Thursday, August 30, 2012

Consistency in golf

Form can be a mysterious thing; when we have it, we believe we will never lose it. When it is gone, we think we will never see it again. This happens to every player regardless of their level. Tour pro’s can go for months without making a cut, often soon after winning a tournament. And the average handicap player also experiences the same highs and lows. I talked about this extensively during THIS article, and how to keep working on things that will be productive to your future success rather than your immediate results. However, this article will focus on some strategies you can implement to ride the peaks and troughs a little easier whilst they are occurring, and even minimise the amplitude of the form.

Most players will call this idea ‘consistency’; I see this word as the biggest illusion of all in golf. Probably the number one goal of my clients when I ask them is “to be more consistent”. If questioned further as to what exactly this means to them, they either don’t really know, or in most cases they throw out an impossible dream of “to hit every shot well”. This idea alone is one of the biggest factors contributing to their lack of consistency. The whole philosophy that it is possible to hit every shot well all the time is very destructive; you could call it positive psychology gone wrong. Whilst I am all for trying (to a certain extent) to visualise positive outcomes, you simply cannot have this as an expectation.  

Even after 30,000 hours of practice, we never achieve anywhere close to perfection

The average tour player hits just over 60% of fairways, 60% of greens and gets up and down just over 50% of the time. When I tell clients that from 7 feet away, a professional holes out just above 50% of the putts, they are often surprised – yet they have preconceived ideas that they should hole every one of them and that they are doing something drastically wrong if they don’t. Even when it says 60%, this may be one day of 80%, and the next day of only 40% averaging out over time. It is not that a tour player is really any more consistent, it is that their overall level of play is of a greater standard. By following the advice from last week's post, you can ensure that your overall level is higher every year. 

Components of consistency

There are a million and one factors involved in how you play, but here I have identified some of the ones I feel are especially important. 

Ability that day – this is ever changing. Factors such as co-ordination, proprioception, balance, fatigue all have a massive influence on this. These variables can fluctuate wildly from day to day.
Emotional stability – a combination of arousal levels (anxiety, boredom, excitement) and your ability to control these levels.
Conscious thought levels – how much are you thinking? Too little? Too much? Too analytical?
Expectations – what is your strategy? Are you attacking the pins or playing safe? Are you expecting a certain score, or trying to hit a club further than normal? Are you playing for your best shots or your average ones, or even unrealistic ones?
Confidence levels – how secure do you feel over the ball. How easy was it to commit to your decision and block out danger/focus on what you wanted.
Perception of shot - Did the result surprise you in any way – good or bad?
Result – what was the result? Cold hard data relating to your average shots

This is a lot to take in, I understand. But you don’t have to. Just read it, then apply my suggestions at the end to get the benefits; understanding this will, however, help in the application of the suggestions. Form is a complex interconnected web of all of the above components (and many more). Let’s look at real world example of what happens when we ‘Have it’.

I’ve got it! The shortest joke in golf

As we are going through a good patch, our ability (for whatever reasons) is high and our results are therefore good. Our confidence goes up as the results are higher than our expectations at this current time. This naturally increases our expectations, and our strategy gets more aggressive (firing at tight pins, hitting one club less, but harder than normal). This can work wonderfully whilst our skill level is high, but it will always drop down to more average levels at some point. Whilst the results are better than our expectations, or at least match them, our emotional levels are good and levels of conscious thought are low, leading to good performance still. 

The fall from grace

So why do we lose it? If we stay in the above state for too long (sometimes it can be a single shot for beginners who don’t know better), changes occur. The main changes are in our ability and our expectations. It is simply a law of nature that our best play cannot be held for long periods of time (or it wouldn’t be our best play now would it). Unfortunately, when our play drops back down to average levels, we are left with higher than normal expectations and confidence that is too high. It could also be a case that our ability remains the same (high) but our expectations shoot up disproportionately faster. It would look something like this:

So we try to hit our best shots all the time, taking on tight pins and hitting irons harder, but this time our ability to produce that may be slightly lower, leading to more mistakes, leading to dropped shots, leading to frustrations and lowered confidence, leading to over thinking, leading to lowered performance, leading to the start of the ‘downward spiral’. 
The downward spiral can last days, weeks, months, or even a year or more. Players continue with their high expectations, get frustrated with their results and the whole thing compounds on itself until they finally reach their lowest ebb.

