Monday, December 10, 2012

The Golfer's Toolbox - game management

We hear all the time about course management. This deals primarily with tactics of how to plot your way around the course, picking sensible targets to aim for, and also allowing for your shot patterns to occur. Game management is subtly different, although there may be a cross over between this concept and course management. I am going to have to create clearer definitions in my head before I fully introduce the concept of game management in order to try and create separation between the two. But for now, I am going to talk about something which many can relate to. I would certainly file this under ‘game management’, hopefully it will be clear to you why.

I was watching this youtube clip of Tiger Woods giving a clinic. Although the sound quality is not the best, if you are willing to listen to it, there are many gems contained. Most of the real quality pieces of information are things which most people would not hear – not because the sound quality is poor, but because the average golfer listening will be listening out more for technical secrets, and so the quality information will pass through their conscious filter. One of these gems is where he says “I will try and shape it both ways”. Whilst I could go on for days about this, I won’t here, as I have another agenda with this article.

At 2 minutes and 38 seconds, a spectator asks
  “Tiger, there’s gotta be days when you are going left, going right. When you find that out in the warm up, do you adjust”?

Tiger replies by saying that he will try and fix it, but if he can’t fix it, he will go on the course and change his ‘aimpoints’ with his course management. This is obviously a hugely important skill to learn in course management, and I discussed this HERE. Poorer players will try to fix things on the course too often. You will usually find that more experienced players, especially tour players, will be wise enough to go with the shape they have on the day, after trying a few simple fixes first. This will probably become less common, as more players become indoctrinated into the idea that they need to be constantly fixing their swing. But truly exceptional players, like Tiger, will really understand when to fix and when to play with it.

Fix it

Whilst I am generally against the idea of fixing your swing before a round of golf, there are times where it may be necessary. My preferred method of fixing is auto-correction, a notion I will talk about in a later article. However, it can take many years to get to this level, so sometimes we need a different plan. I am going to explain this idea in terms of my usual fault – a ball which curves too far to the left (a hook shot).

I’m a pretty accurate player and rarely suffer with direction problems. Of course I hit the occasional ball in the trees, but I deal with it, move on and forget about it quickly enough without starting tinkering with my swing – a trait which I strongly believe contributes to my consistency with accuracy. However, some days I get to the range and the ball is curving too much to the left. When this occurs, here is my plan of action, moulded through years of experience;

Tool 1 - The quick fix

When the ball curves too much to the left, it is because the clubface is too closed to the path (in my case). The simplest fix I have in my bag for this may shock you down to the core of your being. It may take everything you know about kinematic sequences, lag pressure points, axis tilts, pressure and centre of gravity graphs, deceleration sequences (and so forth) and throw it down the drain. Well, Maybe I am being a little over dramatic.

The fix? I set the clubface open at address, then I grip it. Now, without changing anything in my swing, I have the clubface in a more open position, turning the hook into a playable draw. In about 80% of cases, this solves the problem for me. It is also something which can be easily tweaked and varied through the round (or calibrated, as I like to say), with the minimum amount of conscious effort, or thinking.

If I open the face 5 degrees or so and the ball is still hooking, I will open it 10 degrees. Hell, I have even played great rounds with a clubface 40 degrees open in my younger days. It’s not optimum and it’s not pretty. But you get used to it after a while and don’t even notice it (my average set up has the clubface around 5-10 degrees open at address and most of the time I am not aware of it at all. Also, it’s quick, easy and involves less conscious swing manipulation – something which I am largely against on the golf course.

This is mainly a pre-round fix; something I would use to get me through the day without having to resort to a more dramatic swing fix. I would spend the time in my practice session working on more appropriate fixes, but I would never practice before I play.

Tool 2 – the less comfortable fix

On the rare occasion that opening the clubface at address doesn't solve my ball flight woes, I have another trick up my sleeve. By simply weakening the right hand (turning it more to the left at address, or seeing 3 knuckles instead of 2), it influences the clubhead to stay more open through impact.

Due to this being a more physical change (not quite as dramatic as a swing change, but bigger than opening the clubface), it is less comfortable for me. Through years of experimenting with different grips, and using this ‘tool’, it has become easier and easier to implement. However, When I use it, my attention tend to get directed more towards my hands, which is something I prefer not to have. However, it works for me and can be used in conjunction with the first fix.

Tool 3 – Left hand

I won’t talk about this one too much, as it is too similar to the last tool. Put simply, If I have used tool 1 and 2 and the ball is still hooking undesirably, I will weaken my left hand grip by changing from a 3 knuckle to a 2 knuckle grip via the action of turning my hand more to the left.

Needless to say, this throws me more out of my comfort zone – yet works when called upon.

Tool 4 – the intentional fix  - practice swing

I use this fix a little more often than I should, as sometimes I skip tool 2 and 3 and head straight to this one. I can’t describe why I do this, it is just something I do, and listen to my instincts. This tool involves more of a conscious swing fix, although I keep it as instinctive as possible.

With this tool, I try to visualise the club clubhead coming through impact facing more to the right. I have practiced hitting fades plenty of times in my experimentation sessions, so I understand the feeling and can implement it quickly. However, to limit how much I am thinking about this movement over the ball, I will first implement this thought in a practice swing. I then walk towards the ball and hit it as normal, with the hope that the practice swing will have influenced my movement over the ball.

Tool 5 – Double it!

