Sunday, October 2, 2011

Mental Game Scorecard

Work and weather have conspired against me and my golf game: the rain here in central Pennsylvania just won't stop! I'm somewhat disheartened that I may not be able to play enough golf to reach my handicap goal (see this post), but at least it won't be from lack of trying. I've been able to get out and practice a little, including a couple practice rounds out on the course where I've actually been able to refine a piece of my initial goal statement: keeping a mental game scorecard.

I started out with the idea of scoring each shot that I took and recording it on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 was a terrible shot where I lacked all focus and composure and 5 was a shot where I was completely committed and the shot turned out just the way I wanted it to. The few pieces I've read about keeping a score like this would say things like "As your mental scores go up, you golf scores will go down." I tried that for a few practice rounds, but I found there was a sort of dissonance: I'm used to "good" scores being lower when I'm playing golf. So I tried reversing the scoring range, where 1 is the best mental state and outcome and 5 the worst. After a few rounds, I found that really worked for me. The way I see it, as my mental scores start to approach my "stroke" scores, the better those "stroke" scores will likely end up.

Ultimately, this is the scale I've come up with:

  1. I committed to the shot, picturing the shape of the ball's flight through my practice swings and setup, and I maintained that picture through impact in the swing. The picture I had matched what happened. I had good tempo. For putts, I saw the line, went through my routine, picked a "focus spot"* and held on to it through the putt. The putt did everything I wanted it to.

  2. I committed to the shot, picturing the shape of the ball's flight through my practice swings and setup, and I maintained that picture through impact in the swing; however, the picture I had didn't match what occurred due to something having to do with me (i.e. it wasn't just "luck" or course conditions or something like that). I had good tempo, and I maintained my composure and good attitude in spite of the result not being exactly what I wanted. For putts, I saw the line and went through my routine, but had a vague "focus spot" resulting in a putt that ended up doing something I didn't want.

  3. I committed to the shot, picturing the shot through my practice swings and setup, but something distracted me during my swing and I lost focus, resulting in a shot that didn't turn out the way I wanted. My tempo was probably off somehow (fast or slow . . . probably thinking about swing mechanics instead of the shot at hand). For putts, I tried to read the line, but I wasn't confident over my putt and likely rushed the routine, resulting in a poor putt.

  4. I initially pictured the shot, but rushed my routine or just "went through the motions" with my routine. I lacked focus, and ended up with a poor result. For putts, only vaguely read the line, skipped or rushed my routine. The likely result was poor.

  5. I wasn't thinking about the shot at all. I rushed through my routine (if I did it at all), took a half-hearted or nervous swing at the ball, and ended up with a terrible result. For putts, I just walked up to the ball and hit it with no preparation, likely exasperated or frustrated.

* Note about the term "focus spot": lately I've found that if I can find some unique feature of the cup when I'm putting (a unique cluster of grass blades around the edge, a discoloration on the inside of the cup, or something else like that), and if I can maintain the picture of that spot through my putting stroke, the results of my putt tend to be very good.

So with the above scale, after each shot, I honestly evaluate my mental state during the shot. It's interesting to see the results: usually, through the first few holes while I'm settling into the round, my scores tend to be threes or fours with a smattering of twos. As I settle in, I start having consistent ones and twos. What's interesting is that getting this feedback during the round helps me to recover when I notice that I'm starting to drift. During a recent round, I noticed that around the 14th hole I was going astray. I hit a tee shot that I would have rated a four (I was thinking "I'm really going to kill this ball" and started thinking mechanics rather than maintaining a good tempo and focusing on the shot), followed by a couple poor recovery shots I'd have given threes. When I got to the green, I was frustrated, and whacked a couple putts mindlessly. Through that hole, I neglected to write down my mental scores, but as I got to the next tee and was recording my strokes, I realized what had happened. I replayed the hole in my mind, evaluated my shots, and regained my focus. The next hold I had a series of "ones", and if the green had been in better shape, I likely would have birdied the hole. I was able to take that focus and finish the round successfully.

