if I am fit, I can play all the sports I want to play and to me, that is fun!

Finally, be specific about what exactly you want and when you want it. If your goal is to be a better putter, how will you know when you achieve it? Can you figure out a way to track your improvement? Will you know it when you achieve your goal? Let's take a tough example and talk about the player who wants to quiet her nerves when she plays golf. First, how do her nerves show? She feels jumpy and can't stay still after hitting a putt or a shot. She snaps her fingers and talks to the ball. She feels relieved when the ball does what she wants. These are some of the ways her nerves show outwardly. Inwardly, they make her mind busier than it needs to be. They make her focus fleeting. They make a miss seem more important and likely to cause more misses. From a coach's standpoint, these nerves seem to build as the round proceeds. They seem more pronounced on tougher golf courses or tough shots. They seem to take away from the player's enjoyment of her day.

If we all have nerves, why does this player's nerves seem so much worse than other player's nerves? Because she is in the habit of focusing on them and allowing them to be more important than other thoughts and actions. In the Power of Habit, the author, Duhigg, talks about the loop of cue, routine, reward as being the basis for our habits. For this player to change her behavior, she needs to understand what cues she is reacting to, what routine she has developed and what reward she gets. It is easy to look at a bad habit and think that it is crazy that a person has any rewards from it, but in truth there are rewards. Here is how this player might be able to break down her habit loop as it regards her nerves on the putting green:

When I really need to make a putt, I think about the result and I get a little nervous. When I line it up, I can visualize and see it going in, but when I get over the ball, my mind is busy thinking about the line, making it and what will happen if I hit it too hard or too far right. All of a sudden, my mind is all over the place. After I hit the putt, all that busyness comes out by snapping my fingers, jumping a bit, talking to the ball and walking after it when I hit the putt.

This player's cue is: I really need to make the putt.
This player's routine is: I line it up, visualize it, allow my mind to get busy, hit the putt.
This player's reward is: I let go of my stress with finger snapping, talking to the ball and allowing my energy to come out.

She can accomplish her goal of quieting her nerves by changing this loop.

The new cue: I will roll this ball on the line I choose at the speed I see.
The new routine: I line it up, visualize it, keep my mind on counting out a rhythm that matches my rhythm and hit the putt.
The new reward: I will calmly watch the ball roll along the path that I envisioned.

The player is doing the very same task on both attempts. She is putting a ball to a hole. She has changed her habit loop by adopting a few new things and taking away a couple of things. If she can recognize what cues cause her nerves, she can decide to write a script for herself that ignores them. Her self talk of saying "I need to make" vs. "I will roll the ball." She adds a simple task to her routine, that of counting out a rhythm, to keep her mind from flying around while she is over the ball. Her reward of letting go of a lot of stress will no longer be needed, because she will feel a lot more calm.

Her goal is to do this on each and every putt, but to expect to just flip a switch and make this change is simplistic. Instead, she will need to focus pretty hard on doing the right thing, especially when she notices the cues that cause the bad routine. She should also ask for help or support from her coach or teammates. Perhaps she could ask them to let her know if they see her snapping her fingers or moving up and out as soon as she makes contact with the ball. Finally, she should take the time to track her progress. Perhaps a journal entry after every round or a tally mark on every putt done using the new loop.

Finally, figure out how you can track it. This player can aim for 50% of the good habit loop in her first tournament using it. She can then adjust that percentage in every tournament she plays. What is her yardstick for success? That is personal, but that should also be noted. How about, I will be successful when I do this 90% of the time when I play. That means she will have to keep documenting her success. How about, I will be successful when this new loop becomes a habit and I no longer have to work hard to recognize the cues that cause me to be nervous.

I want to lose 30 lbs. by Jan. 1, 2013. That is my goal. Wish me luck! Change is hard. It should be a bit easier now that my belief system supports my goal.

Quit Calling it the Shoulder Turn!

The Shoulder Turn

The words that we use to teach golf are important in the process of learning. Harvey Penick was the first teacher who made me aware of how carefully I needed to choose my words. He would always tell his students to "grip down" on the club instead of choking down. He didn't like the visual images that the word choking inspired in a student's mind. One of the most commonly used phrases that is used to describe a move in the golf swing is the shoulder turn. This is so commonly used that it might seem silly to make a distinction about it, but that distinction might make learning the golf swing an easier task.

The turn away and back to and through the ball is accomplished by turning your torso. It is so often referred to by teachers and players as a shoulder turn, that many people believe that is the part of the body that should turn. This is confusing for new players and causes both new and experienced players to make the wrong move. Let's talk about what happens in your swing.

