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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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