It's also interesting to see how in a couple recent practice rounds and a nine-hole round I was able to squeeze in where I didn't keep this kind of mental score, my game really suffered. I've found that I start thinking mechanics rather than shot, and not only do my scores deteriorate, so does my enjoyment of the round. I start getting frustrated with myself and with the game, but without that reminder, I tend to end up in a negative spiral.

So this is something I think I'll stick with: not only does it help me maintain a good mental state through my rounds, it seems that mental state is directly translating into some better scores . . . and probably more importantly, a more enjoyable time out on the course.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

How Great Golfers Think, Ch.5 - Segmenting (during practice)

Where my last post discussed the ideas of segmenting a round into "mini-games" to make it easier to reach a goal and focus on the task at hand, chapter five doesn't leave it there. The chapter also discusses using segmenting in practice to hone our skills. In discussing segmenting a round, a round is divided into "fractions". In segmenting for honing a skill, we divide the skill into "parts".

As an example, the chapter discusses how skill in chipping might be broken down. I'll pull from the chapter here . . . the first skill you work on "might be the line the ball starts out on. The next could be the height of the chip, then how close it came to the landing spot you intended it to." Then, ". . . whether the ball rolls out or checks up. Then you could look at whether it comes up short or if you hit it hard enough to roll a few inches past the hole, meaning that the shot had a chance to go in." Finally ". . . would be your emotional state. Are you hesitant, anxious, confident?"

The workbook section for this chapter suggests looking at the weakest part of your game then breaking it into components that are small enough to work on and make improvements. At this point, I'd say my weakest part is approach shots. When I can hit greens, I'm generally not going to make worse than par. But there are days I just have a hard time hitting greens, even when I'm keeping the ball in play off the tee.

So how would I break down improving at my approach shots? Perhaps it would be something like this:

  • Making clean contact, ball first, divot after the ball.

  • Hitting the ball the right distance, not too far, not too short . . . misses pin high. This is distance control with the swing, but also proper club selection.

  • Hitting the ball on line.

  • Shaping the shot (draw, fade, high, low) for the situation at hand.

  • Emotional state: am I committed to the shot and confident in my decision?

I'm at the point where I'm not too bad with the first two, so perhaps I need to start with the third one. My misses do tend to be pin high, but I'll often pull my shot to the left. Only slightly less often when I miss, I line up too far right and either end up hitting a straight shot or "compensating" and hitting an extreme pull-hook.

The next time I'm out practicing, I'll keep this breakout in mind and report back here.

How Great Golfers Think, Ch.5 - Segmenting (on the course)

Chapter five introduces the concept of "segmenting"; basically, "segmenting" is breaking up your task into smaller pieces to make it easier to accomplish. The concept of a "mini-game" or segmenting a round of golf into groups of holes (usually three-hole stretches) is something that's fairly common . . . common enough that a single I was paired up with randomly on the course a few days ago started talking to me about it.

The interesting thing about this chapter is that it doesn't necessarily recommend the three-hole grouping. Instead, it could be six holes, or nine holes, or one hole. The workbook, in fact, mentions that Jack Nicklaus instead of breaking a round up in to evenly sized pieces thinks of a round in terms of "opening holes, difficult stretches, easy stretches, and closing holes". That's a great way to think about it. That's almost the way I'd break up the course where I usually play: Par-line Golf Course in Elizabethtown, PA.

It's not the greatest course in the world; in fact, this season it's been in particularly bad shape between heavy rains, followed by extreme dry spells, followed by heavy rains. But it's 10 minutes from my house, and I can generally go out as a single any time my crazy schedule permits. The people there treat me well, and even though it's not the greatest golf course ever, I can generally find something interesting every time I play there.

