Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Internal Thermostat

It’s the commonest story at the 19th hole. At one end of the room, some poor golfer is saying “My front nine was awesome today, then I blew up and didn’t make a point on the back nine”. Across the room, some other poor golfer is baffled. “I couldn’t hit a barn door on the front nine today, then I just gave up and started playing really well on the back. I May have won the tournament if I could have made a point on the front nine”. What is really happening here? Does our entire swing change mid round? Professionals take years to change their techniques enough to notice improvements, how could ours change so dramatically from the ninth hole to the tenth? What can we learn from these dilemmas?

Whilst there can be many different causes for this, I believe that in most cases it is mental. Tony Robbins coined a term (I don’t know if he was the first to describe it) called the ‘Internal Thermostat’. The theory goes that, as we go outside of our comfort zone into new territory, our subconscious will make attempts to get us back to where we know is safe – what we believe is our level. This makes sense in evolutionary terms. Any being that would push the boundaries too much may find themselves in trouble, or eaten and taken out of the gene pool.

So, if you are shooting your best ever score, and you know it, you may find that you begin to self sabotage. You may feel like you get a few ‘bad bounces’ or a few more putts lip out than normal. Maybe you hit a snap hook at the wrong time – is this coincidental, or is something deeper going on? After your front nine, maybe you have shot your best score by 2 or 3. You were completely unaware up until that point as to how good you were doing. Now you realise, “I could shoot my record here”. Now your internal thermostat kicks in

  1. Adrenalin begins to flow. When adrenalin is in the system, we tend to have a heightened awareness of perceived danger – bunkers become bigger, greens become smaller and water becomes wetter in our mind.
  2. Your thoughts turn to maintaining your score, rather than pushing the boundaries further. You start to think about just getting into the clubhouse safely.
  3. Your expectations skyrocket – “I played so great last nine holes, every shot was good. I should be able to do the same for the next nine”
  4. Your mind wanders into the future, trying to imagine what holes could be problems for you
  5. You mind starts bringing up images of poor shots you have hit in the past on this hole
  6. Your swing completely loses its feel. You tighten up and can’t seem to get that same feeling again. In an attempt to try and get it back, you start thinking analytically about your swing. That doesn’t work, so you add another thought, and another, until you are a complete mess.

About a million other changes occur physically and mentally, but these are the main ones I remember when trying to break through my plateaus. As all of these changes take place, your performance takes a severe hit, and you end up crashing and burning. But how can we stop these things from happening?

An entire industry has been made on trying to do this. Sports psychologists tell us to focus on our routine, stay in the present, don’t think about score, relax your body, stop thinking too many swing thoughts, lower adrenalin through breathing exercises etc. But how much of this is really getting to the issue.

  • Change your perception – excitement not fear
  • Physical tools to calm ourselves down
  • Better routine – more process focus
  • Less awareness on score
  • Play without expectations
  • Better visualisation pre-shot
Let's look at an example - If you have a hungry tiger in front of you, staring you down, would focusing on breathing really even work? How about trying to just ‘relax’? Could you deceive yourself and say that you are excited to see this tiger, rather than fearful? Maybe try focusing less on the tiger – good luck with that. Perhaps visualising the tiger as a big pussycat might help? I don’t think you would have much success getting that image of him eating you out of the way to create this new image. Yes, it is true, all of the above advice can help alleviate some of the stress. They are important tools in helping break through a barrier, but you can’t patch over the big problem with a few band aid mental tools. You need to get to the root of your problem – your internal thermostat, your belief system, your subconscious self image. You need to create a new internal set-point.

Luckily, a zookeeper comes along and takes the tiger away. Phew! All the symptoms of stress go away and you instantly relax. But wait, the zookeeper didn’t look afraid. He wasn’t displaying any symptoms of stress. He didn’t even have to try and relax himself through a breathing technique, or visualise a good image, or focus less on the tiger. In fact, he was more focused on the tiger, he was the one who had to collect it. The situation was the same for us and the zookeeper, yet the reaction was completely different. The zookeeper has a completely different belief system, and his internal thermostat is different as he has experienced this many times before.

So, if you find yourself stumbling after a good front nine, or losing it at the end of your round when you get close to your record, the answer to your problems are likely mental. Sure, applying some principles offered by sports psychologists can certainly help, but you may struggle to do them in practice. The real answer is in hitting the root cause – what is happening below your awareness. If you hit the root cause, every other symptom will dissolve away synergistically. This can be applied to most things in life just as well as it can to golf. How do we do this? Click HERE to read the second part to this article

Monday, June 11, 2012

Technique, Concept and Skill

When I look at a player, it is easy to see what faults someone has. Sometimes there is just one glaring fault, other times, there are too many to even imagine how they can still hit the ball. But whilst a lot of people would just see things in mechanical terms – their left arm is moving this way, or hips are moving that way etc – I try to determine what the player’s weakest link is and improve that.