With this tool, I am basically taking the practice swing from tool 4 (a  fade swing / open face swing) and doubling the feeling of it. For example, if feeling the clubhead come through impact 10 degrees open didn't work to fix the left ball, I will feel it come though impact 20 degrees open.

This picture does have a purpose. As well as a very weak link to 'doubling it', it also serves the purpose to drive more traffic to the blog. It seems that blondes capture your attention

With this idea, you must understand that feel is not real. I may be feeling a 20 degree open face, but in reality it may only be 4 degrees open. But you have to do what it takes to get the clubhead on the ball correctly, even if it doesn't feel correct.

Tool 6– the intentional fix - over the ball

This tool is similar to tool 4. I am basically making the same practice swing, feeling the clubface being more open through impact / a fade swing. However, this time I am not only doing it during my practice swing, but I am more conscious of it during the swing with the ball.

Whilst this is a conscious effort, personally it provides less consistent performance. However, it is a much more powerful tool for me to change the shape of my ball flight, therefore I will use it if the previous tools have failed.

Tool 7 – the mechanical fix – practice swing

Most people jump straight to this one. I tend to see that this should be saved more for last, and also implemented in a more cautious way. It tends to produce a bigger change in ball flight, but also a lower level of consistency (something about internal focus has been shown in many skill sports to produce this phenomenon).

With this tool, I am essentially introducing an internal swing thought in order to influence the clubface. This usually takes the form of isolating my left wrist, and feeling it more cupped on the way down. This thought usually provides me with a very dramatic shift in ball flight, easily changing a hook into a fade or more. For this reason, I am cautious with how I use it, so I will tend to use it only in a practice swing.

Tool 8 – the mechanical fix - over the ball

I guess you saw this one coming. This is simply tool 7 applied as I am hitting the ball. I am taking the swing thought and having my awareness on my left wrist being cupped as I hit the ball.

Thinking over the ball like this is a great way to change your swing rapidly, but can be easily overdone and tends to lead to less consistency for me in particular. So this is really a last resort, scraping the bottom of the barrel type tool. But hey, If that ball is hooking left and I have tried everything else, I will use this tool.

In all honesty, I can’t remember the last time I have used this last tool, as usually my tinkering stops after tool 4 or 5. In most cases I have found a playable ball flight by tool 2 or 3, to which case I simply adjust my aim points, like Tiger said.  But tool 8 is there, if I need it. I even have tools beyond this – other mechanical thoughts, doubling/tripling certain feelings etc. But the more I play and experiment with golf, the less I seem to need the tools, and the more my body can auto-correct. This seems to be a positive by-product of building your own toolbox and experimenting on the range with certain skills.

Some of you may have identified that the ‘fixes’ I used primarily dealt with the clubface, whereas the cause of a hook can often be the swing path. I know this to be true, yet it has been my experience that changing the path is too big a task to be done pre-round and should be dealt with in practice sessions so that it can be done with less conscious effort. But by getting a more open clubface at impact, you can turn that hook into a playable draw – so that is my goal when PLAYING GOLF.

That is essentially the difference. This toolbox epitomises one of the traits of great players, and one of the differences between ‘playing golf’ and playing ‘golf swing’. The person who is playing ‘golf swing’ will be searching for that perfect movement which will help zero out their numbers on a Trackman and produced a perfect ball flight. The person who plays GOLF will get the ball around the course with whatever flight they have, using a few simple tools, which are sometimes quite ugly, to help them this that goal.

So, as a quick re-cap to this lengthy article

  • If you have a playable ball flight – play with it. Use course management skills to help you
  • If not, have a toolbox prepared, and a method of implementing them which causes the least disturbance and the maximum performance benefits. My personal toolbox looks like this
    • Quick fix with no thought and no discomfort                       tool 1
    • Quick fix with no thought slight discomfort                          tool 2
    • Quick fix with no thought and more discomfort                   tool 3
    • Instinctive external thought during practice swing                tool 4
    • Instinctive external thought doubled                                    tool 5
    • Instinctive external thought during the shot                          tool 6
    • Mechanical Internal thought during practice swing               tool 7
    • Mechanical external thought during the shot                        tool 8

Try to make your own toolbox. At first you may only have 1 or 2 tools. But as you get more experienced, you can grow your repertoire of skills, and also become more adept at working out an order of implementation – like mine.

I have toolboxes like this for the main faults in every golfer’s game. If I am hitting the toe of the club one day, I have a toolbox for it. If I am fatting or thinning the ball one day, I have a toolbox for it. There is nothing more distressed than a golfer hitting poor shots with no idea how to fix it. I can speak from personal experience that


This mentality breeds confidence, and it positively affects every part of your game. Contact me if you would like to talk more about this idea –

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Distance Management

Continuing the theme of course management, I will now touch on the topic of managing your distance. Many of the greatest players will agree with me when I say that managing how far you hit your clubs is one of the most important elements to a great golfer. There are many technical elements to distance control, but this will deal with how to manage your strategy to maximise your chances.

If we take an example below, we see a green protected by a bunker at the front, a typical scenario on the golf course. The pin is also at the front, enticing you to take it on. Whilst the strategy should be individualised for every person, I have listed what I consider the best strategy for both a good player (single figure handicap) and an average player (above 10 handicap).

