Monday, May 28, 2012

Thoughts on putting

The old saying, ‘Drive for show, putt for dough’ is so true. The player that wins the tournament is often the one which has putted the best, so it makes sense to practice this art – right? Yet how many of us are spending enough time on the green? Sure it is more fun to hit a booming drive or to finally figure out how to convert that slice into a draw, but these things are rarely contributing to our consistent low scores. Our best rounds of golf are usually when we have converted more of those makeable chances, and sink the 5-10 footers more often.

Unfortunately, although most people are not practicing putting enough, the ones that do are usually wasting their time. I see good players with the best intentions in the world spending hours on the green, often working on things that really don’t matter much. Which brings me to the main point of this topic -How important is technique in putting? By technique, I am referring to what most people work on such as their swing mechanics.

For me, putting can be broken down into three distinct parts
  • ·         Mechanics, or technique
  • ·         Green reading
  • ·         Speed control

When I see people practicing their putting, they often are doing so with a video camera, or a plane board/putting arc or lazer etc. Whilst all of these things can serve a benefit, I personally believe they have the smallest influence on the ability to hole putts. Working on your technique disproportionately may even make you a worse putter – I will explain.

Dave Pelz identified that most putters do not read greens very well at all. In fact, on average, players under-read a break on the green by 66%. So on a 3 foot breaking putt, players were only reading a 1 foot break. What this means is

“The better your technique and hence your ability to roll the ball on your intended line is, the less putts you will hole”

Read that again and again. If you read a putt incorrectly, a better technique just means that you will get better at rolling the ball towards that incorrect spot. When we consider how difficult it is to actually consciously read a green, this poses us a big problem.

Add to this the fact that when we focus too much on internal technical thoughts, our ability to control speed is massively reduced. Speed control is maximised when our awareness is more on the target rather than our movement itself. Think about when we play a game of catch. Our ability to throw the ball the correct distance is going to be better when we are aware of where our target is rather than what our arm and wrist are doing. Now, if your speed is off, even reading a green correctly is unimportant; a ball will only take the correct line if the speed is correct for it. E.G. the faster you roll a ball, the less it will curve and vice versa, thus affecting the line.

So, great putting mechanics are useless if we cannot read a putt correctly – we just get better at starting the ball on the wrong line. Reading a putt perfectly is also useless if we roll the ball the wrong speed. But if we get the speed correct, we have many options and lines that we can take into the hole so long as the speed matches the line. So for me, speed is of paramount importance, closely followed by reading. The least important for me is the technique used. 

Regarding technique, as long as it is consistently reproduced and can start the ball close to where the person wishes, this is good enough. A players’ technique becomes much more important when they are faced with a straighter putt that doesn’t require much reading, speed control or feel – but this is infrequently seen on the golf course. What is good enough? Can you hit a dime from one meter away? If so, the technique is good enough to hole the majority of straight putts, whilst at the same time offering enough room for variation so that the subconscious mind can 'auto-correct' for any potential speed and read issues.

            Is this really going to help you hole more putts?                                                                              Or will you just hit it closer to where you have mis-read it?

So the question I ask when I am dealing with coaching a player is – what is their limiting factor. Is it reading the putt, is it their speed control or is it their swing mechanics? Often, with beginners, it is all three. As I know that their speed control and green reading will get better as they progress and practice, I may choose to work more on basic technique to give them a headstart – although I make a point to have an external focus during play. With better players however, their ability to start the ball on their intended line is often very good. Unfortunately, when a good player putts poorly, they start asking the question of ‘What did I do wrong in my technique?’. Usually there is a teaching pro there with an answer for that one (I don’t want to go into this one now). As they start changing their technique, their focus shifts internally and now their speed control and green reading suffer further. I often find that by getting the player to focus more on the target, reading and their speed (through simple exercises) their putting improves immensely.

