Thursday, August 29, 2013

Chasing Confidence

One of my off-season goals was to read as much as I could about confidence.  I started conversations with numerous players and bloggers and did online searches.  Here is what I decided after reading, listening and thinking through all I digested.

Confidence isn't something you can chase.  It is a state of being that is reliant upon total focus.  Total focus allows you the freedom to play.  You must be in the moment to be confident, yet if you are in the moment, confidence never enters your mind.  If you talk about being confident or you set out to work on confidence, you aren't likely to find it.  If instead, you work to learn complete focus in any situation and to allow yourself the freedom to do what you visualize, you will feel the confidence you want. 

Jack Nicklaus at the 1960 Masters.

Players who feel a lack of confidence are usually experiencing interference.  The interference can be based in negative emotions such as doubt, fear, embarrassment or anger.  Interference can also come from positive emotions, such as excitement or aggressiveness.  If you don't feel confident on the golf course, your first step is to figure out what is interfering with your focus and when is it happening?  A confident player will have unwanted emotions and errant thoughts going through her mind, but the difference is, she doesn't allow them to disrupt her focus.  She recognizes that these emotions and thoughts have no power over her and her ability to choose her focus keeps her in the present.  When a stray thought pops in your mind, you can simply let it go and refocus your mind.  

Tour players often talk of the learning process of winning a major.  What they are learning to deal with is heightened interference.  Their desire might be too high, leading them out of the moment and into scenes of holding trophies.  Their patience might be thin due to the demanding conditions of the course.  The pressures of the press and expectations might make them apprehensive.  Majors amplify whatever interference you have through tough conditions, rarity, vaulted value and intense competition.  Learning to win a major means learning to be completely into the task at hand and set all those other things aside.

You can see the focus in the eyes of the best in any sport.  Jerry Rice stayed in the moment and caught the ball.  Receivers who are worried about the hit or the run after catch before they tuck it away won't be among the best.  Are you in the moment on the golf course?

Figuring out how to be as simple with the task at hand is one way to avoid interference.  See the shot you want to hit, commit to hit wholeheartedly and execute it.  The shot you want is one that is comfortable for you, one you can visualize and one that will lead to the result you want.  Our adage is, "do what you can with what you have from where you are."  This way of thinking makes any shot seem less pressure-filled and more doable.  It is an adage that puts your mind into the situation at hand. 

Another quality of confident people is, they are usually clear on what they can and can't control.  When things happen that are out of their control, they shrug it off.  However, when a confident player makes a mistake within her control, she uses the mistake to learn and adjust.  If you are a confident golfer, mistakes are opportunities to learn and grow.  Anger or frustration might pop in, but it doesn't become the focus of a confident player.  It is simply a quick stage they pass through on their way to refocusing.  If anger or frustration happen often and continuously, the player will never be confident, because she isn't accepting what is happening.  She is reacting to what was.  In order to learn from your mistakes and use them to improve, you have to first accept that you made them.

“Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.”
― Mahatma Gandhi

Confident players look confident.  They exude it with body language and a sense of purpose.  They are assured, but rarely cocky.  Cocky people are usually worried about impressing others, while confident people know they can't control others' viewpoints.  If you want to appear confident, you are once again in the wrong frame of mind.  Think of the eyes of the most focused athletes in any sport and you will get the idea of what confidence looks like. 

No amount of practice or preparation will lead to confidence if you don't choose to embrace the moment.  Practice will make it easier to "fake it" when you aren't focused and into the shot, but it isn't a sure path to confidence.  Both practice and preparation are important to your success, but they need to include focus and freedom.  If you lack confidence, it will always show up at the most important times.  In order to learn to excel at important times, you must let go of thoughts of confidence and simply get into the task at hand.  Learn focus by putting yourself in tough situations whenever possible.  Role play when you have a shot or putt.  Pretend to be at the US Open and picture the grand stands full of fans in front of you.  Make your practice meaningful and stressful and learn to focus through it.  If you are conscious of how you are thinking and what you are doing under pressure, you will be susceptible to interference and you will soon slip out of the moment and into the past or future.  Learn to do it without a process.  Nike was onto something when they said, Just Do It!