Average player

For the average player, the main aim is to avoid going in the bunker, as this generally results in a dropped shot most of the time. It would be better to be at the back of the green and putting from 60 feet than coming out of the bunker, statistically. Add to that the fact that, even if you did knock it to 10 feet, the chance of converting that to a birdie is probably lower than 25%.

Therefore, the best strategy would be to aim to the middle of the green and pick a club which will get there with an easy swing. E.g. If it is 140 yards to the flag, play it like it is 150 yards. On top of that, if your normal 150 yard club is a 7 iron, use a 6 iron instead and swing it easy.

By using this strategy,
  • If you are to get the yardage you want, it means you will only be 10 yards away from the flag
  •  If you are to accidentally hit it a little too hard and pure it at the same time, you will still be on the back of the green, or at the back edge, where it will be an easy ‘chip and run’ style up and down.
  • If you mis-strike it a little (quite likely at your level), you will actually end up closer to the flag and may have a birdie chance.
  • You will only end up in the bunker if you really mis-strike it, but this is less likely due ot the fact you are swinging easy.

The better player

For the better player, strike quality is generally much higher, therefore distance control is also better. For this reason, a similar but slightly different strategy can be more optimal. The things we have to remember with the better player is that a ball landing in the bunker is generally going to cost only half a shot each time (with a 50% up and down rate), and that they are more likely to take advantage of a shot knocked close, due to their better putting skills. This allows for a more aggressive strategy, without compromising risk/reward percentages. This translates into a strategy of aiming 10 yards past the pin (see below).

However, for the better player, the strategy would be to use a club which would require a ‘hard swing’ to get there. For example, if the flag is 140 yards away, play the club which would give you 150 yards if struck nicely with an aggressive swing. This would usually be your 140 yard club hit hard in most cases.

The reasons for this are
  • If you happen to crush the ball, it may fly 10 yards past the pin, but it will usually have a higher flight and have more spin (from the good contact and higher swing speed), resulting in a ball that spins back towards the flag, or stays in a safe place on the green at worst.
  • If you hit the ball just a fraction poor, it will just land closer to the flag, and there is a good chance you will suffer a slight mis-hit when you are swinging aggressively.
  • You will only go in the bunker if you really screw up your strike, but as your ability is higher, this should not happen too often. Even if it does, you are likely to not suffer too many dropped shots, and the reward (more birdie chances) outweighs the risk (occasional bunker shot).

Extra note

Don't forget to adjust for the wind. Similar to our direction management talked about in the last post, we must adjust for the effect of the wind. If, for example, the wind is into our face, it will knock the distance of your shot down. The simple strategy change for this will be to aim 10 yards further (if the wind is a 10 yard strong wind) by adding an extra club (hitting a 6 iron instead of a 7 iron, for example). 

Take home message

When you look at the patterns of almost every player, they are very unlikely to hit it further than the yardage they wanted. At least half, it not all of shots end up finishing short of the intended distance. For this reason, the general strategy is to aim further than the flag, allowing your mistakes to work for you. This is not only practically efficient, but psychologically. A player who aims past the flag and then executes their shot perfectly will not be disappointed. Also, average mistakes will result in a better shot, so the player will not be disappointed either. Who can be angry with themselves for knocking it close? This is contrary to what you see on the golf course from day to day – players making small mistakes and getting punished big time. Imagine how many shots you could save per round, just by playing the percentages.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Where to aim

Last article, we looked at where our target should be in a specific example. Now, we will look at where we should aim; there is a big difference between the two. Our target is where we want the ball to FINISH. Our aim is where we need to align in order to get the ball to our target.

It would be amazing if our swings were so efficient that we were like guns, hitting the ball wherever we lined our bodies up to. But not only is this an un-achievable task in reality (although plenty of people still try to achieve it), but it is not necessary in order to play good golf. Far more important than hitting the ball as straight as an arrow, is the ability to repeat what you do, EVEN IF IT IS A MISTAKE.

Let me elaborate. In the early part of my golfing career, I hit about a 20 yard draw shot with a typical 6 iron. The ball would start about 5 yards right and then curl 20 yards, finishing 15 yards left of where I aimed on average. So it looked something like below;

The red cross being where I am aiming, the dotted line being the line from my ball to the target. The white dots are where my golf balls would finish (between 5 yards and 25 yards left), and the circle around them represents the shot pattern.

Obviously, not hitting where I was aiming can be seen as a fault. But if we are intelligent enough, we can make our faults work for us. Below is a picture of where I would aim (the red cross).

This would allow me to get my shots to land within my shot circle, which is positioned in a safe place on the green (as discussed last time). So I would almost ALWAYS aim about 15 yards to the right of where I wanted my ball to finish, as my pattern was to hit 15 yards left of where I aimed. Make sense?

Further Adjustments

So we have looked at picking an acceptable target last week (which may not be the Flag), we have looked at adjusting where we aim to allow for our shot pattern. There are other things we may have to take into account. The first thing which springs to mind is the wind.

Obviously, the wind will blow your ball around in the air and change the direction of the flight of your ball. If the wind is moving left, you are going to have to aim further right to compensate. How much further right? This is where experience comes in to try and judge the effect the wind is going to have on your ball. It is such an individual thing, because different people hit the ball different heights and distances and shapes. It would be too general to say that a 10mph wind will move your ball 10 yards.