The best advice I can offer is to focus on imagining the ball going in the hole. As you make your practice swings, look at the hole and imagine it dropping in. Eradicate all other thoughts, even thoughts of speed control – if you want the ball to roll faster just imagine it hitting the back of the cup. For a shaky downhiller, imagine it dropping in the front lip. Either way, visualise it going in the hole and then stroke the ball with that image in your mind. This is more likely to get the subconscious mind to co-ordinate the speed and starting line together – vital components in holing a putt.

Wait there, isn’t this what we do automatically when we are putting well? We may hole a putt early on in a round, which fuels the belief that we can hole the next so we stand over this putt visualising it going in the hole. This then compounds itself and we have a great round of putting. Think about what you do when you putt poorly. You miss a putt early on, maybe missing another on the next hole. Now your thoughts go internal, trying to figure out your technique mistakes and then trying to overly control the movement. Now your speed control and subconscious control of the line is shot to pieces and your putting form takes a dive. Take control of this mechanism by choosing to visualise the ball going in the hole.

Not enough credit is given to visualising the correct outcome - the ball dropping in the hole at your desired speed. we spend vast amounts of time working on things which are correlatory to that - but as any good scientist knows, correlation does not equal causation. When good visualisation is combined with the philosophies behind IDEOMOTOR EFFECT, and the RETICULAR ACTIVATING SYSTEM, it can be a very powerful thing.

This is, however, a conscious effort. It would be more preferable for our visualisation of the ball going in the hole to be a subconscious thing – a belief. But, although this is definitely more preferable, it requires a little more work. Maybe next article I will explain how to do this (or read HERE for more clues). Until then, try to consciously visualise the ball dropping in the hole at your intended speed – it is a very good step in the right direction and much more likely to improve your results than changing your stroke.

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Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Paradox of change

There is a problem with learning, and it is one of the main reasons so few are able to continually progress with golf improvement. Purely understanding the problem can help limit its effects and allow for continual enhancement of technique and golfing skills. I call it ‘The paradox of learning’.

The paradox of learning is this; in order to improve something, we have to change something. In the act of changing something, it is usually uncomfortable and requires more thought. When something is uncomfortable or forces us to think too much and become too aware, our performance suffers. Therefore, in order to improve something, we have to suffer.

Whilst that last line is kind of tongue in cheek, it often sums up the case with learning certain things. A grip change, for example, can be so uncomfortable for a person that, even if it looks like a professional’s grip, it can perform awfully for the player. Not only is the feeling of a new grip so strange, but the act of thinking about how to produce that grip can interfere with the conscious mind of the player to the extent that their co-ordination is compromised.

I remember the first couple of times my teacher showed me the professional grip, I refused to do it as it felt so uncomfortable. Even after reading it in several other books, I was reluctant to accept it. It was only when my improvement stagnated that I grudgingly accepted that this might be the way forward, and that I would have to go through the pain of the change to reap the benefits. This eventually (after about a week) served me well, and I never looked back. This single experience was one of the most life changing experiences, as it set me up to be able to learn many more things including musical instruments, languages and other sports. I now do the grip that I so unwillingly accepted all those years ago, only now it feels amazing and so comfortable that it is automatic.

One of the ways around this problem is through task led changes, such as trying to hit the divot in the correct place, or curve the ball around a tree to change path and face. Task led changes are generally much more of an external focus – which has been proven to improve learning and retention – and also require less conscious thought than body movement changes. I personally try to use task led changes whenever possible as I feel they are a much more natural way of learning.

We can also take the change, and vary the amount of it. Find the right amount that works best for you now – it may be somewhere in between what you do now and what you desire. Continue to strive for what you ‘should’ be doing, but understand that taking an incremental approach there may be the best option. One of the ways to achieve this is through structuring your practice effectively. Do half of your practice working on what you ‘want’ and the other half of it working on what feels comfortable and gives you the best results at this moment. Again, it is different in every situation, but I often suggest that people play on the course in a more comfortable state. The main situation where this would change is when the player performs better with the swing change – despite it being uncomfortable.