Adam Scott has taken his talents and learned to excel under pressure.

The main point is, if you want to play golf with confidence, learn to be in control of your focus.  If you feel uncomfortable over the ball, you are too into you and not into the shot.  If you feel pressure to force shots, you are choosing shots with which you don't feel comfortable.  If you are worried about where the ball could go or how you are swinging, you have lost track of the most important task, which is picking a target and a shot and committing to it.  If you are thinking about letting people down or being embarrassed by your score, you are thinking of things you can't control.
Even the pros talk about finding and losing confidence, but the greats never mention it.  They seem to understand deep in their bones that if they play golf with complete focus on what they do with each shot, confidence won't matter.  They've earned their confidence by learning to control their focus, be in the moment and play with freedom. 

Saturday, August 24, 2013

First Impressions

Today is move in day on campus at SMU.  It is a day of excitement for new students and sadness for their parents who will suffer a bit of "empty nest" feelings as they leave their child in a new place.  It is also a day for first impressions.

In 1992, I was hired to coach golf at Texas A&M.  I moved to College Station from Vail, CO on a typical Texas day in August.  It was steamy!  My arrival coincided with the arrival of our lone freshman that year, Kristina Edfors.  She traveled from Kungsbacka, Sweden and we were both in the same boat; overwhelmed and overheated.  We started our Aggie careers together. 

In that first week, Kristina taught me something that I never forgot and has helped me a lot over the years.  She told me, "No one in Texas knows me, so I get to make great first impressions every day."  Her attitude was genuine and her approach was unique. 

As I've remembered her attitude and approach over the years, I think to myself constantly, can I continue to make good first impressions?  I popped off in a public place last week and was overheard gossiping about something I really don't have first-hand knowledge of.  Someone I didn't know was listening to me, but worse yet, so were a few of my friends.  I had that sinking feeling you get when you make a bad first impression and I once again remembered what I learned in 1992.  Work constantly to make good first impressions, even when people know you.  Work to be your best self.

As freshmen enter new schools, they will meet roommates, classmates, profs, coaches and new friends.  My advice would be to think about who you want to be and then act in that way.  I'm not saying to be someone other than yourself, but to be your best self.  No one knows what you were like in high school or how you've acted in the past.  You can create your best self now.  If you aren't a freshman, you can do the same, just by working to make good impressions and being your best self.  We all mess that up at times, but hopefully we learn from the mess ups and move on without allowing it to change us by dwelling on it or allowing it to build. 

Here is what I work on constantly to be my best self and all of it takes effort.  Listen, be kind, apologize when I should, do what I say I will do and have gratitude for what I have.  As you make impressions on people, what would you like them to remember about you?  New places, new people in your life and new journeys are a great time to work on new goals.  Make sure you set some personal growth goals such as, "I want to make good first impressions."  Good luck to all of you freshmen who are nervous and excited about what lies around the bend.  Be your best self.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Beginning of Training

This is a blog written with college freshmen in mind, but it can easily apply to golfers of any age. The stipulation is that you are receiving serious training or coaching for the first time. What I mean by serious coaching is a person or team of people who focus on developing your skills to play the game at the highest level possible. The skills needed to be a strong competitor involve your physical techniques, your mental approach and your emotional control.  Serious training gives you the tools to be at your best in all three areas.  Practice and experience allow you to use the tools at the most important moments.

Kathy Whitworth won 88 professional tournaments.  She understood how to use her preparation to perform.

The first step to serious training isnt adding skills, but a focus on the foundation of fundamentals. If a player comes in to SMU with bad habits or a poor approach to a basic skill, that is our first area of focus.  This often makes a young player feel as though she is backing up or slowing down her progress as a learner. However, coaches know that those poor fundamentals will cause problems at the most important times. An important thing for a freshman to understand is, progress doesn't have to be defined by adding a skill.  Progress can be made by learning or reinforcing the basics.  The best players in the game often talk of focusing on the very simplest parts of their games when pressure is the highest. 

