Sunday, November 30, 2014


Today, I was finally able to formulate the essence of confidence and with that, I understood why it was so hard to think about.  Confidence is the absence of fear and doubt, much like darkness is the absence of light.  How can you describe darkness without the use of light?  How can you describe confidence without doubt or fear?

In a recent meeting with a player, she told me that she wanted to be a more confident player.  My answer to her was that great players aren't thinking of confidence when they are on the golf course.  With that, we were at an impasse.  She thought that a lack of confidence was holding her back.  I thought that confidence was a by-product, not a goal.  That got me to thinking about what the role of confidence is for golfers. 

Confidence is important to athletes, but only on reflection.  The knowledge that you have the game to win going into an event.  The feeling that you are as good or anyone when you step on the range with your bucket of balls.  The ability to work hard to learn the game with the understanding that you will improve.  The idea that you are up to whatever you face when you tee it up on the first hole.  All of these things require self-confidence and build it at the same time.  However, when you are playing the game, it isn't the time for reflection on your confidence.  If you question any of the above things in the heat of battle, you will soon be facing fear and doubt.  The problem with golf is, there is a lot of time for your mind to wander between shots and many player's minds go to these questions of self-worth.

Garcia: McIlroy less afraid to hit driver than Tiger 

That was the headline in Golfweek from Nick Masuda's column on August 6, 2014.  It points out to us that even the best players struggle with fear.  Today (11/30/14), Jordan Spieth dominated the final round to win the Australian Open in very windy conditions.  Here is what he had to say about his round:

"It's the best round I have ever played, especially considering the conditions," Spieth said. "It was just kind of one of those rounds when you're in the zone and you're not sure what you're at. It's nice that it came on a Sunday."

Spieth birdied four holes on the front nine -- three of them in a row -- to lead by three strokes after nine holes, then made light of the challenging, windy conditions by adding four more on the back nine, never threatening to lose his lead.

"You don't want any kind of crack in the door to be open and I felt like we kept it shut from the front nine on," Spieth said.

His last sentence alluded to that fear that he didn't experience in the final round.  Windy days are tough, because the wind creates doubt.  Will it effect the shot or putt?  Will the wind make my hook worse?  Is this the right club?  Doubts turn to fears about outcomes and the game gets tough.  Spieth kept that door shut as he says.

Jordan Spieth with his Australian Open trophy.  Copyright AFP

How did he do it?  If you are in the moment of the shot, neither fear nor confidence will enter your mind.  Instead, your preparation, routine and focus will take over and allow you to perform as you know you can.  However, if your mind wonders if you have the confidence to hit the shot, then your mind is dwelling in the unknown, which leads to fear. 

What is fear?  It is an emotion that comes from a perceived threat.  The question you need to ask yourself if you lack confidence is, what is causing your fear?  What is threatening about the situation you face?  Are you threatened by the number that you will put in the box on the scorecard?  Are you threatened about how people will judge you by your performance?  Are you threatened by the possibility of failure?  Are you threatened by living up to your promise?  What is causing your emotional reaction?  Without an emotional reaction on the golf course, why else would you work to find confidence to do something that you've done a thousand times in practice?

I recently watched Olivia LePoint, a rocket scientist who flunked high school math, talk about reprogramming your brain to overcome fear.  You can watch it in this Tedx Talk.  She gives you three steps to doing so.  1.  Name and reject your fear.  2.  Reprogram your brain with different thoughts  3.  Take action in direct opposition to your fear.  These are the things that athletes need to learn also.  If you can't carry a water hazard off the tee on the fourth hole, face your fear, take a bucket of balls out there and learn to carry it.  Any fear can be faced with the determination to overcome it if you name it.  Perhaps you are afraid of shooting a big number, because of what others will say.  Say it out loud, decide that it is out of your control what people believe about your score and know that your effort was 100% over each shot you made.  I once had a player who was afraid of the water.  She overcame it by signing up for swim classes.  That might sound logical or even an easy solution, but to someone who practically hyperventilated when she was near water, it was an heroic thing to do.  She understood what the problem was and it wasn't water.  It was fear.

This semester, we worked with Steven Yellin this semester to do exactly as LePoint talks about in her talk.  Steven takes the idea much farther than LePoint and gives seven levels of abstraction to overcome to reprogram your brain.  Here they are:

1. Anticipation
2. Concern
3. Expectation
4. Intensity of Intention
5. Anxiety
6. Fear
7. Acceptance

He then provided us with the skills to find abstraction and become less obsessed with concrete goals.  Steven has studied the brain and how it works, so his methods tap into years of study.  My description of it is very simple, but I will say that when learned, it allows a player to play with freedom and flow.  He does what LePoint speaks of, he helps reprogram our brains.

You can imagine all seven of these interfering with your ability to focus over a tough putt or a tight fairway.  You anticipate making it and rocket into the future.  You are concerned that you will or won't and become obsessed with the result.  You expect to make it since you are putting well and once again leave the moment.  You over focus, try to hard and your muscles tighten up.  You are worried about the putt.  You fear missing.  You can't accept failure and you will beat yourself up if you miss. On and on it goes.  We've all been there.  The goal is to be in the moment, allow your ability and preparation to take over and simply make the shot.

Steven recently wrote a note to one of my players.  In it he said, "Try to have abstract goals when you putt. No one has to remind you of the four concrete goals...line, speed, make a good stroke, make the putt. Reminding yourself of these four goals usually have the opposite effect of what you ultimately want to do...making the putt."  

Concrete goals make sense to athletes.  We know that we want to make the putt and we spend hours each week working on the skills that allow us to do so under pressure.  The question is, what thoughts lead to the most success in that situation?  What happens when you are caught up in the outcome instead of the process?  Where do your emotions go when you think of what could happen?  

Most of us are stuck in one or two of these areas.  LePoint talks about fear as being the main thing to hold people back and perhaps all seven abstractions have a root in fear.  At the beginning of the blog, I spoke of doubt as well as fear, but isn't doubt simply the fear of the unknown.  Doubt about your own abilities means you lack conviction in yourself.  As a coach, I want a team full of players who want to face the six footer that will win us a championship.  Whether or not each player will make it isn't the point, but the self-conviction that she is the person for the job is what leads to success.  Does that mean we are back to the question of confidence?  NO!

The ability to make the putt isn't a matter of confidence, but of preparation, embracing the moment, and putting your brain in the right place to allow your body to perform.  Everything your muscles do is due to a message sent to them from your brain.  If your brain is busy searching for confidence before a shot or a putt, it isn't in the right place.  Instead, it needs to rely upon the hundreds of hours of preparation in the last year that lead to this moment.  You know how to putt, so don't look for reasons why you should make it, simply do what you know.  Revel in the opportunity to use your skill. 

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