There is a model that I think about when diagnosing a fault. It could be;
·         A technique issue
·         A concept issue
·         A skill/co-ordination issue

Each of these issues has overlaps, and in some cases it is hard to differentiate between them. But I will use an example to illustrate. A lot of beginner golfers suffer with topping the ball. This is where the club is travelling too high through impact and hits the ball above the equator, resulting in a low running shot and a lot of vibration up the club with a horrible feeling. Placing the player on camera (if we were to do this), we would usually see that the player is raising their spine angle through impact, their arms are going upwards towards their chest through impact, and usually they have a mini ‘jump’ with their knees. We would also see that the player has a poor weight shift in the downswing, leaving their weight on their back foot. This puts the bottom of the swing further behind the ball, and so the club essentially travels upwards into the ball, catching the top of it more often. The player would often complain of 'looking up early'.

But is technique always the best thing to address here? In our above example, the likely culprit is a poor concept – they are trying to ‘lift’ the ball and get under it, rather than strike the ball down and forwards like a professional. If the problem is concept, then addressing technique issues can, and in most cases will, make matters worse. Why? Because if we get the weight shift better, their knee jump through impact may increase in an effort to find a new way to ‘lift the ball’. Their spine angle change may also become greater to try and compensate further. So then we have to focus on the weight shift, the ‘jump’ and the spine angle position. What happens next – their arms collapse in even further, elbows splaying everywhere. Nightmare!

So basically, in the attempt to fix the fault of the club travelling too high through impact, the subconscious mind of the player now tries to figure out new ways to do the old concept. The body and the subconscious mind are not acting in harmony, and all hell breaks loose. To add to this, the act of thinking and concentrating on co-ordinating all these movements plays havoc with our  hand eye co-ordination and we end up unable to even hit the ball at all. Usually, even the desired swing changes don’t occur, as the subconscious mind won’t let them happen.

But what if we were to look at concept? What if the player understood fully how the club hits the ball on a downward and forward arc and that a divot should be taken after the ball? Often a lot of swing faults would disappear completely. They may start shifting their weight forwards. As they work on getting the club to travel downwards and forwards, their arms may even extend out of their own free will, and their spine angle and jump disappear or become minimised.

What if we were to look at the skill aspect. Can the person make a divot in the right place? Maybe at first they can’t, but as their skill gets better at doing this, so too would their technique. The difference is, this time their technique would be improving as a result of subconscious co-ordinations rather than consciously ordered directions. I believe the human body has an amazing way of co-ordinating itself - all the moving parts and complex actions - if the task is clearly laid out, good feedback is received and it is practised.

So as a teacher, I try to look for the limiting factor in a player. Is it their technique, their skill or their concept. Whilst I will generally give one simple thing in each area, for me it is vital that concept is addressed. Without a good concept of how the club should hit the golf ball, you are making things a lot more difficult for yourself. This example can be applied across the board with your golf game. When you are working on improving something, try to understand fully (and visualise exactly) how you want the club to impact the ball differently. Work on the technique, but also try to improve the skills associated with that technique, rather than just working towards a perfect model swing. Experimenting with too much, too little and just right is the key here.   

Saturday, June 2, 2012

How to Learn

I understand that some of the people reading this have no interest in golf at all, but the information here is just as relevant whether you are learning any other sport, skill or task. As a golf coach, I am constantly giving people information on ‘what’ to learn. But the more important thing to understand is ‘how’ to learn it. Without understanding this, you are likely to not learn it at all, or severely hamper your progress and slow it down. In this post, I am going to identify a few strategies that you can use in your own practice. Use these to speed up your learning, and incorporate the new idea into your swing as quickly as possible.

  1. Fully understand what you are trying to achieve. A good golf coach will help you do this – but if they ask you “Do you understand?”, you have to be honest. Make sure you ask as many questions about the information as possible.
  2. Sit with your eyes closed, visualise yourself doing whatever it is you are trying to do. Visualise it from all angles, and at differing speeds. Visualise from your first person perspective, and from the view of someone looking at you.
  3. Understand the stages of learning - and paradox of change. Be patient with your changes.
  4. Slow it down – holding the position you wish to achieve can help, moving into and through it, and then implementing that feeling into a slow motion swing. Gradually increase the speed of it as you progress.
  5. Take away the result - THIS IS VITAL. You can do this by;
    • Making a mental commitment to ignore the ball flight and focus on the thing YOU are trying to acheive, probably the most powerful thing you can do 
    • Using more practice swings in the initial stages and less golf balls 
    • Transition to hitting a tee, paper ball/whiffle ball    
    • Transition to hitting a ball on a tee    
    • Try closing your eyes as you are swinging and hitting the ball, so you get a better feeling for the swing and it's easier to let go of a bad result if it happens.
  6. Put 100% concentration - all your mental processing power - into the one thing you are trying to learn. If you are trying to learn 2 things at the same time, try and split your practice session into 33% one thing, 33% the other thing and 33% trying to find a common feeling that unites the two, but generally less thinking.
  7. Variance – something a lot of people are frightened to do is to experiment with the opposite extreme. Obviously this is a bad idea during a round of golf, but in the initial stages of learning, I would experiment with doing something ‘too much’ and ‘too little’, so it is much easier to find that middle ground.

The above tips can be utilised when learning almost anything, especially a physical skill. Whilst they are not always necessary, see if you can apply them to the thing you are learning right now. The message here is to maximise your concentration on the thing you are trying to achieve, minimise concentration on anything extraneous and experiment with extremes of speeds and amounts.

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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