In any case, this is how I might break up my round into mini-games on the Nicklaus model for Par-line:

  • #1 & #2 - Opening holes

  • #3 & #4 - Fairly easy stretch

  • #5 - A hole that stands on its own . . . it seems like it should be an easy hole, but it often isn't

  • #6, #7, #8 - Fairly easy stretch

  • #9 - Probably the most difficult hole on the course, but if you hit the fairway, it's not bad

  • #10 & #11 - Fairly easy stretch

  • #12 - An odd par three

  • #13, #14, #15, & #16 - These aren't that hard, but require some well-placed tee shots

  • #17 & #18 - Closing holes

So looking at that breakdown, there aren't really that many "hard" stretches. Really, if you can get your tee shots in play it doesn't seem like it is that hard of a course. And actually, now that I'm playing a driver that I've been fitted for and I'm hitting more fairways with more distance, my scores have actually been dropping. Lately, if I'm not shooting relatively low, it's because of my putting.

Again, looking at the above breakdown, I feel like it would be reasonable to shoot at least one-under for each of the "easy" stretches above. I also think it's reasonable to think no worse than one-over for the other groups, which means that I could feel like anywhere from 68 to 73 would be a reasonable score for me on any given day. In fact, my last real round I played there was a 73, where I took a double-bogey on #1 with a penalty, a bogey on #18, and had a weird hole in one of the easy stretches where I topped the tee shot but stayed in the hole for a chance at par but lipped out the par putt for bogey.

Next time I get out to that course, I'll try to keep this segmenting plan in mind and report back how it works.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

How Great Golfers Think, Ch. 4 - Goals

Chapter four in How Great Golfers Think is a very good overview of good goal-setting techniques couched in a nice discussion that makes it easy to follow and easy to implement. And here the workbook provides great support to the book, walking you through all the steps outlined in the chapter and providing some good techniques to make sure you're setting good goals.

I won't walk through my entire process; really, it's pretty in-depth. Instead, I'll pick up part way through my process, at the point where I've brainstormed some ideas and am playing with a long-term goal of reaching a +3 handicap. To get there from my current 8.5 (it's gone up slightly since the beginning of the season) isn't realistic to do in the current season given the current level of my game. It's a good goal to have, but I need to set myself something more intermediate, something achievable by the end of this season (which I'm setting at October 31st).

So, initially, I was thinking getting from an 8.5 to a 6 might be do-able. So I wrote my goal like this: by October 31st (setting the timeframe), I will have reduced my handicap from 8.5 to 6 (specific and measurable). As I started researching what I'd really need to do to accomplish that, I started having second thoughts. Realistically, I have probably ten more rounds I can play before my target date (possibly more, but I'll be conservative). The differentials that currently count towards my handicap are (oldest to most recent): 6.2, 10.7, 9.8, 7.9, 10.7, 6.9, 11.7, 11.7, 9.7, 4.1. The first four of those will roll off if I play ten rounds. With the rest of the scores, if I were to shoot a 6 differential half of the time I went out (five times), I'd get my handicap down to a 6.9. If I could shoot a 6 differential six times, I'd get it down below a 6.5. At the course where I play most often, that means I'd have to shoot a 75 or better from the whites or a 77 or better from the blues. I've only done that three times in the last year.

Three times means I know I can do it. It also means that I haven't done it regularly, and it makes me a bit nervous thinking about it. So I'll try the "ladder game" from the chapter . . . basically, picking a target number then going one lower and seeing how you feel, then one lower and see how you feel, then back up, until you find one that feels "right". I'm currently an 8.5; getting to a 7 feels like an extremely difficult challenge given my target date; getting to a 6 makes me feel like I just couldn't do it in this short time, especially in light of the above math. So I go back up . . . 7 still seems a little too hard (again for the timeframe). What about 8 even? An 8 handicap doesn't seem like I'd have accomplished much. So back down a bit . . . what about "into the 7's"?

