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.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Update on the "Be Graceful" Swing Thought

In a previous post, I described a swing thought of "Be Graceful" that seemed to help out while I was practicing . . . yesterday, I took that thought out for a non-practice round for the first time. Last season, I broke 80 about half the time I'd go out; I got to the point where if I didn't break 80, I felt a little disappointed. This season, my lowest score had been an 83 on a par-71 course, and my scores were actually trending upwards. Granted, conditions haven't been great here (so much rain!), but still, there were a few rounds where I felt like I was fighting to break 90.

Well, I stepped up to the first tee yesterday, took some practice swings while telling myself "Be graceful", addressed the ball and kept an image of the flight I wanted in my head, and proceded to stripe the ball down the middle of the fairway! Second shot, same routine: ball pin high on the green 15 feet to the right. Hit the putt pretty well but miss an inch high, for a tap-in par. The rest of the day went pretty much like that.

Of course, I hit a couple bad shots, but I found that, by focusing on "being graceful" in my routine, I was able to recover pretty easily. Normally, I'd have gotten frustrated and nervous, but it's hard to be frustrated when you're busy being graceful :).

There was a big let-down at the end, though: on the final hole, a 190 yard par-3, I pull my tee shot into the greenside bunker. I get out easily, but leave myself about eight feet from the hole. I had made a few putts longer than that during the round, so I got lazy, didn't focus, didn't follow my routine, and pulled my putt with enough energy to put it three feet past the hole. But it gets worse: I was so disappointed (not by missing, but because I missed on a bad "non-focused" putt) that I lost my focus on the come-backer and missed again . . . my worst hole of the day, a three-putt double bogey :(.

All in all, though, the round was a confidence-booster: I know I can maintain this through a round now. I ended up shooting a 77, my best score since last September, and I came into the final hole in position to beat or tie my best score ever. I just need to find a way to maintain it.

Oh yeah, and by focusing on "being graceful" I found that my back didn't hurt during and after the round the way it has the past couple months, even though I was actually taking more practice swings. I guess simpler and smoother really helps!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

How Great Golfers Think, Ch.1 - Golf's Mentally Illiterate

First, a little bit about the format of the book for those who may not be familiar with it: How Great Golfers Think takes the form of a story with a series of conversations between a number of characters. Bob Skura writes in the introduction: "I chose to use conversations between realistic, though fictional, golfers in an imaginary setting so that the book's lessons come across as a story line rather than a lecture." Seems like this would be effective, at least for me. It also makes it easier to read and, I think, more interesting.

Chapter one is mostly an introduction to the characters we'll be following through the book, but it raises two important points, I think: 1) the mental side of golf is as important as the physical side of the game, and 2) having goals helps us improve. One of my favorite lines is this: "Who knows what the key is for each individual, but there's probably a personal goal that can give each of us the fresh approach to the game we had when we were just starting to play. We just have to find it." (p. 11)

I'm a goal-setter; it's what I do. And sometimes I feel like my own goals are "too ambitious." I'd like to be a +3 handicap . . . for some reason, I feel like if I can get to a +3, I'll be "satisfied" (I know I won't be ;)). And I'd like to have a real shot at a top-ten in a USGA-sanctioned amateur event. What's different about these "goals" for me is that I haven't really taken them seriously. Normally, I'll sit down and think about what I need to do to accomplish something. I'll figure out the kinds of things I need to do to accomplish a goal, make at least a mental map of steps, then I'll stick to it, revising that map as I go along. Instead, so far these "goals" seem more like "wishes" to me . . . more "wouldn't it be cool if?" than "this is something I'm going to do."

Though I've read the book before, and I know there's more about goals down the line, I can't remember what it says about making goals real. We'll see when we get there. In the meantime, though, the workbook at the end of each chapter has a section that says "you are ready to move on if you. . . ." For this chapter, the assessment criteria are 1) if you "have considered trying to achieve an exciting goal" and 2) if you "have assessed if you are using a balanced approach to your physical and mental improvement." Since I've mentioned my goals above, I guess I meet criteria one.

As for criteria two, up until this point, I've believed that the mental side was important, and my library is full of books on the mental game of golf. But I guess I haven't really structured a mental approach in the same way that I've structured my physical practice. So I'm not at this point using a balance approach, but I guess that's an assessment, so I'm good to move on :). I'm hoping that as I get into the book more, I'll find a way to create a plan for "mental practice."

On a side note: It's amazing how much I don't remember about this book even though I've read it before . . . one more reason for doing this.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Swing Thought - 5/11/2011 - "Be Graceful"

I realized while I was practicing my swing a couple days after a lesson with Ted Sheftic, that I was focusing a lot of my concentration on what specific moves my body should be doing during the swing. While I've definitely become more aware of "feels" during the swing (Ted commented recently that I'm a lot less analytical than I used to be), I still have too many feels going on during the short span of time the swing takes: "shoulder do this", "hands to here", "straighten the leg", "get to impact", and so forth. I felt like I was trying to muscle the ball, doing way too much, exactly the opposite of what Ted and I have been working on. When I hit the ball well, it really feels like I'm not doing much at all. I was hitting the ball badly, getting very frustrated in the process.

