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.

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!

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