Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Locus of Foci


I wrote about this idea a while back, but thought I would upgrade the article and apply the principles to some things I have more recently written. Time to put the kettle on, get your pipe and slippers and settle down for a long one. This one is worth it though, trust me.




When learning and playing golf, we can have many different thought styles. While I am sure there are many more than this, I will summarise some of the common ones here.



INTERNAL-          This is typically characterised by being aware of one’s body movement. Conscious   control of limbs or individual body parts are the main focus, such as “move my hips this way” or “keep my left arm straight.



PROCESS EXTERNAL -     This is where the attention is directed more externally from the body of the player. This would typically include thoughts of the club itself, or more commonly the clubhead and the ball. An example thought would be “Hit the sweet spot” or “contact/brush the grass as close to the ball as possible”.



RESULT EXTERNAL (super external) –      This thought pattern involves a heightened awareness of the target and/or ball flight required to get there. This is typically less verbal, so I would struggle to give an example of what it sounds like (perhaps “draw the ball”), but would more commonly come in the form of visualisation and/or keeping your ‘minds eye’ on the target.    



NEUTRAL – This would be a thought process which is irrelevant to or not directly related to the performance. A poor example would be someone thinking “what shall I have for food tonight”. A better example would be where someone is humming a tune to themselves during the execution of the shot, after doing a good quality pre-shot routine.



TRANSCENDENTAL-        This is where you play golf in Tibet with Buddhist monks after meditating on the thought of life after death. Just kidding!! This is more commonly referred to as ‘the zone’, and is characterised by a distinct lack of self-awareness, or even awareness of the situation. A typical thought would come retrospectively – as in “shit, I just stiffed that shot and I can’t even remember pulling the club out of the bag”.



We have to understand that there may be many crossovers in the thought styles during a shot or during a routine. Ideally, you would like to keep things as consistent as possible, at least for the type of shot you are hitting. But there will be a dominant thought style for each player, and one which will optimise performance, and one which will optimise learning too. 


I may hit a shot with a ‘result external’ focus (target awareness), yet also have an awareness of the club movement required through impact to produce this (external process). Another example would be to have a main focus on where you strike on the face of the club in terms of toe or heel (external process) yet have a subtle awareness of the feel I need to produce in the swing which matches this (internal).

Let’s look at each a little more in depth; but first, let me ask you this – When you drive your car, do you focus on the road, or do you focus on the pedals and degrees of rotation of the steering wheel? If you’re younger, where is your focus when playing a computer game? Do you focus on the buttons pressed, or is your awareness on the game itself? Let’s go




Internal

This is where about 99% of all coaches and players go when playing and learning/teaching the golf swing. “Move your body this way”, “Hinge your wrists this way” etc are common prescriptions for the day. I liken this to trying to driving your car to your destination by having someone else looking at the road and directing you on how much pressure to apply to the brake, or how many degrees to turn the steering wheel. Whilst you could possibly get to your destination, it would be very unnatural and a ‘forced’ way of doing so. This method also drastically reduces the PERCEPTION - ACTION COUPLING of a player, so their ability to compensate for errors such as poor alignment may be greatly reduced.

What’s worse, when these prescriptions are given, they are often given to players without explaining the destination. Shift your weight forwards could be given, but you had better tell the player the reason for doing so (destination) – to move the point of contact with the ground closer to the ball (but then, this is an external process focusJ). Without this information, you could be fighting a lot of SUBCONSCIOUS CONCEPTS, and this disparity between mind and body would lead to poor performance.




For the younger generation (or big kidsJ), this would be similar to playing a computer game whilst someone grabs hold of your thumb and guides it onto the correct button to press. Whilst it would get you to press the right button, your ability to co-ordinate the movements fluidly and link them with what is going on in the game (the result) is almost non-existent.

But this is not to say that it is not a valuable tool. Used correctly, and in the right place at the right time, internal focus can greatly improve learning (as opposed to performance, which it can also help in some situations). After all, in order to drive a car, we have to understand how the steering wheel creates a turning of the car,  and for British drivers, we have to learn how the clutch and accelerator works, as well as shifting gears. These things have to be practiced in a safe environment (away from the road) until they are automatic, and then you can change your mindset to a more external focus).

Also, there are some situations where people learn to drive but with bad habits which make it either dangerous or inefficient. They may get to their destination, but are doing so in a way which risks crashing, damages the car, or uses more fuel than they need. This would be the same as getting your ball onto the target, but swinging the golf club in a way which may pose a risk for injury, or greatly decreases your margin for error (such as taking a massive divot – it can be functional but margin for error is smaller).


Big Divots can work, if they are in the right place


This type of mindset can also ‘bridge the gap’ if there is something/move you are not getting. For example, if you are struggling to square the face of the club correctly to hit the shot on target, a tweak in the grip may be the spark needed to improve your performance.

Also, although in general, performance is decreased with an internal focus, it is not always the case. If someone is way off the mark with their technique, providing a better movement through an internal focus can really speed up the acquisition of performance. For example, a slicer with a poor body motion may be taught a more functional movement of the hips and experience immediate better quality shots, which may take a lot longer through a more ‘coached’ process. Although it would be arguable that the coached process comes with it several other benefits that a ‘taught’ process would detract from (save that one for a later date).