We shall now look at our above example, but add in a right to left wind. The wind is strong enough to move the ball 10 yards to the left, so this means I have to shift my red cross (my aim) 10 yards more to the right. If the wind is gusting, it may be beneficial to add a ‘fudge factor’ in and aim a further 5 yards right, just in case an unexpected gust happens after the ball has been struck (it is better to be safe than sorry, especially when the alternative is a water ball which was out of your control).

So now have a look at the example. You can see that my aim is not even on the green. I have picked a target which is maybe 7 yards right of the flag, due to the danger to the left of the flag. I then aim a further 15 yards right to allow for my normal shot pattern, and add another 10 yards for  the wind, finally dropping another 5 yards as an assurance against gusts. This puts me aiming a whopping 37 yards right of the pin - aiming in the trees.  

This is a relatively extreme example, where there is danger on the left, a player with a predominant mistake of being 15 yards left, and a wind pushing the ball further left. All these factors require a lot of compensations. But the player who is unwilling to change their strategy will end up in the water more often than not. It may not be ideal to aim into trouble, but you have to play your golf based on where your ball finishes normally, rather than on what route it takes. For example, When I played this big draw shape, I could hit 100 balls and only have maybe 2-3% finish to the right of my target. So, for me, it was easy to aim at trouble on the right, as I knew it would be coming back 98% of the time. If it didn't, I could deal with that 2-3% mistake.

Even if I were to aim 37 yards right like this, then happen to hit one of my straighter shots and the wind dies down to a breeze, I should still hit the right side of the green. At worst I will be left with a shot from the safe side of the green where we have lots of green to work with, so I could hit an easy low running chip shot.

Where do I look – visual aim

You may read in magazines not to compensate for a hook or a slice by aiming further right or left. Whilst there is an element of truth to this (in the long run, you should look to minimise what is causing the hook or slice), course management deals with creating a strategy which fits your current game. In truth, every top professional golfer plays some level of shape. Rory Mcilroy plays a rather large draw shot, Jack Nicklaus was known for fading the majority of his shots. Therefore, the best players all compensate by aiming away from their target to some level. This is not a mistake, as it is sometimes seen, but a necessary prerequisite to good golf.

The biggest change you are going to have to make with this is your visual alignment. When you aim 40 yards right of the flag, as in our example, you should be visually looking 40 yards right of the flag. This sends the message to your brain that this is your target. From there, your normal pattern, plus the wind, will bring it back to your actual target.

If you were to make the mistake of aiming physically 40 yards to the right, but then directed your gaze towards the flag, your brain may sense that it needs to hit towards the flag, resulting in a big pull/hook which drops in the water.

Take home message

After you have identified your target, you need to work out how to get your ball there. Take into account your normal shot pattern, the wind and even other factors, such as the lie of the ground. Compensate for these by both physically and visually/mentally aiming to a place which would allow you to hit your target.  

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Adjusted Targets

I would consider this idea one of the most basic in course strategy. Yet the more I coach, the more I am amazed at how even some of the more elite players I have coached don’t understand (or at least don’t use) this. I played for many years with a 25 yard hook, yet it never stopped me getting down to scratch. Yet I see players with 25 yard slices who complain that the reason they can’t lower their handicap is due to their banana ball. Well, if I could curve the ball 25 yards and still get the ball around in par, why are these people struggling to even break 100 sometimes, with the same amount of curvature? Obviously, many factors contribute to the overall score of a player, but one of the consistent mistakes I see is in the strategy, which I will address here. This topic could fill a book (trust me, it will), but I will just take one example here and highlight it.

The strategy concept I am talking about refers to where you should want your ball to land in order to balance out the risk and reward – your target.

What is your target?

This is what we would describe as a ‘sucker pin’. If you have poor course management, it is likely that you will answer this with question by saying “The flag”. But in a lot of cases, this is the worst target you can have. It is often too aggressive a strategy to allow for consistently good golf. It may offer more birdie chances if your game is firing on all cylinders, but if you are playing average golf (which, by definition, you are more likely to be playing), it will cost you more shots than it earns.

You have to be realistic about what is achievable with your shots. Even a top professional golfer averages around about 10 yards away from the flag with their approach shots. This could be 10 yards left or right, giving a 20 yard circle. So even the top guys don’t hit their target all the time, they just get ‘around’ their target more often. For this reason, you should think in terms of your shot circle. Below is the same flag, with a 20 yard shot circle overlayed.


By going aggressively at the flag like this, a player believes that they are going to make more birdies. But even for a top professional golfer, if they manage to pull off a great shot and knock it to 7 feet, there is still only a 50/50 chance they will hole the putt (based on tour statistics); a shot in the water costs them a whole shot. The risk outweighs the reward.

Imagine playing this hole 10 times. If you were to hit half of the shots in the water, it would cost you 5 penalty shots, not to mention you would have to get it up and down from wherever you dropped it; this is a big risk. And the reward? The other half of your shots would land on the green and be relatively close. But when you consider that the average player is not going to hole many of those putts for birdie (even if they are around 10 feet from the pin), the reward is too small. You may get 2 birdies at best, but at the cost of 5 penalty shots and 3 extra shots trying to get it up and down (taking into account the average short game stats).  The math doesn’t add up, and on average you will end up worse off.

Yet people continue to use this strategy because they chase some kind of idea that this is what the pro’s do. Yet, often times when you see a professional stiff it close when the pin is positioned like this, it is either due to them being on their best form that week – or it is simply a mistake. Professional golfers do not play this strategy all the time. People also hold on to the memory of the times when they have succeeded with this strategy and made a birdie, and then continue to play this strategy with no awareness of risk/reward or appropriateness (believe it or not, there are some times when this mentality is beneficial). 