Your spine has different sections in it. At the top is the cervical spine and it turns a lot more than the rest of your spine. As you swing the club back, your cervical spine (neck and top of shoulders) is actually rotating the other way, to keep your head in place. Your thoracic spine (shoulder blades and mid back) is where most of the turning in your swing takes place. That is because the facet joints of your thoracic spine are lined up to allow rotation. This is unlike the facet joints of your lumbar vertebrae (lower back), which allow for only forward and backward flex. As you turn back in the golf swing, your upper thoracic vertebrae support the cervical spine in keeping your head at the ball while the mid back turns. Any rotation that happens in your lower body takes place in your hip joints. All of this is important and works together to create the proper sequence of motion.

When you call this rotation a shoulder turn, you often see people who stand up a bit in their swing to make sure their back faces the target. Many of the students we see on the lesson tee are folks whose thoracic spine is too tight or who have impingements in their hip rotation. You might think I am talking about older folks or folks who are out of shape, but I am not. I am talking about young players who are often overtrained in one area of their body and weak in other places. This is not a problem that bothers only the out of shape.

Think about having a sore joint, either from injury, overuse or weakness. For example, I had injured my right ankle so many times when I was a young basketball player, that it was weak, hyper flexible and stiff. As a young athlete, I was already doing things to offset these injuries. How about you? Your spine has joints all up and down and on both sides. Any of these can be suffering from past injuries, weakness or if you are an avid golfer, overuse. Your hip joints are made up of a lot of muscles that connect to your spine, pelvis and legs. That is a very unscientific way of saying, there is a lot going on there and an injury in any one of those ligaments or muscles will effect rotation, flexion, extension or adduction and abduction.

Wait a second, we were talking about the shoulders and now we are talking about the hips? What is the connection? If you have a problem with rotation in your hips, it will appear as though you aren't making a good shoulder turn. Most of the time, this presents itself as a sway to your teacher or it is the student who pops up out of her posture in her back swing. Either is a way to "turn your shoulders" despite being hampered with rotation in either your back or your hips. Another "fix" we see when your buddy tells you that you aren't making a good turn is to overwork your arms. You will get the feeling that your shoulders are working, but in fact, your arms have lost that relationship needed with your shoulders to create a free swing that produces power. I have seen countless big, strong men who couldn't produce power because of this move.

How do you know if this is how you swing? First, when you swing the club back, your left arm (this blog will refer only to a right handed golfer) swings on a small arc to the inside or closer to you as you rotate your torso. This causes your left shoulder to move down a bit. This is a proper shoulder plane in the golf swing. That plane is matched on the thru swing.


When you consciously think of making a shoulder turn, instead of rotating your torso, your move will be to force your left shoulder back. When you do that, your left shoulder comes up or flattens in golf terminology. You will also notice that you lose the tension in your right butt cheek that you gained with the little swing arc your left arm made at first. If you are one of the players we see on the driving range who doesn't even start the swing with that arc of a swinging left arm, then you have stood up early in the swing and your back is now up and down as though you were about to hit a baseball instead of a golf ball on the ground. As teachers, we see both of these moves quite often.


It is possible that you listened to people talk about the shoulder turn, took it literally and worked on the wrong move until you learned it. You need a lesson with a good pro. It is also possible that you have a good swing, but you have physical limitations that force you to move in counter productive ways to offset the inability to rotate. You also need a lesson with a good pro. In both cases, I would encourage you to get some help from a qualified, golf specific, physio therapist. At SMU, we are lucky to work with some of the best at The Move Project in Dallas, who are M.A.T. trainers. Their evaluations and work with our players have supported my teaching, improved our players motion and movements and taken away pain that radiated from forcing movements when stuck. I am also impressed with the work that NG360 is doing with golfers. They seem to have a good system of evaluating joint movement and giving appropriate exercises to follow it up. If you aren't lucky enough to have guys like The Move Project near you, seek out some of the professionals who are being trained in NG360 (the NG stands for Nike Golf and they are training only their own people at this point).

The power of words is important to teaching and learning the game of golf. Instead of heading to the range to work on your shoulder turn, instead, you need to work on turning your chest or your torso. If you can't do it, take a shorter swing and you will have more power than if you turn with only your arms.

Here are some links that might help you learn more about today's blog subject:
This is a segment on Ryan Overturf, who is one of the M.A.T. Therapists that we get to work with: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UYul5yms1wk&feature=youtube_gdata_player

Here is a quick guide to how your spine works in the golf swing:
http://www.coachesinfo.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=152:golf-kirsinn&catid=43:golf-general&Itemid=75
Here are golfers who are turning their shoulders.  The result is obviously not good.  They have lost their posture and their swing. 

Effort or Process?

Imagine you live in an old house.  The windows are sticky and heavy.  You go into your room to open the window and get some fresh air.  You ...