I want to quit – followed by the uprising

The amount of times I have said this, or heard other players say this is frightening. This is when you are at your lowest point – you put the sticks away as you feel you will never get it back. It feels like the end of your golfing career as the harder you try to get out, the deeper you dig yourself in (trying too hard is one of the mistakes here). But fear not, you will get it back (or if you have played golf long enough, you know that it does and has come back). It’s almost like a lightswitch going off, the turnaround can be very very quick. It is largely attributed to one thing – your expectation. 

As you have reached the pit of golfing depression, your mind basically says “that’s it, I can’t take any more. I’m just going to stop trying to search for that perfect golf game I had and settle for mediocrity – just be happy duffing it around and enjoy the walk and fresh air”. BANG – expectation lowered. Now the table looks something like this;

So now, when we hit a bad shot, it doesn’t bother us. Our expectation is very low, so it doesn’t matter. But when we hit even the most average of shots, as it is better than our expectations it jolts our confidence a little in a positive direction. “Maybe I can play this game a little after all”, you say to yourself. Confidence levels increase slightly, perception of results stay high, levels of conscious thought stay low – a perfect concoction for a raise in form out of a slump. 
Aaaaand the cycle starts again. 

So what can we do?

Once again, this article has turned into a longer one than expected, so I will add more to it at a later date. Unless you are Ritalin infused, you probably need to click on a different link to refresh your concentration. But I will leave you with this. 

We have looked at the interconnectivity of some mental and physical components of consistency. For most people, this cycle purely HAPPENS TO THEM. Maybe those of you who are new to the game can gain a lot of insight from this cycle; awareness of the cycle alone can help you deal with it and avoid falling too deep into a slump. If you have been playing golf many years, you will likely have laughed your way through the article as you identified with the information on a deep level. But stop being a victim of your external environment - the result. We are largely out of control with what result happens on a day to day basis - but we are in control of how we deal with that result in terms of perception, our expectations, our emotions and our conscious thought levels.

You do have some level of control over this 

Understanding that consistency is largely an illusion will help you greatly. You can relax a little more when times are tough, safe in the knowledge that it will come back. Understanding that being at your peak is not going to last forever can also help you avoid being overconfident – a strange concept which leads to over aggressive play and higher expectations and a potential fall from grace. Balance is the key here, avoid being too high and too low and you will maintain consistency and good play for a longer time, and get out of poor play much quicker too. Notice when you are on an upswing – take measures to control it. Notice when you’re on a downswing - take measures to limit it.

Part 2 will go through more strategies on how to control this cycle better.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Delayed Gratification and Long Term Improvement in Golf

If you are interested in becoming a better golfer (as I hope everyone who is reading this article shares this goal) This will be one of the most important articles you will read in your entire life. Give it your full, undivided attention, as failure to do so will render you like the rest of the golfing population – stuck in an eternal groundhog day of never getting better. Stand out from the other lemmings of the golfing crowd, become one of the small percentage of people who can actually continually progress at this insanely difficult sport. If this introduction seems abrasive, good! It is designed to create a radical shift in your way of thinking, and a ‘nicely nicely’ approach does not fit well. If you get bored midway through reading this article, just close the page and go and eat a marshmallow. Let’s go....

Look at this picture of the stock market. This could just as well be a picture of the form of every golfer over the course of the year; lots of spikes and troughs of good times and bad. I will discuss more in depth about some theories on why this happens at a later date, with some possible ways to control the ebb and flow of form. But this is always a natural part of golf and will happen to every golfer; the best we can hope to do is limit it, and continue to work on things that will improve us in the future. 