A better option

Now let’s overlay a more appropriate strategy onto the green.

In the above picture, our target is to the right of the flag (the centre of the circle), taking the water out of play (barring anomalous poor shots). Now, not only do we almost eliminate penalty shots, but we still have good birdie chances when the ball creeps into the left portion of our shot circle. Sure, aiming away from the flag is not the most exciting way to play, but your scorecard will thank you. You can still make birdies this way, and a lot less bogeys and doubles.

Take home lesson

The flag is not your target. Greenkeepers will put the flag in silly positions to ‘sucker’ the aggressive players. A good player has the ability to swallow their pride, pick a target which is away from the flag and toward a more appropriate position which, if they were to repeat 10 times, would maximise their performance in terms of score. Pick a target which suits your shot circle; the bigger your shot circle is, the further away from the flag (and water) you target should be. In extreme cases, it may even mean having a target which is off the green, such as a safe run off area from the green.

Next article, I will address where to aim. And yes, this is different to what we have discussed. 

Monday, September 24, 2012

Expectation Management

I have talked of the value of lower expectations last week regarding happiness here. I have also discussed how I believe expectations can be one of the leading contributors to form here. Do I believe that expectations should be low all the time? Of course not. Having high expectations can drive you forward to where you need to be. It can be a major motivational tool to make you get down to work and stop settling for less than you are truly capable of. It can also help you break through previous barriers, especially mental ones (such as the first time to break 90/80/par).

What would I see as the ideal mental state to be in for consistent golf? The following table represents my theory;

The biggest problem for the average golfer

Almost every golfer you see up and down the country, on every driving range is practicing in a way that raises expectations and confidence in an out of balance state. By this, I am referring to hitting ball after ball in successive fashion, otherwise known as block practice, or hit and rake, or machine gunning. By practicing in this way, you are effectively asking the same question to your body over and over – to which it replies with the right answer without thinking. Whilst this may make you feel more confident about your golf (wow, I hit it great here), it gives you a completely misguided gauge of your current ability. 

Golf is simply not like that on the course, we never hit twenty 7 irons in a row to the same target without moving our feet. Research has also demonstrated that block practice will be a very slow way to increase your skill levels further. So practicing in this way raises your confidence, raises your expectations, but does little for your skill levels in a real setting. Does this sound like a good combination for most people?  

Lowering expectations

What if we were to flip this, perhaps find a way to practice which lowers our expectations, balances our confidence and improves our skill. Through making practice more difficult, we can achieve exactly this. If we want to get stronger in the gym, we make it more difficult for ourselves by adding weigh to the bar. Making practice more difficult is the same thing. We can make practice more difficult in many ways – simply set ourselves a harder task, for example. If I want to improve my ball/turf strike, I will go into a bunker and hit fairway bunker shots. The level of forgiveness from a bunker is much smaller, you really have to strike it perfectly to get the distance and control. By demanding more preciseness, the human body responds by increasing its’ proficiency further. 

Demand more from your skills and you will grow, just like a bodybuilder demands more from their body by upping the weight on the bar. 

Practicing in this way – more difficult – will not only demand more of your skills and force an improvement, but it will automatically lower your expectations and confidence. Whilst this may seem like a bad thing, it really serves a great benefit for us on the course. A lowered expectation combined with higher skill level is exactly the scenario we face before we go on an upturn in form, as described here. Whilst making practice more difficult may knock our confidence initially (be sure you don’t over-do the difficulty to the point your confidence is sapped), as we progress with our abilities, we achieve confidence through the progression of our skills. For example, the player who tries the fairway bunker shot and only achieves it 1/10 will initially have low confidence. However, when they have progressed to 4/10, they will gain confidence from the fact they have improved. This is why I am big on keeping statistics for practice in some form. In lessons, I play mini 10 ball tests with clients, where they get a score – then we try to improve upon it.

My preferred method of increasing the practice difficulty is through random practice. This is where a player will not only change clubs every shot, but they will also change targets, and even change shot shape/lie (for more advanced players). Not only is this much more ‘course realistic’, but it has been shown to be much more beneficial to long term improvement of skills (and course transference of skills). As it is more difficult than block practice, it serves the effect of lowering expectations and balancing confidence levels.

avoid hitting to the same target over and over, unless you are working on a new technique in the early stages, or simply want a confidence boost.

For those of you who just can’t bear practicing on the range, there are still a few ways of producing this effect ‘on course’. When I was younger, I used to get bored playing a round of golf by myself. I created a game where I would ‘Tiger proof’ my home course, making it more difficult than it was, in order to prepare me for tougher courses. How did I do that?

I played the rough as a lateral water hazard – If my ball landed in the rough, I would drop the ball back in the fairway, level with where it lay, but with one shot penalty.
Out of bounds was a 3 shot penalty
Bunkers were a  1 penalty shot, and I had to play from them as normal
The first time the ball hit the green, I would have to drop the ball directly away from the flag 10 paces

This last rule especially made me think about which portion of the green I wanted to hit, and stopped me attacking flagsticks in a position that would leave me ‘short sided’. The first rule really prioritised accuracy over distance for me. It really helps to lower your expectations, and learn some valuable course management skills. Although confidence is initially shocked by your new high score, it is quickly re-established when you see that score come down as a result of your newly learned skills. This is a powerful game for those who are overly aggressive in their strategy – which is just about everyone. 

being overly aggressive on the course does not just mean this - it could be your strategy too!