Mentally, someone who suffers with poor quality external thoughts may be better suited to an internal focus. If someone fears the water hazard short of the green, for example, and as a result of this fear tends to chunk it in, they may be better suited to a more internal focus where the water disappears from their attention (this hints at a concept of inattentional blindness, but is not).

So, while this thought process can have several potential benefits, it can also have some disadvantages and slow down the process of someone getting to the autonomous stage. If you go to this mindset every time something goes wrong, you will be forever stuck in the internal (as most players are). We say, in the industry, that you would be playing golf swing, rather than golf. Use this attentional focus wisely and sparingly for maximum effect.


Don't get trapped internally




External process

This focus involves placing your attention on WHAT would be required to achieve the task, rather than HOW (as in an internal focus). Your attention would also be placed on the implements used, such as the golf clubhead and ball, allowing the body movements to self-organise.


Focusing on your strike on the face would be classified as 
External process


Studies have shown this to be very beneficial in terms of speed of learning and retention of learning, as well as performance benefits. Such as simple act as changing the focus from the pressure in the foot of a skier to the pressure applied to the ski makes a dramatic difference, even though the focus has moved by only a few millimetres.

In our car analogy, this would be likened to focusing your attention 20-30 meters in front of your car. You are not focused on the final destination as such, but your focus is more on the thing you can control to get there. In the computer game analogy, it would be the equivalent of learning which buttons do which, and trying to play the game by looking back at the X button every time you need to pass the ball. Whilst you could explicitly understand that the X button passes the ball, without linking this to the actual result (result eternal focus) through being aware of it, you are not learning as much, and you would likely suffer poor performance and lose the game. 

In golf, there can be several ways in which we could see an external process focus. One of my most used is with players who need to get a ball over a bunker. What is required for a ball to go up in the air and fly over the bunker is for the clubface to contact the ball correctly. Most people who struggle with this shot do so because they thin or fat the shot. While an internal thought may help, it rarely does.


You could get all the basic 'fundamentals' of chipping technique and still
duff it if you don't brush the grass in the right spot


What DOES guarantee that the ball will fly over the bunker is the club brushing the grass in the right area. So, for this reason, I prefer to get my players who struggle with this shot to focus on this exact thing. Through understanding, focusing on and preparing for (through a routine) the club to brush the grass as close to where the ball is laying as possible, players almost ALWAYS improve their performance in this area.

This type of thought process, as I have said, allows the body to organise movements in a much more co-ordinated fashion, synergistically and naturally improving all elements required for the motion, as well as the motion itself. Players will tend to work around their physical limitations in a way which is possible for them, as opposed to being forced into a position by a coach or their own conscious mind. This is not to say that this is a better way (it usually is though), but it allows the person to do what they need to TODAY, thus improving performance. We’re all so individual with our ligament/tendon insertions, muscle lengths, lever lengths, muscle max stretch points, muscle max power and strength points, muscle flexibility and stability profiles, myofascial slings, motor patterning, injuries (that you are and are not aware of), myofascial slings etc etc ec. These individualities make it almost impossible (or more of an exercise in futility) for a teacher or pupil to know the ideal movement or positions for them to play their best golf (if they even exist) – and these ‘ideals’ in themselves may change over the course of the player’s development.


We are all so different


The human body, on the other hand, has a very intelligent system of feedback and instinctive/genetic information which can allow it to organise into much more appropriate and efficient ways for the task in hand.
An external process focus is also very CONCEPT BUILDING. It allows the movement to develop as a result of the desired goal, rather than the opposite way around. Do you learn as a child how to use a fork by focusing on getting the food into your mouth and using feedback as to how close you are (hint – yes you do), or do you learn to use the fork by focusing on the angles, muscle contractions involved, speeds and forces applied by your hand etc (hint- no you don’t). Also, as a result of appropriate concepts being built, lots of movements develop harmoniously with a singular focus – now that is efficient.




An external process focus can also improve perception-action coupling abilities in terms of perception of CONCEPT and improvements in action (take a deep breath and read that again slowly). For example, you are more likely to see improvements in divot position with someone who is focusing on improving their divot position than someone who is trying to improve divot position through correct weight shift (internal focus). On top of that, once a player has improved their divot position relative to the ball through an external process focus, THE SKILLS BECOME TRANSFERABLE. That is, a player can now make the correct divot regardless of where  they put the ball in their stance, or what lie they have, or what angle of attack they use or swing path they use. The same cannot be said with improving the divot position through an internal focus, such as weight shift. This would tend to only improve it for one given situation (flat lie with ball in the same position in stance).

That last paragraph is HUGE – read it again.

Negatives of external process

Are there any negatives to this? Of course - It may be that a player’s body starts to move in a way which is not – textbook, or worse, injurious. However it is my experience that the players usually make a less injurious swing, and the textbook stuff doesn’t matter if the ball is doing what you want it to. And I would rather ingrain a correct concept through an external focus and THEN improve efficiency later on than the reverse.


I feel it is better to build a foundation of SKILLS
and add technical elements later


Also, for a better player, this focus may not provide the best performance benefits. For example, the top level player is able to automatically brush the grass in the correct place on a pitch over a bunker – it is a skill that they have ingrained already. So for them, it may be more beneficial to have an external result focus (which we will look at next).