I have to put in the disclaimer that this paradox is not always true. In certain situations, thinking about it more can improve both technique and performance. This usually happens if the technique used before was very poor, and so any change will result in an immediate performance improvement. Also, a certain amount of concentration can be beneficial for performance, as long as it is limited to one simple thing. A good teacher has the ability to take a complex task (such as improving a golf swing) and summarise it into an easily manageable chunk – this is what I continually strive for.

The lesson here is that, sometimes making a change is difficult. You are sometimes going to have to swallow your pride and grind through a change until it is ingrained. Just like I discussed in the stages of learning once you have repeated it a few times it will become more comfortable and you will have to think about it less and less - both of these factors improving performance. But if you only ever go with what is comfortable and ingrained, there might be a limit to your potential. I don't think that every change you make to your game is going to cause you to run into this issue. I am certainly getting better as a coach at giving a much easier, more natural change that is easier to implement. However, if you are at least prepared for this paradox to be the case, then it can help you get further in your improvement. Be patient with your changes, and you will be rewarded. 

Friday, May 25, 2012

What should a golfer think?

When people talk about golf psychology, most have no idea what it entails. Some envision sitting on a couch whilst a Freudian gentleman talks to you about your game, and others think that it involves psyching yourself up before a tournament in the style of an American football team before the superbowl. Most people believe that golf psychology is ‘not for me’ and aimed simply at professionals who have already mastered their swing. Whilst it is true that a professional can get a lot out of the correct psychology, so too can complete beginners.

A simple thing, such as the type of thought you have over the golf ball, can dramatically transform your game for the better, or completely ruin your chances of making a good shot. Although everyone is different and needs instruction tailored to them specifically, there are some universal ideas that hold true in 99% of cases. In my experience, beginners are better off with an internal swing thought, whereas for better players it can vary wildly. The type of swing thought will also vary from shot to shot, depending on what you face.
So what exactly is an internal and external swing thought? I would define internal thoughts as anything that keeps your mind on the process, not on what you are trying to achieve. For example, a swing thought that keeps your conscious mind on the movement of your body, or the club, can constitute internal focus. On the other hand, a thought of hitting the ball high, or hitting to the target with a certain shape can be an external focus. Whilst it is true that all thoughts generally have some cross over, when your mind is more than a couple of meters outside of your body (such as in visualising the landing area) I would consider this external.

Let’s take an example of a 30 yard pitch shot over a bunker. For a beginner, the main problem is getting the ball up in the air and on the green. The main skill to make this happen is to hit the ground in the correct place – as close to the ball as possible. If (as most beginners do) this person has an external focus of visualising the ball flying high over the bunker, they are likely doomed for failure. Visualising a high shot will tell the player’s instinct to go backwards and try to lift and get under the ball. This will result in the ball either being chunked into the bunker, or a skulled shot flying indefinitely over the hazard. In this case, it would be better if the player devoted all of their conscious effort into purely hitting the ground in the right place to the exclusion of all else, as an external thought is in direct conflict with this. I would even go so far as making a beginner do practice swings next to the ball, then hit the shot without even taking a look at the target, as a single look could be enough to dramatically reduce their ability to hit the ground correctly.

The same 30 yard shot over a bunker can be a completely different experience for a professional. They already possess the skill and ability to hit the ground in the correct place (although this can always be refined), so directing their attention to this skill may not be the most efficient way to improve performance. For a skilled golfer, visualising the target, landing zone, trajectory, spin and bounce are more appropriate goals. In fact, bringing in an internal swing thought (such as a technique thought) will usually detract from their ability to get the ball to the hole.

As a side note, if a good player has the ability to hit great shots, yet cant reproduce them in a tournament situation, a third type of thought can be brought in – a neutral thought. In this situation, the player may be suffering from fear, or is just unable to get out of the way of themselves. A neutral thought, such as breathing out during the swing, can help the player produce the shots they know they are capable of producing without the interference that was causing the problems on the course. Although this type of thought could be considered internal, I call it neutral as to differentiate it further. Also, this type of thought is not generally golf swing related.

