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.

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