I like to see what the limits of this type of focus are before I delve into the internal focus and ‘guide’ the player into better movements. In my own opinion (from the players I have worked with and tested), and with my own personal teaching philosophy, it is also a quicker way to get a multitude of performance and learning benefits in a short time.


External result

This would involve a focus on the target or ball flight. A player may be very unaware of their movement, yet through a pure focus on seeing the end result, the movement can respond accordingly. This is the ultimate in Perception-Action coupling. The easiest analogy for this would be in throwing a ball to someone when playing catch. Complicated data regarding weight of the object, trajectory, muscle force required, angles in wrist and arm to produce throwing action along with precise release points are needed to get the ball the correct direction and distance. Yet your brain somehow figures these out instinctively and improves it through practice. Studies have shown that speed of learning, retention of learning and performance can be improved through this focus over an internal focus in putting and other tasks. That is not to say it is better than internal foci – there are lots of factors to take into consideration.


visualise the end result


In our car analogy, this would be the equivalent of looking ahead on the road a few hundred yards (your destination) and allowing your body to figure out the pedal pushes and turns of the steering wheel required to get there. For the child with the computer game, this is the same as keeping your eyes and mind on the game being played and allowing your brain to react with the appropriate buttons pressed.

Whilst it could be argued that you need to be taught the buttons in order to play a game and get to this stage of thinking – I have learned computer games without reading the manual. And when it comes time to teach my friend how to play the game, I literally can’t explain to them what button does what, as I don’t consciously know. It is more of an implicit knowledge. You keep your eye on the game, press buttons and see what the response is, then your brain links up the desired command (pass the ball) with the appropriate action without any conscious knowledge.

Golf is a complicated game, but I still believe there are many things which can be learned without any conscious knowledge of how to do it. I believe, and have experienced, that through DIFFERENTIAL PRACTICE principles, a lot of core knowledge can be gained implicitly. The advantage of knowing how to strike and control the direction of your golf ball without any conscious effort is unknown. But I believe it helps people get into a more optimal performance state as there is less conscious interference. Movements which are learned unconsciously use different parts of the brain, and I think more science will emerge to show that learning this way will show distinct performance advantages.


obligatory picture of a brain


I suppose the negative effect of this is that players may have less of an ability to repair themselves on the course when things go wrong. For example, through my own conscious knowledge, I am able to fix my hook by weakening my grip and/or opening the clubface slightly at address. However, that being said, this argument is weak as I know several south American players who learned golf through self-teaching, and they can shape the ball both ways without understanding how to do it (purely through their experimentation in practice). As a result, they can just as easily calibrate a straight shot just by feeling the difference between their hook swing and their slice swing, and working towards the middle ground.

PA coupling

For another reminder of what this is, click HERE to see the article 

One of the biggest advantages I see in the improvements in perception action coupling in terms of both performance and learning. With performance, it is much easier for a player with good PA coupling to make positive compensatory moves. For example, if he/she were to align slightly out of whack (as we all do), a good player will still be able to get the ball on the target by changing the face and the path in relation to their body lines to a more appropriate combination to get the ball on the target. An example of putting would be a player who consciously misreads a putt (thinks it breaks 4 inches when it really breaks 10) and then, through a better External result focus, this improves the PA coupling abilities of the player which results in a slight pull/push back on-line and some extra speed to keep the ball high.


If you think the top pro's don't pull or push their putts, think again.
difference is, the pull and push it towards a better read


Why do you think confidence is such a big thing in putting. Normally, confident putters are more outwardly focused (visualising it going in the hole) which improves this PA coupling. A more inward focus (such as trying to perfect the technique) would not only detract from good PA coupling, but may make the person miss the putt (as they have aimed too low). I remember a clinic Tiger Woods held where he talked about a drill his Father taught him. He told Tiger to look at the hole and say “click” as he took an image/mental picture of the hole and the ball going in. The tiger would bring his eyes back to the ball with the picture in his mind and just GO. This is the ultimate in creating an external result focus.

There is also a strategic element to good PA coupling, in that I am more likely to miss the target to the right if there is water left. As much as I can consciously aim at the flag on the left, my subconscious brain is firing and weighing up complex algorithms of risk/reward and skill level/probability, beliefs and past experiences. This will then influence my movement in a way which steers towards a different outcome. This is not inherently a bad thing – in fact for better players it is usually a good thing.

Regarding learning, an external result focus fires the areas of the brain relating to the visual stimulus of the target. If the movement pattern is learned in conjunction with this stimulus, the two become effectively entwined and it is easier for the visual stimulus to recall the movement. For example, If I learn how to pick something up by keeping my mind on what I want to pick up, then next time I see something at a similar distance away from me, my brain can recall the movement necessary to pick that object up much quicker and efficiently. However, imagine I had learned to pick objects up with my eyes closed and feeling around. If I were then one day able to use my eyes to see an object of similar distance away, the visual stimulus wouldn’t improve my ability to pick the object up. In fact, it would make my ability to pick it up worse, as now new information is coming in which was not learned with the movement. Ask any person who was once blind who has been given the gift of sight through medical advances.


Neurons firing together wire together


Likewise, learning a movement with the target/result in mind creates neural pathways in the brain which link the two together. So now, a simple visualisation of the ball flight and/or awareness of the target can fire the neurons in the brain relating to the movement required to get the ball there.