As coaches, it's impossible to see the mental game or the emotional focus of a player, so a player new to coaching must learn that the coach is completely on her side as they work together toward improvement. The reason that trust in the coach is the first step is due to the fact that the coach will ask probing and critical questions about things such as mindset, emotional state, game plan, intentions, preparation and reactions. When a young player understands that the coach is working to gain knowledge for herself and the player, honest answers can be given.  The process of coaching is one of give and take, with coaches offering insight, suggestions, strategies and tools for success.  It is the player's job to sift through the offerings and work to learn new strategies and let go of things that don't work.  In order to be a great player, you have to take ownership of your game.  One way to do that is to decide what coaching is pertinent to your game and how it can help you.  The ability to listen, filter and take action is one of the first steps of serious training for an athlete in any sport. 

Awareness is the next step in improving as a player.  It is also the thing that players new to training often shy away from. It takes a delicate balance for players new to serious training to learn to use awareness of faults or problems while maintaining their strengths and confidence. This is one reason so many freshmen, even great players, sometimes struggle through a transition to college. The same can be said of players attending academies or making a jump to the professional ranks. Imagine a 3 putt costing you $5000 and you will suddenly have a newfound awareness of the importance of speed control that didn't seem as urgent in college golf.  Awareness is needed for adjustments to improve, but it takes a foundation of confidence to look at your game with critical eyes.

All players are in charge of their own learning. This is a fact witnessed constantly in coaching and teaching golf.  To be a master coach, you must have patience to support the player through the process. Just as progress isn't always based on new skills, neither is it on a timeline. Everyone learns and progresses at different rates. Sometimes the awareness needed to make a step forward comes from a horrific failure and sometimes it seems like a little light bulb popping on after a stray tee shot. Learning rarely happens after a successful performance.  This is an important thing to realize.  Great players learn from their mistakes.  Here is an equation for a great player: mistake = feedback. 
In order to learn to use the tools under pressure, coaches create stressful training.  For new freshmen, simply qualifying for the top five is stressful.  Learning to deal with that stress is a big step towards handling pressure in any situation.  Stress stretches you, tests you, makes you uncomfortable, causes physical changes, mental reactions and emotional shutdowns. The ability to welcome stress and understand it will lead you down a path of strength and help you be your best under pressure. 

Think of the very best golfers and you will come up with a list of traits based on how these players handle stress. The traits these players talk about in their post round interviews are such things as patience, confidence, trust, belief and mindset.  None of these traits are formed on easy, carefree days. These are traits formed through adversity, failures, mistakes and ultimately, learning. So many of our champions will accept a trophy and reflect on the near miss that allowed him or her to win this time.

Q.  While you were actually playing today, did you ever have the thought, this is a major championship and not an ordinary tournament, or could you maybe block that out?
JASON DUFNER:  You always have that feeling.  The crowds are bigger, the courses are tougher; you know where you're at.  You know what's going on.  You try to act like it's not that big a deal, but it is a pretty big deal.
I've played in enough of them.  I know what to expect now.  I know what to expect from the fan base.  I know what to expect from the golf course setup, and I know what to expect from how the guys are going to react to the pressure and how I'm going to react to the pressure.
I was just confident that I was going to put my best foot forward and just really hang in there and try to win this thing at the end.
If you are new to this type of training, it will be up to you to understand that you will face this stress and that you can handle it.  It will be up to you to use new awareness and coaching to become a better player.  It will be up to you to allow yourself to learn at your own pace and to form a relationship with your coach that allows you to communicate your needs.  It is your coach's job to push you and stretch you, but not to change who you are.  Who you are as a player is your very essence and it is up to you to maintain your individual characteristics and strengths.  They will provide you with a foundation and the confidence to make the step to the next level.  
If you are a parent reading this blog and sending your child away for the first time, remember your role.  You are the supporter!  When your daughter calls to complain or lament her failures, urge her to dig deep and have a positive attitude.  She wants you to listen and empathize.  She doesn't want you to fix her problems.  The more you do for them, the longer it will take for them to learn the most important lessons.

Enthusiasm or Dread

We had a great camp with 10 junior girls this past weekend.  We focused our time on how to practice, how to prepare for competition, how to ...