Towards the end of that frustrating practice session, I decided to start just hitting balls, keeping a picture of big, smooth circles in my head, rather than thinking about (or "feeling" which had really become "thinking about") positions and what my body should be doing. Lo and behold, I started making great contact, finishing in balance . . . the best word I can come up with is that my swing felt *graceful*.

So I started evaluating my swings based on whether or not they felt graceful, and suddenly my practice session become much more productive. I felt calmer, less frustrated. So last night, I took that thought to the course for a quick nine holes. Wow, what a difference. I decided not to keep score; my goal was just to tell myself "Be graceful" before each full swing. After a few shots, I found I was able to keep that thought echoing while I also mentally held a picture of the shot I wanted to hit. I started hitting fairways and greens until it got to be too dark to play any more.

Where I Am Today

So I should probably record where I am with my golf game at this point, so I have some sort of reference when I look back at the end of the season.

When I had to cut back my game last year, I was an unofficial 8.5 (I calculate my handicap based on the USGA formula, but I don't have an actual handicap). For the past couple years, I've been taking lessons every six weeks or so from Ted Sheftic, an outstanding coach and teacher. When I started with him, I was probably a 20-handicapper. Under his coaching, I've really come a long way . . . probably further than my current handicap would indicate. Most days when I go in for a lesson, he tells me I have the swing of a scratch golfer, so we're in maintenance mode there: this season we're going to do more work out on the course, thinking about strategy, how to handle different situations, etc. He also tells me the thing that's really holding me back is that I don't play competitive golf: I'm not a member of a club, I don't have many people I can play with, and, honestly, I don't feel comfortable enough with my game to think about entering open competitions.

When I find myself losing strokes on the course, I can generally attribute it to lack of focus. Generally, it's making a swing I'm not really committed to or making a swing where I'm thinking more mechanics than outcome (shot shape, where I want it to land, etc). I'll hook a tee shot into the water because I'm exaggerating a move or swing thought. I'll hit a chip shot 15 feet past the hole because I'm not really paying attention to what I want the ball to do (incidentally, lately I've discovered that if I keep a mental picture of the trajectory I want on short shots around the green through impact, I'm generally really pleased with the outcome). All those little things add up, and if I lose focus on one shot per hole, then suddenly, I'm four or five over through four, and panic mode comes on.

So I know that my game right now is held back by the mental side of things. When I last read How Great Golfers Think, I enjoyed the read and I was able to apply some of the lessons to see a short-term improvement. They didn't stick, though, because I didn't put the work into making those lessons permanent. I'm hoping going through the workbook along side the book and keeping this blog while I do will help ingrain those ideas and take my game to the next level.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Starting out

A little more than a year ago, I had the opportunity to review a couple chapters for a workbook Bob Skura was writing to accompany his book How Great Golfers Think. I had read the original book before and found it really interesting. The exercises in the workbook chapters I reviewed, though, really brought home the ideas of their corresponding chapters, so much so, that I wrote to Bob:

Dear Bob:
Since reviewing the exercises in the chapters you sent me (and actually doing them), I've found myself putting them into practice more concretely on the course.

In fact, just yesterday, I shot my best round of the season, and found myself using ideas from both chapters 7 & 8. After a few poor shots in a row, leading to a terrible score on a hole, I realized I was berating myself pretty badly in my self-talk. I was able to shift my thinking and use some of the ideas about positive affirmations, which turned things around.

I also ended up forming some positive questions as I approached the next few holes. Interestingly, after coming back from those terrible shots and making a hard par and then a birdie on the next couple holes, I found myself getting really excited, and I realized that my body was getting really keyed up. I was able to use some of the techniques from the "body talk" chapter to get myself back to a more even level. What a great round it turned out to be . . . and not just because of the score!

If the two workbook chapters I reviewed were enough to help me recall and put into practice the lessons from the original book, I'm excited to see what the entire workbook will be like. Thanks so much for the opportunity to work on this project!

He ended up using that text in advertising the workbook on his site, and in exchange for my work in reviewing the chapters I did, he sent me a complementary copy of the workbook.

I had hoped to be able to dig into the book again, using the workbook to strengthen the lessons, but at the time my wife was pregnant with our third child and severely ill (imagine nine months of all day "morning" sickness and not being able to keep anything in your stomach without the same nausea medication they give people undergoing chemotherapy). Needless to say, the amount of time I had to work on my golf game was a lot less at that point, and didn't get any better after our girl was born.

But here it is now, seven months later, and I finally have a little extra time to start thinking more seriously about the game again. So I've decided to try to work through How Great Golfers Think again, this time using the workbook. And I thought I'd try to record my thoughts as I do. As I go along, I'll probably post some other golf-related ideas, too, that may or may not come from the book, but I'll likely try to tie everything together somehow.