Disadvanatges

For me, this works great, but only when I am confident. When I am feeling a little nervy, those images can quickly turn sour and my attention keeps flitting towards the water. This rarely happens in practice play, but in competition, when nerves and stress are heightened, you don’t have as much control over your attention as you believe. There would have to be a deeper look at why this is happening in your psychology if this is the case for you, but it is just something to be aware of.

For beginners, this can cause some problems too. A beginner trying to get a ball over the bunker for a short pitch would be best advised against using this focus. The focus of flighting the ball high and landing soft usually produces a less than desirable action from the beginner where their weight goes back and they scoop the ball. This results in the low point of the swing moving back and fats and thins ensue. They would be better off with a focus of brushing the grass (External process). Learning may be limited through that approach, but performance improves. This is a case where a player's concept of how to produce the desired shot is not yet understood or ingrained, and so they would need to work on this through better external process focuses. 




Also, I have seen where players have learned a new movement through a ‘less external’ thought process. This can then cause the old movement to come back when they start to become more aware of the target. For example, a slicer learns to draw the ball through a focus on club path through impact (external process). Now, on the course, they switch their focus to the target, and the thing which is most connected (neutrally) in the brain with this visual is their old swing. Their slice comes back.



Neutral Focus

This is an interesting one. A neutral thought is one which doesn’t directly relate to the performance or process of the shot. In terms of our car driving analogy, this is like driving while listening to and singing the music. You still do everything required of you (stopping car at lights, pressing accelerator etc) but you are not even really ‘focused’ on the destination. This could be a similar idea for our computer game analogy. For our golfer, I often use tasks such as counting down from 10, or counting up from 1, or singing a song during the hitting process, humming or breathing out during the swing.

It is almost like a conscious distraction. You are putting your focus on the neutral thought and allowing the actions to arise automatically. Whilst there would be some crossover between neutral and other thought processes, it is very possible to hit great shots whilst having close to 100% neutral focus. I have hit some great shots onto my target while counting and focusing purely on the counting, and one of my best rounds ever came when I had a song stuck in my head. This is a very conscious decision to make to focus on something other than the movement, and most people believe it is impossible to hit a shot without thinking about the movement in some way

THEY ARE WRONG


You don't have to be conscious to play great golf


And I consistently prove this to people. My favourite type of person to work with is someone who is massively over-analytical. I know, because in my younger days I was the same way. I am sure you can tell by the depth of my blog posts that I am a deep thinker, and I used to try and control everything in my swing mechanics (READ ABOUT MY STORY HERE) before I ‘saw the light’. Within a few shots with a counting or breathing routine, I can convince most analytical people that it is perfectly possible to hit a GREAT shot without any conscious thought of the process necessary to do it. This is a BIG STEP in breaking free of the troubles many people have in playing golf effectively. This is basically the start of the journey which will allow the players to get into a more transcendental state more often, and not fear it (more on this later). If a player can experience something closer to transcendental (non thinking state) then their mind is much more likely to accept it as a possibility and understand it when it is happening.

Add to this, a neutral thought gives a player consistency in their thinking and routine. Counting down from 10, or singing a tune and hitting on the same note/lyric creates a sense of flow, rhythm and consistency to the routine, which will result in more consistency in the performance. And if there is anything which is likely to create a transcendental state, it is consistency and rhythms CLICK HERE to read my article about routines and the flow state.

I often find, and have found in myself, that there is an increased pressure resistance with a neutral thought. Thoughts about that bad shot last time you played this hole, thoughts about the fact you are nervous because you are shooting the round of your life, and thoughts about playing with players who are better than you, or the danger down the left hand side of the fairway seem to disappear when your focus in on a neutral topic.
Add to this, an increase in concentration. As the player is so focused on their neutral thought, they tend to become attentionally blind to distractions such as noises, crowds etc. Also, negative thoughts are much less experienced in this state. It seems to be the ultimate pill for all mental problems.


I typed "pressure resistance" into Google images.
This came up


I also notice in my pupils who do this that they experience a more fluid, free and natural swing movement, as they are free of fear and just going on automatic responses. Due to the fact they are more automatic, we often notice the results are crazily consistent. A drawer of the ball will often now get rid of their odd push shot, and their draw becomes more consistent and repeatable. I attribute this to the player being less conscious of the movement, and so there is much less ‘interference’ from the conscious mind, leaving the subconscious ingrained motor program to arise more effectively.

Any disadvantages?

Going on from the last point, the fact that a player is now more automatic and running on subconsciously ingrained movements means that if the result is not as desired, it can be hard to change it. However, this is truer for players who have not developed their own TOOLBOX for controlling their shots through their own differential practices.  Players who have a better understanding of how to control their ball flight often find that the adjustments necessary to bring the desired flight will happen on their own, with the added benefit of the consistency of the neutral focus. And for players without this implicit understanding, we could look at simple set up fixes (such as a grip change) which could allow the player to maintain the consistency of their ‘neutral focus’ but with an improved ball flight.


Do you have your own 'toolbox'?


There is also the argument for lowered Perception-Action coupling abilities with a neutral focus. As the person is not visualising the result consciously, there may be some element of lowered brain activity in the visual-motor areas of the brain. However, you can get around this quite easily. Through a good pre-shot routine with effective visualisation, we can prime the brain to activate the correct neurons – allowing us to have a little of the best of both worlds. So – visualising the ball flight clearly, then walking in and hitting the ball with the neutral focus can give us both good PA coupling abilities, massive resistance to several mental problems (pressure, fear, analysis, distractions etc) and may even alleviate a problem associated with the external result focus – the problem of the images turning negative.