To get to a 7.8 handicap, I'd have to shoot at least a 7 differential four of my next ten times out. That means shooting at least a 76 from the whites (6.9, technically) where I normally play. Somehow, that feels do-able. It gives me a reasonably difficult score to shoot for (considering I've only done it a couple times recently), but it gives me enough leeway to have some bad days. And if I find that I'm shooting better and better, then I can always revise it. But it gives me a start.

So my goal is this: By October 31st, 2011, I'm going to lower my handicap from an 8.5 to at least a 7.9.

The next step is to think about some positive steps I can take in the short-term to achieve that goal. So what tends to blow up my scores? Generally, it's one of two things: hitting a bad shot, then tensing up and worrying about it the next shot and the next and the next. Or it's not keeping my mind in the game, not focusing, or focusing on the wrong things or at the wrong times (e.g too much thinking in between shots). In both of these cases, I'll end up doing something stupid like duffing a tee shot, rushing from embarrassment, and hitting a number of bad shots to end up with that "blow up" hole. Or a number of them in a row. Or I'll end up getting nonchalant about my putts, not line up an "easy" three-footer and miss it for a bogey. Then I'm frustrated on the next tee, leading me to hit a poor tee shot . . . which leads to another blow up hole. That sort of thing. Most of the time I just need to relax my body and focus over the shot, then let it go, relaxing my brain in between shots.

So for my short-term actions to accomplish my goal, I'm going to research relaxation techniques I can use on the course to maintain or regain my focus. And I'm going to keep a "mental" scorecard to rate myself on how "in the game" my mind is on each shot.

So finally, my goal statement ends up looking like this:

I'm going to lower my handicap from 8.5 to 7.9 or lower by October 31st, 2011. Since what often increases my scores is lack of focus over a shot due to tension or embarrassment, I'm going to research relaxation techniques I can use on the course to maintain or regain my focus. To measure my focus, I'm going to keep a "mental game" scorecard to rate myself on how "in the game" my mind is on each shot.

Now that gives me something to shoot for and some steps I can take to get there! I'm already feeling better about the rest of the season :).

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Why do I play golf?

It's been a while since I've written here, so I thought I'd start up again by answering the "advanced preparation" question from between chapter three and chapter four: why do I play golf?

Here are my top 10 reasons, in no particular order:

  • Golf challenges me. There's always some aspect of my game to improve, always some part that I need to work on.

  • It's an activity that combines the mental and physical. Both are necessary to play well, and I love to do just about anything that combines both.

  • It's a physical activity that I don't have to be a super athlete to do well. While being fit helps, I don't need to be the fastest, strongest, or most aggressive to do well.

  • I like to walk. It's good exercise, but I don't feel like I'm killing myself.

  • Playing by myself in the late evening is one of the most peaceful things I can think of. I love that.

  • Golf is a nice blend of skill, equipment/technology, and luck. I like to do just about anything that involves all three.

  • I've met some interesting people, and some people I'd now consider friends through golf. I'm sure I'll meet more. It also gives me a good way to relate to others (extended family, neighbors, etc) that I had a hard time relating to before.

  • It gets me out of the house for a few hours at a time. I work from home, so if I don't make time to play golf (or do other things, I suppose), then I sometimes go for a few days without getting out.

  • I like activities that are a nice balance of open-endedness and precision. Golf is both . . . there are many ways to the same score, but ultimately, you have to get the ball in that tiny little hole in as few strokes as possible.

  • This may too negative, but I've invested enough time and resources into getting better at golf, and I've improved enough, that it'd be a shame NOT to play at this point :). Not that I'd keep going if I really didn't enjoy it, but there's enough investment that when I'm feeling down or frustrated about my game, a reason like this is enough to pull me through the chaos and into a new place in my golf experience.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

How Great Golfers Think, Ch.3 - Meeting Doc

As the chapter title indicates, this chapter tells about how the four golfers meet Doc for the first time. It's a short chapter, but there are a few good nuggets in here: "You can climb any mountain if you take one step at a time" and "a steady application of sound fundamentals will get you anywhere you want to go" are two good ones.