Another similar game to play on course is ‘worst ball’. This is basically where you hit 2 golf balls and take your worst one. Hit two golf balls from there, take the worst one again, then repeat the process until the ball is in the hole. This is a great game to lower expectations and balance your confidence/an overly aggressive strategy, whilst improving your skill levels.

Increasing expectations

Whilst the majority of poor players suffer with overly high expectations (lots of good players too), there are situations where we may want to increase expectations. This can help you break through previous barriers when you are performing your best. The 80’s shooter who is having a week of good form, may not be able to break 80 still, as they are self sabotaging. They may be coming into the last few holes with a score that looks sure to be mid 70’s, only to finish with 3 doubles and be on the bubble again. I talked about this a little in this article. In this situation, it may be beneficial to increase expectations through effective visualisation and a reversal of the above suggestions. 

This could involve making practice easier, through a more blocked practice protocol where the player hits balls in a rapid succession. The player could make the tasks a little easier than normal, playing from preferred lies and hitting the same shot over and over.

making the game a little easier can do wonders for your confidence if used correctly. It wont do a lot for your skill levels though.

On the course, a player could play a 3 ball Texas scramble with themselves, where you pick the best shot from 3, and then hit 3 balls from there, then repeat. Throwing in a few ‘flagstick length’ gimmes can also show you your potential, and give your subconscious mind the nudge to say “this is what I have the ability to score”. You do not want to stay in this stage for too long however, as it can quickly make you over-confident (you get crazy with your course strategy), increase your expectations too much and slow your progression with skill acquisition.


Potentially then, it could be said that expectation management is a delicate balancing act. Achieving the ideal situation of high skill, balanced expectations and balanced confidence, requires actively taking control of the processes that manage such things. Using a periodisation model, we could take charge of these states and use them to let us peak at certain times, say, for example, a big tournament. 

We could spend a large portion of our time in a phase of 
Actively lowering confidence and expectations through increased practice difficulty (hence dramatically increasing skill)
Followed by a balancing of those states for optimum performance – ready for the tournament.
Followed by a period of tapering off difficulty, to allow for a little more enjoyment and realisation of the new skills acquired.

The player/coach would be responsible for identifying what a player would need at any time. But as an overall rule, if you really want to reach your potential, add some weight to the bar. If golf is just a game for pure fun and enjoyment, keep bashing away at 100 balls in 20 minutes. But don’t expect to produce those shots on the course, and don’t expect to be a dramatically better golfer any time soon.

Side note

Both block and random practice certainly have their merits in the long term outlook of a players’ development. Learning a new skill is best acquired through block practice. However, accessing that skill requires a ‘plan making’ brain activity, which is best achieved through random practice in most cases. As with everything, everyone should find out what helps them perform best on the golf course. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Happiness in golf

Happiness in golf

Another philosophical post here, but one that can just as easily be applied to life as it can golf. What does it take for us to be happy in golf? I think learning this idea early on can seriously help you throughout your golfing career – whether you are a beginner looking to get your first handicap, or a professional golfer, you can benefit from reading this.

Who is the happier person - the beginner golfer who gets the ball in the air for the first time, or Tiger Woods after hitting a 5 iron 200 yards over water to 40 feet? I can guarantee you it is the beginner. Even though, technically, the shot from Tiger was better, his expectations are much higher. When something doesn’t match our expectations, it leads to frustration. The beginner has just hit a shot much higher than their expectation, which causes elation and a feeling of happiness.

“Any time we exceed our expectation, it causes happiness. If our reality is below our expectation, we experience frustration, anger and other negative emotions”

There is a constant battle here between needing higher expectations to motivate and push ourselves into improving, but not so high that we lose enjoyment. Better players tend to fall much more on the ‘too high’ side of expectations. People with high expectations are usually very motivated individuals – the do-ers of society. They constantly push themselves to be better and better. Negative emotions, to a certain extent, can really help us in achieving this highly motivational state – contrary to the popular ‘positive psychology’ movement. But how many good players, or even tour players, do you see walking down the fairway with smiley faces, bouncing with joy at the shot they just hit on the green from 170 yards? If you are constantly pushing yourself to get better and better, having sky high expectations, you are going to be unhappy with your play more often than not.

When I first started golf, my first handicap was 33. “If I could just get down to 15 handicap, I will be good enough to get into the junior team”, I remember saying – thinking I would be finally satisfied with my golf. Within a year, I was there. Was I satisfied? Of course not. Now I wanted to get down to 6 handicap, so I could get into the men’s team and be the best junior at the club. Surely then I would be happy? Of course not; within a year I was there, but largely unhappy with my game as I now wanted to be scratch – surely that would make me happy, right? The better I got, the less satisfied I was. How often do we see this in other areas of life?

I think you get the picture. You must understand something, When a human being achieves something, initially it is a great experience. Whether this is winning the lottery, or winning a tournament. This elation can last days, weeks or even months, but eventually the human emotional system will not allow those high levels of emotion to remain. Changes occur on a biological level which mean eventually you are brought back to equilibrium, and the thing that originally caused such positive emotions now becomes the norm, and has much less of an effect on your emotional system. Acclimatization occurs.