This is really the crux of this article. Throughout the year, there are inevitably many highs and lows, but if you have been doing the right things, you will be a better player at the end of the year (to a point). The bad golfer runs around like a headless chicken during the low points, searching for something – anything - that will work for the moment. Then, during their peaks, they sit back and revel in the fact they have finally ‘found it’ and mastered golf. They, once again, don’t work on anything worthwhile, as they feel they have achieved what they want. Most don’t work on anything at all, in the fear that they will lose their current state of play. They go through the same highs and lows as the good player does, but at the end of the year they have gone nowhere in terms of true progression.

What does the good player do? They work on their game, usually taking lessons or researching into technique, perhaps copying a professional golfer they admire. They tend to be much more patient with swing changes, seeing the goal of making the new movement or skill habit through repetition. Throughout the year, form goes up and comes down again – the same as for everyone else. Usually, the drop in form can occur whilst working on something new (as I remember it did for me). However, at the end of the year, the graph of this player looks something more like below – they have progressed forwards.

Nasdaq twelve month chart

The Marshmallow test
In Stanford university, 1972, kids were asked if they wanted a marshmallow now, or they could wait and have 2 marshmallows later. This was to study if delayed gratification had any bearing on future success in life. The kids who took the marshmallow NOW ended up correlating with lower SAT scores and were described as 'less competent people' in follow up studies. It seemed that the ability to be patient was a massive predictor in future success..... This always reminds me of golfers who go through a few putters every year. Every couple of months they have a new one that they are “holing everything with”, before completely losing confidence with it next month and needing a new one. They don’t see the blind stupidity of the whole cycle, and never work on the parts of their putting that need improving, opting instead for the quick fix of a placebo pill. These players are always getting better at putting (when their latest model is bought), yet are never getting better at putting – understand the irony.

Instant gratification can be the biggest demon of all regarding golf improvement. The best players I see tend to have a way of seeing beyond the fleeting game of ‘this moment’, and into the future. As a player growing up, if I made a swing change, all I needed was to hit one shot ‘better than normal’ out of 100 to prove that it was worth working on. Through practice and repetition, I understood that this 1/100 would soon become 50/100 and eventually 80 or 90/100. The poor player hits the 1/100 better than ever, and questions why they hit 99 poor, before deeming that it ‘doesn’t work’ and going back to their old movement. They took the marshmallow.

Whilst I fully understand the emotional nature of bad shots, and the fear created by hitting them, do not misconstrue bad shots with working on the wrong things. Sometimes, you can hit awful shots but be ingraining a better move, or getting closer to it. On the other hand, you can hit amazing shots ingraining a movement that is fraught with errors. Sometimes, many complimentary errors can come together to create a good shot. You could swing left with a wide open face, then hit the ground behind the ball closing the face down, and hit the ball out of the toe. Four errors that could potentially create a straight shot, although ingraining them would be detrimental to your game. Of all the teachers out there, I am one of the most lenient when it comes to complimentary errors. However, the above situation will simply not function consistently.

How to use this information
The point of this article is to say, don’t get so caught up in the day to day/shot to shot changes in your golf game. They really don’t matter a great deal when looking at the bigger picture (1-10 years). If you work on the right things diligently, the fruits of your labour will be harvested in time. If, however, you are like most people, constantly searching for the secret and looking for something that will just give you instant gratification, you will likely be wallowing in self pity at the end of the year as your game has remained the same. The best philosophy you can have is to see this time now as pure training for the ‘future you’ (unless you are a tour pro where the situation is a little more complicated). It is merely information that you can use to your benefit to create a better golfer in the future. 