A neutral focus can make you feel like you are
in a bubble of invincibility


One of the main problems with this focus is that it can be very difficult to learn new skills. Learning something new normally requires a higher level of focus/awareness/attention to problem solving. This neutral focus can detract from this ability (I personally believe that one of the main reasons for us having evolved consciousness is so that we can override our subconscious brain to learn complicated tasks quicker).  A slicer is not going to be able to cure their slice by switching to a neutral focus (unless their slice was caused by a fear of the left side), but it may make it more consistent. To summarise this idea, I would say

“Neutral focuses will not raise the ceiling of your potential, but they may help you reach that ceiling more often”.




The slicer may not fix their slice and add 20 yards to their game with a neutral focus. But they may make that slice much more consistent, tighten their grouping and then use good on course strategy to make that shot pattern work for them (aim 20 yards left for example).

One last problem I see with this focus is that, as it is a conscious focus (albeit not related to the movement) it can initially cause disruption – especially for people who struggle to let go of control. People who want to be in constant conscious control of their swing really struggle to have this neutral focus and just ‘let it happen’ on the course. But, this is the whole point of this focus. It is to train them to be able to do exactly that – let go – and increase their chances of getting into the next stage of thought – transcendental.


Transcendental 'focus'

Watch this – from 2 minutes onwards is GOLDEN




This type of focus/thinking is rarely experienced, although most of us will have had perhaps glimpses of it. It is often referred to as ‘the zone’ and is more easily reached in other sports which are more active. In other sports, such as tennis, it is much easier to experience a flow state – due to the flowing or rhythmical nature of the game (such as a rally back and forth). This state of mind is characterised by a distinct lack of consciousness, yet high performance. It is called transcendental because, in this state, we transcend or go beyond ourselves, almost like an out of body experience or a zombie like state.





That is why Golf is so difficult to experience this. We have all the time in the world – we decide when we are ready to hit the ball. Also, the rhythm and the flow of the game is very stop/start – hit a ball, walk 5 mins, hit a ball etc. Add to this a high level of analysis and conscious control of movement, and we have a situation where we rarely get into this ‘optimal’ state (I say optimal in inverted commas because it is not always the best state to be in).

It is my belief, and there is evidence to support it, that;
  • 1.       Lowering of conscious thoughts
  • 2.       Rhythms
  • 3.       Repetitiveness

create a mental environment in which the mind is able to enter this transcendental state of mind. Have you ever drove all the way to work, got out of your car and then said “Holy cow, I can’t remember ANY of that journey. What happened? The drive was very RHYTHMical, it was the same CONSISTENT route you always take, maybe it was early in the morning and you had a LOWERING OF CONSCIOUS THOUGHT. It is almost like a meditative state – yet you are still able to perform all the necessary actions such as stopping at lights etc.

What is the opposite of this? Imagine having a shot down the last hole. If you get it on the green and two putt, you will have your best score ever. What do we do?

1.       Slow down our routine – we don’t want to rush it do we?
2.       Rhythm gets jerky
3.       Maybe we take one more practice swing for good luck

You are basically going against everything which gets you into a flow state. This is one of the biggest reasons people choke under pressure. It is a feedback loop on itself. Slowing down your routine or changing it in any way signals to your brain that something is wrong/different and it needs to become more conscious. You come out of the flow state (which ironically got you into that position in the first place) and end up completely messing the shot up.


Why did I rush that?


This is why I spend a lot of time with better players (and even beginners) developing routines which are consistent, include less conscious thought and also include some rhythmical element (such as counting). Whilst this is not a transcendental focus (as you are being conscious about the process), it is something which will bridge the gap nicely. And one the neutral focuses are ingrained, and the belief is build up that it is possible to hit a good shot with a lowered consciousness, people are now more ready to mentally accept the transcendental state.

It is not easy. As one of the most analytical people you will ever meet, I always wanted to be in control of my movement. I wanted to be in the driving seat rather than letting things just happen. But I can tell you, playing in a transcendental state is one of the most rewarding experiences you can have, and performance can be absolutely beyond belief in this state. But if you don’t understand it, you may think it is a bad thing (as I used to). I remember shots as an amateur where I would hit something fantastic, before claiming “oops, I got lucky on that, I wasn’t even concentrating” and then following it up with “right, I really need to focus for my next shot, I don’t want that to happen again” – if only I had known.

Like I said, through practicing neutral focuses, I have been able to train myself to get into this transcendental state much more often. The more ingrained a good routine becomes, with improvements in consistency of routine, rhythm of routine (and timing) and lowering of conscious thought, the better the chances of the routine being on autopilot. When the routine is on autopilot, this is when the magic happens. The paradox is, to develop a good routine requires you to be conscious. This is why I get players to spend a lot of time practicing their routines when they are due to peak for a tournament. We want it ready, and we want it automatic. And I go into incredible detail when developing a routine for a good player. But for a beginner it could be as simple as keeping the same time between walking forward and hitting the shot – just like the Tiger video



I would hazard a guess that tiger is not thinking about his routine here, but it is so practiced that it is running on this automatic transcendental state.

