Saturday, May 17, 2014

In and Out of the Zone

I just finished reading a great blog post by one of my favorite golf writers, Bill Rand.  Bill uses the daily interviews available from professional golfers in competition to compile an inventory of mental mastery techniques.  Here is a link to today's post:

Paul Casey had it going on for a while at the Byron Nelson Championship. (Getty Images)

It is about Paul Casey shooting 27 on the back nine of the Byron Nelson after shooting +1 and hovering over the cut line on the front.  As coaches, we see changes in mental states often.  The changes can go both ways.  One thing that coaches and caddies do constantly is monitor player's states of mind and work to steer it to a positive place.  The ultimate goal is to teach the player to monitor and choose a state of mind for herself.

The cues we use to monitor state of mind are body language, speed of play, shot results and personality cues.  As a coach, you cannot pry open a brain and check it out, so you are always making your best guess at the player's thoughts.  The longer you coach, the better your relationship with the player and the level of honesty both of you bring to the relationship all increase the odds that your intuition will lead you to the correct assumptions.  With that being said, you must still ask questions and listen to the answers the player provides and trust them.  Players who defend poor thinking will take longer to move out of a poor state or learn to evaluate themselves.  As a coach, that is merely part of the picture and something you must learn to accept, but continue to coach patiently with honesty and positive examples.

Here is an example of a state mind that I see often and how you can shift into or away from it to help yourself become a better player.  This will be the first in a series this week to help you place yourself in the zone.

Targets vs. Avoidance
Perhaps the most common poor state of mind I see from players is the habit of avoidance.  As a coach or caddy, our goal is to move the player into attachment to a target.  It doesn't have to be the flag, but whatever it is, the player must see it clearly and want the ball to be there.  On a drive, it might be a cloud in the sky or a mowing stripe down the right side of the fairway.  On an approach, it could be to land the ball on the very front of the green on a brown spot and see it release to the middle as it rolls to the left.  At the highest level, players see the shot from beginning to end with trajectory, shape, starting point, flight, roll and ending point all a part of the picture.  Vivid pictures and verbalization or clear self-talk all plant the seed of the shot and the swing is the bloom.  In Bill Rand's Blog today, Paul Casey talked of how important that was to shooting 27.

“A little bit like I’ll be watching Jordan Spieth on TV and how he’s talking through every shot [with his caddie, Michael Greller].  It was a little bit of that situation today. Not knowing this golf course, I verbalized everything to Paul and described everything I was going to do. That way I was accountable for it, he knew if I didn’t hit that shot, then I didn’t pull it off.  And it allowed me to be incredibly specific with what I was trying to do and I think when you’re picking out such a small target your misses are then smaller as well.” Paul Casey

The opposite of that attachment to target is the most common block from being in the zone I see as a coach.  It is choosing targets based on avoidance.  I'm amazed at the frequency of this choice of strategy when I talk with my players on the golf course.  A typical conversation would go like this.  Coach:  "What is your target on this shot?"  Player:  "I don't want to be over this green, so I'm going to hit a 7 iron."  Coach:  "Okay, but I want to know what your target is.  Where do you want this ball to go?"  Player:  "I want to be short." 

Now you might think this sounds a bit silly, but this is a very common way of thinking.  Players get so involved in what they don't want, that they never actually decide on what they do want.  While coaching, you will hear players telling you a lot about what they don't want.  They don't want to be right, left, long, short, in the rough, in the bunker, high side, near the water or in that collection area.  They freely verbalize what they wish to avoid.  It is what is foremost in their minds.  It causes them to fail to attach to a target, play tight instead of with freedom and play golf not to miss instead of to hit shots.  In my mind, it is the #1 mindset that stands in the way of the zone.

As you choose your shot, you can touch on a defensive strategy within your pre shot routine, but you cannot stop there.  For example, you can say, I would rather be past this hole location than short, so I'm going to land the ball at least pin high and let it release to the back of the green.  I'm going to land it 1 step right of the hole and it will feed left left where I want it.  That is an entirely different mindset than saying, I don't want to be short of this hole, because that big ridge will make the ball go into that collection area and I really don't want to be in that collection area, so I'm going to take an extra club.  Monitor your target selection the next time you play golf and see if you attach or avoid.

The funny thing about the avoidance mindset is, it often backfires.  Players have what they want to avoid so firmly planted in their mind, that it becomes the attachment.  Because the process stops before reaching a chosen target, the player attaches to the last thing in the process, which, if using the example above, would put them squarely in the collection area short of the green, despite using an extra club.  Be careful where you put your attention, because it will lead to attachment.

The other thing that so often crops up when avoiding something is, good golf course designers are leading you right into another problem.  They put mental distractions in front of you to make you play away from an area that might actually be the best place to be.  We just played Karsten Creek in Stillwater, OK and it was loaded with these types of decisions.  What a wonderful course it is!  The designer, Tom Fazio, hides large landing areas behind a stand of trees or over a bunker.  There is a big target out there, but your eyes tend to stop on the trouble in front of it or to the side.  This happens constantly on this golf course and it is one of the things that make it so fun to play.  It is important there to choose places to challenge the course and the visual intimidation in order to score.  Playing away from trouble on this golf course leads you into far bigger trouble through the use of slopes, tough greens and prevailing winds.

Tom Fazio is a master golf course designer.  At Karsten Creek, he often hides big landing areas and the best targets behind visually intimidating features.  When you play away from these features, you find yourself in the real trouble on the hole.

Go to the course and practice choosing a target on each and every shot.  Monitor your self-talk for avoidance and continue the process until you have complete attachment of what you want!  Find a friend and talk through your intention with the shot, so he or she knows you are "all in".  Finally, stay committed to it until the swing starts.  Commit!  If you decide over the ball to play away from trouble, step off and do it again.  Make this type of attachment a habit and it will serve you well under pressure.

This will be the first in a series of ways you can monitor your mindset.  Check in tomorrow for the "make-up mindset".

Enthusiasm or Dread

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