Have a plan for the year - a clear, written down list of goals that you are going to work on improving through process led ways. This could be technique improvements, skill/co-ordination improvements, strategy improvements, routine improvements and many more. Work with a coach that you are comfortable with and trust, but work towards something other than instant results. Nothing worth having is easy to come by, and nothing is more worth having than a great golf game. To watch someone who has achieved proficiency in this sport is awe inspiring, but they didn’t get there by being a headless chicken. Remember Aesop’s fable of the ant and the grasshopper?

I know from experience that working on the right things eventually gives the results, and chasing marshmallows just makes you fat. The irony of it all is that the instant results don’t usually last in most cases; the quick fixes of today will be gone tomorrow. I took many steps backwards in order to move further forwards. Bad shots now can lead to better shots in the future if you are getting closer to doing something better. However, as with everything, there is always balance – even this notion of delayed gratification can be taken too far. But unless you are shooting level par and trying to average lower, this article is very applicable to you. If you are shooting level par and trying to get lower, you probably already knew this stuff.

If you got to the end of this long article, congratulations – here are TWO marshmallows. The information you just read will help you immensely, especially through the troughs in form that are predestined. Keep working on the right things and you will get there – avoid simply chasing a quick fix that makes you hit it better now. One of my favourite coaches has the philosophy of ‘better every day’. I prefer to think of it in terms of ‘better every year’ in golf. Too much focus on the day to day play can be distracting when it comes to long term improvement.

P.S. Interestingly, I remember as a kid only ever going to see my golf teacher when I was at a peak in my performance. I highly resisted going to see him during my low points as I felt it wouldn’t be as productive – my instincts told me that my swing was not at its best so it would only be repair work rather than raising the bar of my potential further. I suppose the message I was giving to my teacher and myself was, “Here is me at my best. I feel I can go beyond this – help me do it”. On the other hand, most lessons I get here are people at their low points. People saying “Here is me at my worst, I’m broke, please fix me”. Whilst I am more than happy to help them, maybe there is something more in this? Or maybe I am just looking too in depth at nothing?

Friday, August 17, 2012

Fault Fixing in Golf

There are an endless number of ‘faults’ in golf; we could lose our spine angle, raise our head height at the wrong time, extend our knees too early, flip our wrists, have a backswing that is too flat (just to name a few). Everyone is always looking for the reason for hitting a bad shot; we are animals and it is in our nature to search for cause and effect – it was one of the driving forces for our evolution. But sometimes, in an attempt to find the cause and fix it, other ones pop up to take its place – as discussed in THIS. How many times have you played with someone who tops the ball and says it’s because they looked up too soon, only to keep their head down diligently next time and still top it. Ring any bells? Chances are they were looking at the wrong cause anyway, but even if they did find the right one, it would probably be replaced by another fault for the next shot.

Talking specifically about the full swing, it would be much simpler if you put faults into just two categories – Strike and Direction. There could be a million and one different contributors within your technique to each of these faults, but wouldn’t it be easier to see this in simpler terms. Instead of fault fixing (a largely negative term), see it as progressing towards what is correct. Rather than working on getting rid of the influences to a fault, instead, work towards doing it (what you want to do) ‘more right’.

My mother used to have a nightmare that she would be in a house and windows would keep opening as someone was trying to get inside. As she would run over and shut one window, another two would open. This would continue on as more windows opened as one shuts. Fault fixing in golf can be a similar thing – as you fix the knee extension, your arms may start to collapse at impact to produce the thin. If you fix both the arms and knees, your spine angle may raise up through impact. Before long, you have 3 or 4 different things to monitor and you game has fallen to pieces. The human brain works better when it is given a goal to progress towards. Rather than saying ‘don’t do this’, it would be more preferable to say ‘do this’. So, let’s have a look at what we need to do in order to hit a good shot in golf.

Hit the ground in the right place

There are not many things that all golfers do the same, but this IS one of them. Every good golfer hits the ground in the right place – after the golf ball; this would be one of the greatest contributors to good strike. The clubhead will hit the ball first, then make contact with the ground ever so slightly after the position of the ball. Some players take a deep divot, and some ‘pick’ the ball of the grass. The aggressiveness that the player hits the ground is largely a personal thing, and is affected by many other factors; however, it is largely unimportant to good play. There are certain advantages and disadvantages to each style, but the best players know when to use both to their advantage. I will discuss this in more depth at a later date.