I know from studies in that we emit a different frequency of brain wave during times of meditation. It is not unlikely that the same thing happens when we hit the zone in any sport, especially a serene one like golf. But without going too ‘new age’ on you, I will leave you with that as a thought.

Any disadvantages?

This state is, in itself, a paradox in that, the more you try to get into it, the further you get from it. The only way I know how to increase your chances are through 1. Understanding it is possible to hit great shots without conscious control  2. Experiencing the ability to hit shots without conscious thought and 3. Practicing a good quality consistent routine until it is automatic. If you get all of these, you will know when it is happening and you will be ready for it and not frightened of it.




This state, although possibly the best for performance, is potentially not as good for learning a new skill. I say potentially because, there are situations where I have been in this state on the range, hit ball after ball, got into a rhythm and performance increases. If done long enough, your body is self organising into better and more efficient ways using the deeper part of your brain as opposed to your conscious mind. That said, it is much more difficult to make a quick change to technique when you are on autopilot. Given enough time, it can happen for sure, but most people want to speed things up a little.

Leading on from that, if things are not going so well on the course, it can be difficult to make a change to that pattern. For example, say I do get into a transcendental state yet my ball is hooking left, I will need to make some kind of conscious change to improve that pattern, such as visualising a different ball flight (external result focus), imagining the club coming through with a more open face (external process focus) or making a quick change in my set up, such as setting the face open at address (which I would consider a lower conscious version of an external process thought). However, I think people are too quick to jump into these ‘more conscious’ states. For the average handicap player, every single bad shot is a reason to jump back into ‘control mode’. I have learned, through time, improvements in expectation levels and understanding of probability, that we must accept a certain amount of poor shots. And not every shot is an excuse to jump back into control. People essentially sabotage their own chances of entering a transcendental state of mind by not understanding the above.


So there you have it

The 5 areas of focus I have identified (I am sure there are potentially more, and the above can even be broken down into subsets of themselves). Different areas of focus will improve or detract from learning and/or performance. Often, in most cases, they are completely at odds with one another. For example, in my own game, in order to learn something I am better off with a highly focused external process thought. But for my best performance, I use a less conscious Transcendental focus (if I am lucky enough to get there). Good coaching will help you identify these states, and all players should work to understanding what ways suit them best. The better you understand yourself, the more you can self coach.


Self-coaching. The ultimate in being a player


These states may be different at different times also. I know that I really struggle to get into a transcendental state during competition, so for me a neutral focus is better in these situations. During practice play, when there is no pressure, if I am unable to get into a transcendental state, an external result focus is best for my performance.

“How well do you know yourself?"

Can you describe yourself like I did above? Have you ever even thought about it? I’ll bet 99% of all readers here have only ever experienced the internal focus of attention (it is an unfortunate fact that most teaching is based solely around this). Not to say this focus cannot be useful, but for most people it is not the optimal state for improved performance (or even for improved learning).

My suggestion to you next time you’re on the range is to try and experience some of these different states. Hit some balls thinking about your left arm (for example). Then hit some thinking about the club movement through impact. Hit some just focusing on the target as if you were going to throw the ball there, and then try some neutral focuses. If you can, try and be a zombie for a moment, but as I have said, the more you try to force this state, the further you get from it. You will know when you have experienced it though J

Try this in chipping and putting too. You may be surprised at what works best. Through my teaching, I have become better at identifying quicker what will help a person in terms of maximising performance or maximising learning. I also try to guide people into understanding this. But as you can see, it is a very big topic (about 10,000 words so far) which will need to be digested thoroughly. But understand this

“You can DRAMATICALLY improve your golf, simply by a shift in focus/attention”

There is a simple way to find out what works best for you, but you will have to have a lesson with me to find that out J





A general overview of my teaching philosophy

The general goal in my teaching philosophy is to get someone from internal to transcendental as efficiently as possible. I will also try my hardest to start someone as far up the ladder as possible, possibly retracting back down the ladder if I feel necessary, before travelling back up again. For example;

  • I may start a slicer by setting a task which is ‘external result’ (curve the ball left).


  • If they are unable to do this simple task, and breaking it down into easier chunks is ineffective, I may go to an external process thought process (such as getting them to focus on the path and clubface movement through impact).


  • If this is also ineffective, I may go to an internal focus, and look at changing body movements/positions which will be conducive to hitting the desired shot. Once this is achieved, I would go back up the ladder to an external process thought, then a external result focus, then possibly neutral and/or transcendental, depending on goals with learning/performance.


That is not to say that a slicer cannot become a better player starting with a neutral thought. I have seen people cure their slices with neutral thoughts, as there was obviously a mental block before causing a ‘steer’ in their technique. When a neutral thought is introduced, the action becomes more natural, the release of the club (rotation rate) happens more effectively and the slice gets minimised. But you don’t have to reduce a slice to become a better player, sometimes just making that slice more consistent, through lowering of conscious thought, can improve the pattern of a player – and a small adjustment in strategy can then make that pattern effective. For example, if you slice it 20 yards every time, you now can aim 20 yards left and make it work (All good players do this to some extent, so don’t give me any bull that aiming 20 yards makes a slice worse – it doesn’t if you know what you are doing). Most people struggle with inconsistency because they are TOO CONSCiOUS – they slice one shot and then try to correct it the next time, resulting in a pull. Now with a change of swing thought every shot, how can you expect to achieve consistency? Most of the better players in the world will accept what shot they are hitting on the day and make it work. The time to make big adjustments in swing technique are during your training, not playing.