Think about the fancy new car you bought. The first week it was amazing, you felt like a king driving around in it. You kept it clean every day, buffing the hood and shining the rims. After a month or so, It still felt good, maybe you cleaned it a little less. After a couple of years, it is now just your car. You don’t get any elation from driving it, and you are probably looking at other cars, in the hope that the next one will spark that emotion again. The same thing occurs in golf. The first time you hit one from the sweetspot and it flies in the air, it’s such a good feeling, even if the ball flew into the right rough. After a few years, the same shot will probably produce more anger than happiness. Your expectations have changed, not the result.

So how do we ‘be happy’ with our golf?

The first thing to realize is that getting better is not going to make you happier. In fact, in almost every case, after the acclimatization to this ‘new you’, you are more likely to be unhappy with your golf. Happiness is a choice, it’s a perspective, and it is also down to your expectations. Having constantly high expectations for your golf can be greatly motivating for you to move forwards. But understand that when you do move forwards, your expectation will also jump forwards again. This is like the horse chasing the carrot.

I am actually all for having high expectations, It is one of the only ways to really get good at this game. But being constantly unhappy with your state of play can also inhibit you reaching your true potential. You need to throw some balance in there every now and again. You need to occasionally eat the carrot.

Take some time out, and just think about how far you have come in golf. As a beginner, you were probably topping the ball every other shot, now you (hopefully) have the ability to hit the ball every time. Go out and play with some people who are just beginning in golf. Watch how much of a struggle it is for them, and realise that you were once there too. Make a conscious effort to really appreciate the ability you DO have, rather than focusing on the abilities you don’t (not for too long, you don’t want to get fully comfortable with where you are). It is an incredible feat of co-ordination to swing a sweetspot the size of a pea, 20 feet around your body in a circle, at close to 100 mph, trying to synchronise arm swing, body turn, wrist cock, weight shift and much more. A 3cm mistake can be the difference between topping the ball 1 meter and hitting a hole in one. A 3 degree mistake can be the difference between looking for your ball in the trees, and looking for your ball in the hole. So when you hit those shots that go down the fairway, give yourself a pat on the back, you’ve pretty much produced a miracle of skill. Celebrate your successes a little more often, let the bad shots go.

As a side note, I was recently in a small lull in my game. I went home to visit my parents, my mother told me to go to the attic to clean out some stuff and get rid of my old things I didn’t want so she could sell them. I found a folder that I instantly recognised. It was one filled with my visualised rounds of golf. It also had a list of the distances I hit every club in my bag, followed by ‘projections’ of goals. My 7 iron distance was, at the time, 95 yards. I had projected a 3 year goal of 120 yards, and a 10 year goal of 150. Instantly, I remember (as a 95 yard hitter) imagining how amazing it must be to be able to hit a 7 iron 150 yards – almost unthinkable at the time. Now, just over 10 years after that goal was set, I average 155-160, but have the ability to hit it 170 if I wish. The problem was that the distance kind of crept up on me. I got longer every year without noticing it, and my expectation quickly matched my new distance. I never gave myself the chance to eat the carrot. But sitting there, going through all my old goals and seeing how, not only had I reached them, but surpassed them, it made me feel really appreciative of how far I have come in golf. I think we all need to take some time out every now and again, and really think about where we are now, compared to where we have come from.

But golf is not only about goal achievement. Happiness is a choice in golf, as it is in life. It’s down to where you put your focus. Choose to go out and just appreciate every good shot you have hit. Appreciate the ability you have now – be happy with your golf, at least for the next round you play.  

Monday, September 10, 2012

Ideomotor Effect in Golf - The Power of Visualization

Ideomotor effect in golf

Have you ever seen or used a Ouija board? This is the board that allows you to ‘contact the dead’ through moving a glass, or some other device over a board with numbers, letters and yes/no written on it. Everyone in the group places their hand on the device, and through asking questions to spirits, they reply by moving the device to the corresponding place on the board, spelling out answers for the participants. People who have successfully used a Ouija board will swear that they were not applying any force to move the device, and that it was the spirits themselves who were creating the energy.

A Ouija board (pronounced Wee-Jee)

The problem with this is that it is a load of rubbish. Studies show time and time again that it is false, and that the people collectively are moving the device over the board to the place they want it to go. In some studies, sensors have been placed on the devices to measure pressure from the fingertips of the participants. Although they all swear (and often truly believe themselves) that they are not applying any force, the pressure sensors consistently show that they, in fact, are. Other studies have blindfolded participants, then sneakily turned the board 180 degrees, then asked them to carry it out again. Predictably, the device moves across the board to the place where participants ‘think’ the answer is, based on where it was before.

Probably the most elaborate debunkings of a Ouija board was produced by Derren Brown. He collected a large group of intelligent suggestible people (basically someone who believes in rubbish) and took them to a creepy old building. He showed them pictures, gave stories and spent the night discussing a woman who had supposedly died; their goal was to channel her spirit through the Ouija board. Low and behold, her spirit was successfully contacted, and she supplied lots of interesting answers. Every one of the participants were fully convinced that they had actually contacted her spirit, as they felt the device moving on its own, without and conscious manipulation from the participant.

At the end of the show, Derren thanks all the participants, before bringing out a lady for them to meet. Low and behold, it was the lady that they had supposedly contacted – she was not dead at all, but was sitting in the other room watching TV. The participants cannot believe it.