Hit the middle of the face

Again, one of the few things that all good players do consistently is to hit the middle of the face, or the sweet spot. Doing this will make the shot feel great, and will also send the ball flying long and consistent distances. If you strike the ground in the right place, as described above, there is a very good chance that the ball will strike the correct height on the clubface. All that is left to do now is to hit the ball between the toe and the heel of the club. It is important to understand also that, just like it is impossible to hit a perfectly straight shot, it is also very difficult to hit it bang on the middle of the sweetspot. Almost every shot you hit will be more of a toe shot or a heel shot to some extent. But, the better the player you are, the smaller the error. Just keep on working towards getting better at this skill.

Controlling the clubface and path

Clubface accounts for the majority of overall direction – up to 90% in some circumstances. If your ball is going too far to the right, you can improve the direction by getting the clubface ‘more left’ at impact. This may not be theoretically the best adjustment to always make, but it is a rule that you should understand nonetheless.

Ball flight can be as complicated as above, or as easy as the sentence below

In reality, direction is mainly a combination of swing path (swing direction through impact) and face angle (with some complicated other stuff I will talk about at a later date regarding heel/toe strike called gear effect). The rule to remember is this;

“The ball starts close to where the clubface is pointing at impact, and then curves away from the path”

So if your ball is starting straight at your target and then veering off to the right trees, it is highly likely that your clubface is aiming straight/slightly open at impact (causing the ball to start that direction) and your swing path is to the left (causing the ball to move more to the right). This curvature of the ball is down to the spin placed on the ball from a difference in path and face. The clubface is sliding across the ball making it spin more sideways (for all those technical junkies, it is tilting the spin axis of the ball).

But even if your path is to the left (or right), getting the clubface in a more appropriate position at impact can make that swing playable. If a player has a swing path that is very leftwards, a clubface that aims more left at impact can make this swing playable. My own swing has a path that is to the right, or in-to-out. For me, a clubface square to the target at impact is unplayable – so I set up with it more to the right. This may go against every book you have read on golf, but it is how every good player out there plays – there are very few tour pros who hit the ball with a square face, contrary to what you may think.

Theoretically, a neutral path and a neutral face at impact would be more consistent, and this should be generally a goal for most golfers. However, more experienced coaches will know that this doesn’t always stand true, for a million reasons. Some of these are physical, some psychological, some strategical. Players like to see a certain shape as they can feel it easier, and also tends to produce a more consistent mistake – a vital part to good play is knowing your mistakes.

So, in summary, work towards getting your shots better by identifying which of the above (and below) skills can you do better.  The skills are, once more;

Hitting the ground in the right place (strike)
Hitting the middle of the face(strike)
Controlling the path and face (direction)

Identification of what you need to improve is vital; you must have the ability to say after a shot “I could have done ‘this’ better”. I will be taking each skill individually and talking more in depth about it soon -how to identify it and how to improve it. This post has been a largely alternative view to improving your golf – looking at it in a more positive sense rather than what you ‘shouldn’t do’. This was a huge help to me personally – instead of having a long list of body position checkpoints to control, I only had a couple of things to really monitor and improve, which gave me a greater sense of control in my own game. As always, fault fixing can and does have benefits and should be part of a healthy practice regime, although understand the limits to it and experiment also with this approach. I personally prefer to ask what I need to do to hit a better shot, and work on doing that directly, although there are many ways to skin the cat of golf.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Routine and Flow

I started golf aged 15, relatively late on for a professional. I was always very analytical (still am) and so would research for hours every day into technique from books, videos and internet articles in the hope of finding the secret. Whilst it led me down the path I am currently on with my career, it certainly caused problems on the golf course. I wouldn’t be able to put bad shots behind me, constantly tinkering with my swing trying to fix it on the course. This is, however, not the ideal way to go about creating consistency or a good golf game. I still fall back into this habit every now and again, if I am not playing often – but I have found that through a solid pre-shot routine, you can alleviate many of the symptoms associated with poor shots and inconsistencies.