CAVEAT - I will do whatever the pupil NEEDS at that time. If I see their goal as maximal learning, then I will give them the focus which produces that. If they need performance, I can switch their focus to what is optimal for THEM


Summary

Please understand that there is not one way which is inherently ‘better’. We have to look at the individual player, and see what their mix of learning abilities, styles, learning stage (beginner or advanced) and seek to provide the thought process which will maximise performance (if performance is the goal) or learning (if this is the goal) or both, if attainable. This is the art of performance coaching.

There may not be one way which is better for all, but there is one way which is better for YOU at this moment. This may change over time, but it is only if you understand this principle that you can control it better and become the master of yourself and your own game in varying situations. 

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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Performance vs Learning


Performance and learning are different – you probably didn’t realise that.

Performance –    the ability of a person to produce the desired result

Learning –         The acquisition, retention and recall of new skills which will lead to improved performance and increase potential in the sport specific scenario

What most people seek when they go to the range or go for a lesson is improved performance. They want to come away from a range session or lesson feeling like they hit the ball the best they can or better than before. Whilst this is a nice goal to have, and there are certainly times where this should be done, it should not be the only goal of the golfer.


Performance in training

Performance and learning are not inextricably linked – in fact, they are often at odds with one another. As an example, 2 players are learning how to control the height/lowest point of their golf swing. They go through a simple drill of lining tees up, 1 inch high, and work on clipping the tee out of the ground without making a divot. They both do a small testing session and do a ’10 shot test’. Amazingly (for the sake of the example J ) they both manage to get 3 out of 10 tees out of the ground successfully.

Then they go into training


Player A practices/trains this by standing in the same place with the same club hitting tees. During the session, his ability to hit the tee (performance) greatly improves to the point he can get 5 tees out of 10.

Player B practices this by doing a full routine, changing his club every time and changing the target. This is a lot more difficult as the length of the club is changing each time, and he is having to stand back and re-position himself after each shot. His performance decreases (due to the difficulty of the task) and he is only able to hit 1 out of 10 tees.


So, we can see that player A, through the way he is practicing, has produced an immediate improvement in performance. But, what happens if both players do this after a week? What about after practicing this way for a month?


graph showing amount of tees hit in training, starting with
the test session, and progressing 8 weeks

Player B
So we can see that player A is better than player B after the first session (mainly to do with the fact he has a simpler task), but then player B ends up catching up with and ultimately surpassing player A. It takes a long time for this to happen, and it looks like player A is doing better because he is performing better – but his task is also a lot easier. His learning rate is not the same, as you can see by his retention of performance after each session.

More importantly, what happens on the course, where it counts?


Performance on golf course

Performance in a training situation is also not always indicative of what would happen in the real scenario. It is often a first step, for sure, but how specifically you trained to the game scenario will have a big effect on whether those skills/learning are transferred or not.

Graph of Player A's ability to successfully hit a tee in both
training sessions and on course play over the course of 8 weeks


Graph of player B's ability to produce what he did in the training sessions
onto the golf course (skill transference) over 8 weeks.

Player B – the routine guy – was using a practice methodology which was more representative of an actual on-course scenario (changing clubs and target and shot type every time). For this reason, Player B is able to take their skills learned during practice and apply them directly on the course. 

Player A practiced artificially; standing in the same place with the same club over and over is not representative of an on course scenario. For this reason, when they finally get on the course, their performance drops significantly. They may have been able to hit 7 out of 10 tees on the range with their BLOCK PRACTICE mentality, but now they struggle to hit 4 out of 10 on the course.

Think about the mental ramifications for this. Player A goes from feeling like a god on the range, fully in control and able to do what he desires, only to have it all leave him when it matters the most. This leads to frustration, tinkering with your swing, changes of focus, over conscious behaviour, and sets in a downward spiral due to the increased expectations (you expected to hit 9 out of 10 tees on the course). Player B, on the other hand, may experience more frustration in practice, but they learn to deal with it. This type of practice also BALANCES EXPECTATIONS leading to more consistent play due to more consistent emotions and perception of results (relative to skill level).

So, although the more random practice method employed by player B showed an initial drop in performance, both on course performance and overall learning surpassed player B, the one who initially performed well.

 

Differential practice

For a primer on what differential practice is, read my articles on the topic linked below



Differential practice is also another way in which we may see short term negative effects on performance, but massive long term effects on learning. For example, someone trying to control the ball flight through improved clubface awareness may be given one of two tasks.

Task A – try to hit the ball as on target as possible by tinkering with a more open (to the right) or more closed (to the left) clubface position at impact. (This is calibration practice, which I will write an article on)

Task B – Try to experiment with hitting offline shots – as far left as possible followed by as far right as possible and then everything in between. (differential practice)



In terms of performance relative to what you are trying to ultimately achieve (an on-line shot), player A is obviously going to outperform player B, as it is not the intention of player B to hit it online. Player B's shot pattern in training is going to be all over the place, whilst Player A is going to have a much tighter pattern (better performance). But this doesn't tell us who is learning the most. Even when the players go on the golf course, player A may initially perform better, as they have been practicing in a way which is more specific to what they want (and on-line shot).