How did that happen?

So, what is really going on here? Why do people feel like they are not applying any force to the device, yet it moves seemingly on its own? There is a known (and tested) physiopsychological concept called ‘Ideomotor effect’.

Any conscious or unconscious thought will activate (light up) certain neurons in the brain. If I said the words ‘Coca Cola’ to you, your brain lights up like a Christmas tree, as you have specific neurons attached to those words. Unless you were born and raised in the jungle, you will instantly visualize red and white and black, and may even conjure up images of a Truck/Lorry driving through the snow with the song ‘holidays are coming’ ringing through your mind. This will be automatic and out of your control – the brain is a mass interconnected web of neurons connected through associations ingrained through emotion and repetition. Marketers know how to use this knowledge to their advantage.

The same thing applies to a movement; imagine lifting your right arm up, and your brain will ‘light up’ for that movement pattern. Neuroscientists can tell what movement you are thinking of through purely looking at which parts of your brain are activated; this is known as neuron/brain mapping. In fact, they will be able to tell you what you are thinking of even before you are thinking of it (this is crazy stuff and opens up a plethora of philosophical debates over consciousness and ‘the self’, specifically ‘free will’). The activated brain/neuron network will then send an electrical signal to your muscles – this part is not in your control. Simply by reading the words ‘lift your right arm up’, you have just sent an electrical signal to your right arm muscles.

The ideomotor effect was costly in this game

Now, whether we actually lift our right arm up involves other mechanisms, which I won’t discuss here. However, regardless of whether or not the full movement actually takes place, there will often be very small, almost unnoticeable, movements in the arm; this is called the ‘Ideomotor effect’. For some, this is very strong. For others, this can be rather weak. But as humans, we all have it to some extent.


Through amplifying this effect, we can experience certain things. Such as the Ouija board users – by having 6 people put their fingertips on the device, we can multiply ideomotor effect 6 times. Ideomotor effect is normally unnoticeable, but by having the momentum of 6 people, it can be rather powerful. Each individual person will truly believe they are not moving the device; the reality is that they are just not aware of the force they are applying.

Stage hypnotists can knock some people over without touching them, purely through the power of suggestion and Ideomotor effect

Both overly relaxed states and overly emotional states (anything that interferes with the conscious mind) can amplify ideomotor effect. Hypnotists use the relaxed state, plus highly suggestible people, to make their skits work. Derren Brown used a lot of ‘scare tactics’ in his show to produce a more elevated effect. This may be similar to golf in that, if we are too nervous or too relaxed (i.e. not concentrating enough) we could produce faulty movement patterns.

Test it yourself

Get a long piece of string, or necklace. Attach a set of keys to it, or something heavy, to make it into a pendulum. Now stand up, hold the pendulum at eye height and close your eyes for a moment. Visualise the pendulum moving back and forth, over and over. After about 20 – 30 seconds, when you have a clear image in your head, open your eyes. You will see the pendulum is moving back and forth as you visualized. Re-set the pendulum to stop it moving. Now close your eyes again and visualize it moving side to side. After 30 seconds, open your eyes and see that the pendulum is, in fact, moving side to side as you visualized.
This works better with some people than others, and is better with a longer pendulum and better visualization. But you will feel as if you didn’t move it intentionally. Yet, the results show for themselves.


And golf?

I know I have gone off on another wild tangent, but now comes the ‘golf relatable’ part. This really comes down to your focus, attention and concentration on the golf course. Imagine you stand on the tee and are saying to yourself ‘Don’t go left’. Your brain is now activating the neurons relating to a left shot, which sends the signal to your muscles to produce that left shot. Ever seen the slicer who only ever hits a pull shot when there is water on the left? Even if you don’t hit the left shot, your brain will be sending inconsistent messages to your muscles, resulting in a poor shot either way.

Tiger, visualising the chip in at the 16th, Augusta

So, during your golf routine, the very last thing you should do before you walk into the ball is to direct your mind to what you DO want the ball to do. Use words such as “Split the fairway”, “Solid Strike” or “Nail the green” over and over; make sure the words you use are positive and reflect your goal. Close your eyes, imagine the ball flying through the air and landing onto the part of the green you want, or splitting the fairway. Try to visualize only your target, imagine everything else around it as non-existent – such as a green floating in space with nothing around it. When you have a clear image of this, open your eyes, make a confident practice swing and walk into the ball and hit it. Try not to ‘over think’ at the ball, just let it happen. Input the appropriate image during the pre shot routine, and let it automatically come out over the ball. Use a FLOWING ROUTINE (click the link) to let your visualizations come out more automatically. This encompasses the visual, verbal and feel side of the brain programming.


I know we all have been told to visualize positive things over the ball, and try to imagine a good shot. But how many of us actually take the time to truly commit to this process. Hopefully, through a full explanation of one of the mechanisms involves, I have further convinced you that visualization is a process you should get better at. Through an appropriate pre-shot routine, you will be much more likely to access the correct neurons in the brain, hence sending the correct signal to the muscles to produce the desired movement pattern.  

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About Me

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Currently working for the World famous Turnberry Resort at the Golf Performance Academy. I am a golf coach who specialises in not only what to learn, but 'how' to learn. I am always looking to further education of myself and others, and improve knowledge and understanding so that we can be better golfers and coaches