Whilst there are many facets to a good routine (and I will write more articles on it in the future), one of the most important parts is to have a good flow to the routine. Dr Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (try saying that without swallowing your tongue) is one of the leading researchers on flow and optimal performance states; during my time in University, I learned a lot about his work. Then is clicked with me, one of my best ever rounds of golf previously had parallels with his research.

From the first tee I had a song stuck in my head, and as I walked from my position behind the ball, I started singing it, hitting the ball on a certain lyric. At first it was just something that was purely happening, but then I tried to consciously repeat this. it seemed to have both a calming effect, and got rid of my over analysis of my movement and also had the benefit of making me feel like I was in the 'Zone'. I'm not the only person to hae experienced this - read this article about a golfer shooting 16 under par with the same type of experience I had (I wish I had shot THAT low).

I finished that round with one of my best ever scores, but then quickly forgot about it; for some reason I didn’t make the link between this song and my exceptional performance that day. It wasn’t until I was researching more into flow states that this came back to me, and then I started experimenting more with this idea. I now feel it is one of the most important ideas contributing to the consistency of a player, and like to develop a solid routine based around flow and minimal conscious thought.

So how do we go about doing this? You could do exactly what I did – try and sing a song as you are walking towards the ball and hit on a certain lyric, then keep repeating it. Try to pick a song that has a similar tempo to your own swing – no dubstep please. Or you could just feel as if you are flowing towards the ball – perhaps imagining you’re floating towards it down a stream at a nice rhythm. Then continue this rhythm in your head, waiting long enough to get comfortable, but not so long that you start over-thinking. One of the biggest problems I see in golf if people spending way too long over the ball. I would rather most people just go as soon as they are balanced and set, as long as they are not rushing. There are certain exceptions to this.  

Another idea I like to see with players is constant movement during the routine. Good players never stop moving. They are constantly waggling back and forth, either with their club flowing back and forth or their weight shifting a little. We see this in many other sports too. Does a triple jumper just stand motionless before setting off to run down the lane? What does a high jumper do before they start running towards the bar? They arc their back and waggle back and forth as if they are visualizing and preparing for the task in hand. Watch a baseball player move the bat around in their hands and make subtle turning and swaying motions before the ball is fired at them. How about tennis? Ever see a player motionless before a serve, or are they bouncing the ball whilst shifting their weight to their front foot and back again? We understand and see this in many sports, yet how many weekend golfers do you see motionless over the golf ball, sometimes for 10’s of seconds at a time. How is it possible to make a flowing swing from a completely static position? There surely must be a correlation between a player’s movement pre shot and their handicap. 

Hogan demonstrating a waggle

One of the best drills to feel this flow state is to line up 10 balls in a line, and hit them one after the other. Try to create a rhythm going from one ball to the next, focusing on making it soother and smoother with every ball. This doesn’t only include the swing rhythm, but the movement from one ball to the next. When you hit ‘the zone’ it will feel as if you are not thinking – more that it is just happening and you are more of a passive viewer. This is in stark contrast to the usual person who stands over the ball trying to remember every single position and point in the golf swing they have ever learned.

So, in summary,
Always keep moving throughout the routine; never stay static at any point
Have a rhythm to the movement, including the walk into the ball
Spend less time over the ball than usual, just enough time to get comfortable
Try having a tune or song in your head that is close to your swing rhythm.
Try the 10 ball drill to get the feeling of flowing into the ball and hitting with minimal thought

Whilst I am sure there are certain exceptions to this rule, as there always is, there is definitely something about flow and rhythmical movement that helps calm the conscious mind and lets us enter 'the zone' more often. 

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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