The real meat is in the workbook section, though. The workbook discussion starts out talking about "starting points." From the stories in the workbook about Kenny Perry (Kenny wanting to make the Ryder Cup team in 2008) and Ben Curtis (Ben just wanting to make cuts in 2008), it seems we need to take an honest look at where we are before we figure out where we want to go. And this honest look is both near-term and long-term; in other words, I need to look at, say, where I am here on June 1st and where I want to be on October 1st, but I also need to honestly look at what attitude I bring to the first tee when I start a round of golf. I suppose I could narrow it down even further by being honestly looking at what attitude I bring when I start each individual hole in a round . . . and down to the individual shot . . . wow!

So where am I at this point? I'm an 8.5 handicap who has trouble getting rounds started. For example, I went eight over through seven holes today . . . then I went even par for the next 10 holes. Bogeyed the last for an 81. That's typical for me, too: I'll often find myself going five or six over on the front nine, then one or two on the back, with long stretches of par or better. If I could start out a round the way I play in the middle, I'd probably be much closer to scratch than I am. That's frustrating to me, especially because my goal is to be better than scratch.

It's also important to realize, though, that in achieving the goals we set for ourselves, we really accomplish those goals by taking one step at a time . . . lots of smaller steps, not one big one. In other words, we're not going to accomplish what we want to do instantly. It tend to be impatient with myself; combine that with setting goals that are probably too high for me to reach (at least short-term), and I generally end up frustrated. If I focus on the small steps, realizing that everything's not going to magically work overnight, perhaps I can relax a bit when I start my rounds . . . which will probably allow me to get into the "zone," which is the subject of the next section in the workbook.

Here, the workbooks asks us what it was like when we experienced being in the "zone". For me, I felt calm. My swing had a great tempo. When I missed an approach shot, I felt like my short game could easily save me. I felt like I could see the line of my putts clearly, and I could easily get my putts to follow that line. And I was focused, not internally or externally, just focused . . . focused on what I wanted the ball to do, where I wanted it to go . . . and I knew I could get it to do that. And it almost felt like a jolt when I came out of the zone . . . usually because I start thinking things like "wow, I just went 10 holes at even par."

One of the things that Doc says in this chapter is "While there's never a guarantee you can get into it on any given day, if you develop certain fundamental skills, you will be likely to have those peak experiences more often and for longer periods of time." It's a matter of developing those skills, and the last part of the discussion section asks us what mental skills we'd like to work on and to come up with a goal for that skill. I guess I'd like to have the skill of being patient with myself during a round and being able to focus on the shot at hand at least through impact. Patience I touched on above, but here's what I mean when I talk about that focus: I often find that my attention wanders somewhere in the transition between the backswing and the downswing. If I'm putting, somehow I'll end up looking about two inches in front of and to the right of the ball. If I'm swinging, I'll find myself looking somewhere else. And generally when those things happen, it's because I'm thinking about technique--about how I should be swinging--rather than what I want to ball to do. And when I lose that focus, things generally don't turn out the way I want them to.

Now, how to translate those into goals . . . I'm not sure. Patience: I could set myself target scores more appropriate to my handicap. I'm not going to go out and suddenly break par by four strokes. My lowest score is a 75, and I generally expect to break 80 when I'm out there. Perhaps similar to Ben Curtis in 2008 setting a goal of just trying to make cuts and ending up with $2.5 million in earnings, maybe my goal shouldn't be to break par every time I go out but instead, for now, to break 80 and see what happens. And for focus: perhaps I could rate my focus on each shot and try to improve that score by five each round.

