Saturday, June 29, 2013

What Exactly is Focus?

What exactly is focus and how do you manage it?  It is one thing to say, "I'm going to focus on the target today" and quite another to actually do it.  In an earlier blog, Get Stronger, I promised to move on to other mental game skills that you could work on, but on second thought, I think I would be skipping something very important, the how of the task.

Part of the allure of the mental game is, some people seem to come to it easily and others don't.  That is merely an appearance.  All of us struggle with random thoughts that fleet through our mind.  We all see the water hazard or the white stakes lining the left side.  We all feel discontent with our swing at times.  We all lose confidence, feel doubt, worry about our challenges and get down on ourselves.  The difference between mentally strong players and others is the ability to shift gears quickly and put your thoughts where you want them.  Mentally strong players are able to stay in the present, because they have strategies to do so.  They understand that bad swings happen, but to dwell on them and work on them during a round is a goal that won't help them at the moment.

"The key to success is to focus our conscious mind on things we desire not things we fear."  Brian Tracy  

The ability to focus on what you choose comes from practice on planned strategies.  Here are some strategies you can use:
  • Trigger:  Many golfers have a trigger that tells them to focus.  It can be a tug of the cap, a lift of the sleeve, a waggle and tap combo or a last exhaled breath.  Whatever it is, it is a conscious thing that gets you ready.
  • Cue:  It should be short, positive and all yours.  Put the picture or thought in your mind that will help you perform.  You can use rhythm, mental game, physical movements or motivational things as your cue.  We have had some as a team that help us perform, such as "aggressive to conservative targets" or "get a putt for par" which is a cue we use if we get in trouble.  Other examples are: "keep it smooth" "see the shot" "finish low and around" "you got this".
  • Breathing:  I know it sounds silly to use breathing as a strategy, but anxiety can be lessened by breathing deeply and using your stomach muscles to really fill your diaphragm with air.  A big deep breath slowly let out can lead you into your cue or your trigger and on to the shot.  
  • Routine:  Your pre-shot routine can be your best friend when faced with lapses in focus.  Your routine holds all your practiced keys to success and is a comfortable thing in an uncomfortable situation.  You should know how long your routine takes and if it becomes inefficient during stressful times, you should recognize it and step off.  Most of the best routines take between 15 and 30 seconds, so it doesn't take long to get in the right frame of mind.  Anything over that time gives you the opportunity to think of the wrong things or get caught up in the ritual of the routine.  Routine isn't about ritual, it's about focus.
  • Time Outs: Every sport has time outs.  In golf, you have time in between shots to take a time out.  Use the time to relax and have positive self-talk.  It is also a good time to be in the present.  Become a bird watcher or look at the clouds in the sky.  Put your focus on something that is happening right in front of you instead of thinking of what you did in the past or what the future holds.  
Here is a focus plan a tournament player might have at a major event that she knows will be tough:
Today, I know I will need good focus, patience and imagination to play this course well.  When I step up to the shot, I will have a clear plan for it.  If I don't get it done, I'm going to take a deep breath and let it go so I can do my best on the next shot.  I'm going to appreciate the views between shots and remember to eat and drink during the round. 

How many players take the time to formulate a plan for the day or even come up with one goal that they will remember as they tour the course?  Doing this one thing may help you immensely.

"Resolve never to quit, never to give up, no matter what the situation.
Jack Nicklaus   

It is so important to practice these skills on the course.  So many players believe that playing a meaningless round of golf is just another opportunity to work on mechanics or have a "go for broke" attitude, so they never practice the real skills needed for scoring.  I believe that is one of the reasons that players like Paula Creamer reached a high level of success at an early age.  She played tournament golf every week as a junior.  She honed both her mental and physical game skills with the responsibility of posting scores.

Focus is a natural skill and one that children employ when they play.  It is interrupted by adult ego thoughts of fear, doubt, failure, comparisons and worry.  The ability to let go of your ego, just as you did as a child, will help you achieve focus.

As a coach involved in constant evaluation of players and recruits, this is one skill that I look for constantly.  Lots of players pass the "eye test" and look good on the range or the first tee, but their scores don't reflect the image.  Others fail the eye test, but seem to manage to bring in a low score.  My goal is to not allow myself to get caught up in "eye tests" but see the essence of the player.  Who understands the true game of golf and who focuses on what she can do to score with each and every shot? 

"That's been one of my mantras - focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it's worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains."  Steve Jobs

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