This internal/external focus idea can also vary across the board from shot to shot. For example, I generally prefer an external focus (target oriented) for putting, and internal for pitching. For long game, it can vary depending upon whether we are going through a technique change, or we are making their current swing work better for them. The main way that this idea varies, is whether or not the vital components of the technique have been learned and ingrained. For example, in chipping and pitch shots, hitting the ground as close to the ball as possible and the correct depth are vital components (not technical things such as body movement). Striking the centre of the clubface is one of what I consider the vital components of the full game also. Generally, the more learned and ingrained the vital components are, the more external the thought should be.

This idea, as a result of the above, should vary depending upon what mode you are in also – learning or playing. If you are learning something new, you should have as much of your conscious mind on your new move. Any external thoughts will be like directing computer processing power to another application. Thusly, your swing move will be much harder to ingrain, and you will be slower to learn it. The best learners I see have the ability to focus purely on what they are trying to do to the exclusion of all else. The worst learners are so concerned with the result that they cannot change their movement even the slightest. On the other hand, a player that has learned something to a good degree would be wise to limit thoughts of ‘how to do it’ and focus more on ‘what to do’. For example, have you ever tried to explain to someone how to drive a stick shift car whilst driving yourself; our performance becomes poor because our conscious mind is now interfering with what it can do perfectly well subconsciously.

As with all things, there are always exceptions to the rule, and places where you may need to change your strategy. I certainly become more inwardly focused when faced with a trouble shot that I have not come across too often, and even prefer to be inwardly focussed on a chip shot even though I have the skills to produce the correct technique. Sometimes it even changes from day to day. The only way to really find out for yourself is through experimentation. Drop 10 balls down and try to go with an internal thought, marking down your results scientifically (such as average distance from the pin). Do the same for an external thought, and then repeat the process for a whole bunch of different shots. But by getting the correct thought (for you) over the golf ball, we can shave quite a few shots off our games without even (consciously) changing our techniques.

Searching for the Secret

Humans are funny creatures. We love to feel like we are in control, yet more and more science is showing us that consciousness is pure illusion. Through the power of language, we are able to represent ideas, thoughts and feelings to ourselves in verbal terms, giving us the sense of ‘I’ – the person within my body. But in many ways, we are no different to certain animals that have no conscious (or not recognisable by what we deem conscious) thoughts.

Take an ant, for example. What is it like to be an ant? Whilst the question cannot be answered for sure, it is very probable than an ant has no free will. Its brain tells it what to do and moves its body based on chemical signals received from other ants in its colony. If we are devious and use a fake chemical signal, we can control an ant and its actions. There is a parasite wasp (I forget the name) that uses this to its advantage; by creeping into the nest, killing the queen and rubbing itself in her scent, she can control the other ants to serve her. Several other parasites use similar things to control brain function and hence the host, adding to the idea that ‘we’ are simple the mechanical nature of our brain.

What does all this have to do with golf? I’m getting there. The way that we learn has many similarities with most animals. One of the major functions of our brain is to make links, or associations. A famous scientist, B.F. Skinner, once did an experiment with pigeons. He placed them in a box and rewarded them with food whenever they pecked at a lever. Then he decided to reward them with food more randomly. When he returned, he found the pigeons doing all sorts of strange behaviours; ticks, circles, head bobs etc in a definite pattern. It seems as though the pigeons had maybe looked over its shoulder, and then a random food reward came. Subconsciously the pigeon had associated this look over its shoulder with reward and so repeated it. But after a while of no rewards coming, the pigeon added more and more complex behaviours, believing that it was influencing the random rewards.

But surely we humans are not stupid enough for this. Think again. Derren Brown, a famous British mentalist, conducted an experiment where he locked a few people in a room full of bean bags, tables, coloured circles on the floor and other miscellaneous items. There was also a counter on the wall above the door, and a sign saying

“When you reach 100 points, the doors will be unlocked and you will be free to go”.