However, the SKILLS ACQUIRED by player B (the ability to control, manipulate, feel the difference between clubface positions) will ultimately allow player B to surpass player A. This is because the player can ultimately self coach, and will have more sensory information to draw upon.

Now, if you were to combine the 2 different types of practice, in the right doses and in the right combination, you may get an EXPLOSION of learning.



Need for Periodisation

Periodisation is setting out your individual training sessions, daily sessions, weekly sessions, monthly sessions and even yearly program so that you can take advantage of the difference between performance and learning. For example, if I have a mini tour player needing to peak during the season, we would set up their practice schedule that allows periods of maximum learning (which may even disrupt performance) followed by periods of maximising performance (which may slow down learning).

As an example of a yearly split, where the golf season runs from May to September

October/November –  Technical changes
Feb/March calibration practice (scroll down the link to where it says 'calibration' to see an overview)
April/Mayroutine work
May – Septperformance practice (scroll down to 'performance practice' to see a brief overview)

So the levels get from (tending to be) more disruptive to performance, but more conducive to learning/change/improvement in the early stages. It then gets gradually more performance focused and less focused on change/improvement as we get closer to the ‘in season’.

This is obviously a basic framework based on a theoretical player. A proper practice regime would be fit around the individuals needs. If a Tour player came to me needing to Peak four times a year (for majors) I would set a different program. And for a complete beginner, there may be a different structure more focused around learning.

A tour pro may spend 6-8 hours a day practicing and will need to 
peak for certain events. Therefore, practice should be structured
in a way which maximises the ability for them to increase their potential
and bring their potential to the table when it's 'game day'


Even within this yearly framework, there may be weekly and daily periods where all stages are included. So, if we took (in the above example) the month of April (routine work), a typical week may be set up like this

Monday – ½ technical practice                   ½ differential and variable practice
Tuesday – calibration day
Wednesday – Routine day
Thursday – Routine day
Friday – Routine day
Saturday – Routine day
Sunday – performance practice / day off


Obviously this is massive schedule, but keep in mind this is for a mini tour player who has the goals of both improvement whilst maximising performance for competitions and the ‘in-season’. A beginner schedule would look completely different. But from the above, we can see that the player has a definite focus on improving and practicing the routine, yet at the same time keeping all elements of the schedule involved.



Performance up learning down

It is not simply an on or off switch however – it is more like a sliding scale, and each individual may experience different levels of learning and performance with different types of practice.  But understanding that, sometimes, things which make you performance worse are actually beneficial for your game and skill-sets in the future (such as applying pressure during practice or applying Random practice principles).

This is not to say that both learning and performance cannot improve synergistically – they very much can. But there are more efficient ways to maximise each. And structuring your practice to do so is imperative if you wish to become the best you can be. For a tour pro, simply structuring the practice effectively can make the difference between getting on tour or never making it. If you work on the wrong things at the wrong time you are going to be severely hampering your chances of playing your best.  Unfortunately, I have seen players do this.

I have also seen a lot of well intentioned players basically wasting their
time. For some, this is ok as they may be enjoying the act of beating balls.
But if you are trying to be the best you can, you have to practice like a genius



Performance, Learning and consistency

The number one goal I get from people is that they want to be more consistent. They don’t understand that even tour pro’s are inconsistent. One day Furyk might shoot a 72 then follow it up with a 59. That is 13 shots difference from one day to the next, with a player who is practicing every single day, 8 hours a day and he is also one of the most consistent players on tour.

Even Furyk, one of the most consistent players on tour is inconsistent


Understand that we have a RANGE of scores that we can shoot. Our actual LEARNED level is somewhere in between that. It is like the stock market, if you look at it from day to day you will drive yourself nuts. The stock market is constantly oscillating around a moving average. Just like the stock market, our scores and performance on the course will oscillate around our actual learned level. Pro’s are no more consistent than you, they are just better overall and more learned.

Our performance may be a little all over the place from day to day (black line).
But over time, if we have put our efforts in the right areas in the right way,
we will see out overall level (the red line) gradually rise. We will still get day to day fluctuations,
but they will be around a 'higher' skill level


It would make much more sense to look at a yearly average to see how your learning is going. If a player has a yearly score average of level par, this may include a round of 10 over par and 10 under par during the year. But this range is not as important as the yearly score average (as long as we take into account the difficulty of the course played on).



Summary

Learning and performance are not the same. You could be performing well, yet learning nothing. Likewise, you could be performing awfully and learning a hell of a lot.

What is more important to you at this time? If performance is all that matters, be prepared to stagnate. You may reach your potential more often, but you will never push that potential higher. This is like the guy in the bar who always has a new swing tip or swing thought which is working for him, only to see his handicap stay the same year after year.

 If Change and ‘potential pushing’ is important to you, be prepared to sacrifice some level of performance (in a good majority of cases) in the short term until those changes are realised. This is not always the case. Also, don’t get stuck in this mode. Understand that the golf swing is an unfinishable  project – there will never be a day where you master the swing mechanics. There has to be a time where we switch this mode of learning off and GO PLAY GOLF and actually realise the potential we have created.


Periodise your year, or week or training session as to get a nice blend of both learning and performance. Focus more on the one you wish to achieve the most, or find ways which blend the two together nicely.

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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