I'll make myself a note of those two things stick it on my golf bag and see what happens the next time I go out.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

How Great Golfers Think, Ch.2 - An Unexpected Referral

Chapter two in How Great Golfers Think basically gives a bit of background on the "Doc" character, setting up his qualifications and telling us that the techniques in the book are backed by research in various fields (documented as endnotes to the book). It's all presented as part of the story, and it's interesting, but there's not much applicable to my game here . . . that's where the workbook comes in.

The workbook section for chapter two is short; in fact, there are only two questions to answer, but they are important:

1) Can you think of anyone from another discipline who could teach you something about mental skills that you could apply to golf?

2) Can you think of any non-human resources that could teach you something about mental skills?

My first thought to answer #1 is my wife: I tend to be driven to master the things I try to do. I don't necessarily need to be "the best" at something, but if I'm going to do something, I'm going to try to do it really, really well. My wife makes a point to tell me (and she follows her own advice, too) that sometimes it's OK just to enjoy doing something without having to be excellent at it. In other words, let go and enjoy the journey that is golf. But that's not really using the skills from her "discipline" . . . she's a nurse, and if she were to just "let go and enjoy it" there, I'm pretty sure the patients would have issues with that.

So actually thinking about the skills from another discipline, I think about work. I'm a software engineer, and I'm surrounded by software engineers, some of whom have amazing focus and attention to detail. I, too, tend to be able to focus on the task at hand pretty well, but sometimes on the golf course, I "waste" my focus thinking intensely about the previous or next shot while I'm in between shots, and then, when I'm at the ball ready to swing, I lose the focus because my mind is tired. One of my mentors early in my programming career told me that sometimes it's necessary to get up from your work and take a walk around the block, stretch, or just take some deep breaths, and then come back to the task at hand, refreshed and able to focus again. In other words, he was saying to take a break from the focus when necessary in order to be able to focus when it was time. That's definitely something I can work on, and it's pretty closely related to what my wife keeps telling me, too :).

I mentioned, too, attention to detail. For some reason, when I'm on the golf course, I tend to rush into a shot. I line up my target, maybe take some practice swings, address the ball and swing. Then I'll wonder why I pushed the ball 40 yards right of my target or hit a nasty hook, only to see that's exactly how I was set up. While I don't want to be one of those players that agonizes for 10 minutes over a shot, there are definitely some easy things I could add to my routine: checking how the ball is sitting in the grass (especially now that flyers are more common with the 2010 groove rule); making sure I've taken into account whether the ball is above or below my feet; whether or not I truly feel comfortable with the practice swings I'm making and not actually addressing the ball until I do feel "graceful". These are all details I need to be aware of, so applying the attention to detail necessary for the work my colleagues and I do would probably help my game.

Finally, answering question number two: non-human resources to teach mental skills. Thinking about work again, I wonder if thinking of my swing as a "computer" is apropos. In my "Be Graceful" post, I mentioned something about keeping an image of the shot shape/ball flight I wanted in my mind through impact. I wonder if that's a way of "programming" my swing to get me the outcome I want . . . it seems to have worked the last time I was out.

As well, in a computer, the hardware matters, but to be really useful you need a program to run on the hardware. You don't really think about the hardware (the mechanics) while the program is running. So perhaps the idea here is to keep that image "program" running through the swing and not get distracted by the mechanics of the swing itself. When I focus on the mechanics of the swing during a round, I tend not to be happy with the outcome of my shots. Conversely, my best scores (and my most enjoyable rounds) have come when I can forget about mechanics and can clearly see in my imagination what I want the ball to do. I let the program run, making use of the hardware it needs to work the way I want it to.

So, three things to keep in mind when I'm out playing golf next time:
1) Have fun and be able to give up focus in between shots to keep your focus when you need it over the ball
2) Pay attention to the details surrounding the shot, noting the kinds of things that will affect the outcome
3) Once I've decided on a shot, keep the "program" (the image of the flight and the outcome I want) in mind while I swing through impact.

So, I guess having answered those questions, it looks like I'm ready to move on to chapter three.