They all looked confused as there were no rules for how to create points. One guy picked up a bean bag to look at it and put it down, before noticing that the points counter now read 1. So he tried it again, but to no avail. Then someone across the room sat down, and the points counter went up again. So now they tried to pick up a bean bag, and sit down at the other side of the room... bingo, the points went up again. After about half an hour, you see a bunch of people picking up, putting down, sitting on, moving around bean bags, chairs, tables and other items. Finally the counter reaches 100 and they are set free. Being interviewed afterwards, it seemed like every person had ‘figured it out’. They all had some sort of idea for how the points were created. But then the real answer was revealed. An aquarium in another room had a black line drawn down the middle. Whenever the fish randomly crossed the line, the counter would go up one. The people and their actions had absolutely nothing to do with the points, but every one of them thought that their ‘rules’ for the game were correct.

This associative learning served us very well in the past. Associating hot stoves with pain, smells with experiences, roars with danger etc was advantageous to our survival. But sometimes these associations go wrong and we make false links, like the pigeons and the people in the experiment. These links and associations become more frequent when a high stress situation occurs, and/or high task difficulty. Baseball players are renowned for being superstitions, with lots of weird movements and routines taken before they perform. And what is more ‘task difficult’ than golf – probably the hardest game in the world.

You could be doing yourself more of a disservice by making these constant links unchecked. I have seen so many weird swings and quirky movements from amateurs. When questioned about them, they usually reply that they had a good round or hit a good shot ‘trying this/that’ and then tried to do more of it. More often than not, it is the thing we then work on eliminating from their technique, as it was never the reason for their success in the first place and is now causing problems. Like some people I see who tell me they hit some great shots whilst their weight was moving away from the target.

Teachers are generally no better. For the history of golf instruction we have made links and correlations between what a good player does with their body and how they hit the ball. A real scientist knows that correlation does not equal causation, in other words, just because someone does something and gets a certain result, doesn’t mean that doing that same ‘something’ will give you the same result. For example, long hitters tend to have a very big X factor (difference between hip and shoulder turn), but getting a big X factor does not mean you hit the ball longer. In lots of cases it can actually do the reverse.

So the lesson here is, don’t immediately associate a good result with a good move. Also, don’t associate a bad result with a bad swing. You can make a bad swing and get a good result, or make a good swing and get a bad result. We experience this all the time in teaching, where someone makes a better swing but they get a bad shot (whilst it is new and strange). Try to make use of a good teaching pro, which can send you on the correct path and give you correct associations to link up. Try not to be quick to jump to conclusions on your successful shots. If you hit one, two or even three great shots in a row, try not to consciously search for the answer to why you did them, as you will often make a link with something that is not conducive of good technique. Also, when you are working on changing your swing, try to be patient and not link bad results with the idea that the swing doesn’t work. Sometimes, it just needs a little patience and practice for the benefits to come through. Simple awareness of this fact can prevent some weird movements developing, and strange faults creeping into your technique, and also enable you to make your swing better.

Remember, there is no secret to golf. Some have claimed it (Hogan and Moe Norman), but usually those guys have had a good 20,000 hours of practice. If you are constantly searching for the secret, you will end up like most people – spinning your wheels year after year with constant quick fixes and placebos swing thoughts. If there is any secret at all, its basic fundamentals, a good concept of how to hit the ball, an understanding of ball flight laws and then around 10-20 thousand hours of practice. I’m sure you will find the secret then, just try not to be a pigeon along the way. 

Stages of Learning

Whilst this is a massive topic, to which I will probably devote further articles to, I am referring here to stages of learning. What baffles me most is when people come for a lesson expecting immediate results. Whilst it is often the case that the result is instantly better, even in those cases it requires practice and constant repetition until it becomes ingrained – this is called practice. Whilst this idea is second nature to me and most good golfers, it seems to be the major thing holding back most poor golfers from getting better. In fact, I could say, the single most important difference between a good golfer and a poor golfer, is their ability to practice and learn effectively.

Learning takes time. We may change one thing, but it will
have a knock on effect to lots of other areas. We need to get all
the cogs turning together before the machine fully functions. This means that you
need to understand the art of  HOW to learn, equally as much as the WHAT

Tiger Woods once said (regarding his swing changes) “First I understand what I need to do, then it looks better, then it feels better, then it performs better in practice, then on the course, then finally in a tournament”. This is a good representation of the stages of learning. Sports psychologists call them cognitive, associative, autonomous etc and I have also seen terms such as conscious competence, subconscious competence etc. But these terms are less important than what they mean. Below is a summary of the stages of learning.

1.       You understand what you need to do

2.       You try it, but it feels strange, performance is poor

3.       It starts to feel better, but performance is erratic

4.       It feels much more natural, performance is better

5.       You begin to think less about it

6.       You can do it without thinking about it.

So in a lesson, we learn what it is we must do. I will make the example of a grip change. We learn that we should see 2 and a half knuckles on the left hand, and 2 knuckles on the right hand. Now we go onto the second stage; we try the grip but it feels very new and strange. We probably top a lot of shots whilst we our body is getting accustomed to it. Stage 3 usually occurs within an hour at most. Repeating it makes it feel a little better, but our performance can still be erratic. Stage 4 usually takes at least a day, if not a week (depending on how much the person practices it). Stage 5 can take a week to a month, and doing it without thinking can take over 3 months in some cases. I have also heard quotes such as it taking 3,000 repetitions for it to become natural, although I find it varies wildly depending upon what you are working on.

It is important to take time to get comfortable with something
in a safe environment. But make sure to take steps in improving
transference of that skill to the course.

Whilst a better technique usually brings about better results immediately, it really depends. If the technique is very new, or highly uncomfortable, then it can take a little longer and we must be patient. If the old technique was very poor, a new position may offer instant gratification and become more comfortable faster. 

However, if we look at the above model and have that as our expectation, we can become more competent learners. Learning falls apart when people try to jump from stage one to stage 6 too quickly. I often see this in a lesson where someone comes back the next day doing the old mistakes, even though they could do the new move perfectly yesterday. Obviously they think that working on something for one hour should be enough to ingrain it – clearly not. 

The worst mistake I see is when someone gets to stage 2 and then quits because performance is poor. Patience is a virtue here, no one has ever learned anything the first time they tried it. The prescription here is more practice, more repetitions and less result orientation. Take away the ball and make more practice swings until it feels comfortable and you are thinking about it less. Top pro’s sometimes only hit 20 balls in an hour, using mirrors, video and other feedback devices to get it in the practice swing first. Closing your eyes can give you heightened body awareness, making slow motion swings can also help you learn the move in more detail before you gradually increase the speed.

Be patient - it took a lot of repetitions to learn to walk effectively.
Muscles had to strengthen; ligaments and tendons too. You wobbled at first,
fell down a lot. But look at you now. You can even do it without thinking.

As a side note, sometimes skills are transferable and so you can skip learning stages. For example, a tennis player can quickly learn how to draw the ball by taking the same feelings and ideas from a topspin shot. I have even used an old football boot on the end of a clubshaft to teach a footballer how to draw the ball with a ‘Beckham free kick’ style swing. Also, sometimes, with enough practice you can completely jump a few stages. Children who practice alone can sometimes skip the first stage and hit great shots without understanding fully how to do it. I like to use a lot of task led lessons to change techniques. Through task led changes, the player does not necessarily have to understand consciously how to do it, leading to a more natural and less analytical approach to learning. However, some people need a conscious ‘nudge’, to which I will give it to them if deemed appropriate.

So stay patient, accept that learning take time in most cases, and practice with an end goal in mind. Eventually, anything that feels strange will become natural if repeated enough. Just make sure to see your professional golf teacher so that you are working on learning the CORRECT things. All professional golfers understand this process,and it is why they are where they are. 

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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