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Mental Toughness Training for GolfStart Strong Finish Strong
By Rob Bell
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2010 Dr. Rob Bell
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Bail Out Shot
"More careers have been ruined by searching rather than practicing." -Colby Huffman
Not long ago, golfers tried to perfect playing the game of golf. Nowadays, golfers try to perfect the golf swing. This shift has resulted in a lack of mental toughness. The content within these pages is designed to introduce mental toughness training concepts and provide specific practices throughout. This book can be summarized in one sentence: Make practice and play more difficult than actual competition. When our practice is difficult, we can then learn our tendencies, our thoughts, our weaknesses, and our strengths. Each section is also littered with specific practices to reinforce mental toughness concepts. Only by preparing properly can we become mentally tough and maximize our potential.
Golf Is Difficult
-Golfers are like tea bags, we don't know how strong they are until in hot water.-
Playing the illustrious Oakmont Country Club was definitely one of the joys of this young golfer's short playing career. Competing at Oakmont at age nineteen, with only six years of actual golf experience, was an incredible experience in itself. Oakmont is by far one of the toughest golf courses in the United States, annually ranked fifth in America's top courses, home to over eight U.S. Open championships. Even the "king," Arnold Palmer, failed to win a major tournament here on his home course. Few can walk on to this historic landmark outside of Pittsburgh and just play. You either have to be a guest of a member or play in an illustrious event like the U.S. Amateur. But when young Nick Flanagan walked onto Oakmont Country Club, he ended up becoming the first Australian in over a hundred years and the first foreign-born player in thirty-two years to win the U.S. Amateur. "I never played in any kind of atmosphere like that before," Flanagan said. "There were thousands of people out there. You're in a playoff for the most prestigious amateur tournament in the world. If I ever feel that much pressure again, I'll be very surprised" (U.S. Amateur). His U.S. Amateur win was even more remarkable, because he had only been playing for a short amount of time and because he had beaten an overwhelming favorite and "purebred golfer," Casey Wittenberg. As Cinderella stories are concerned, this definitely would have qualified, yet Nick Flanagan did not fade off into obscurity. Instead, he ascended to greatness. He proceeded to win three times during the 2006 season on the Nationwide Tour and was awarded a "battlefield" promotion onto the PGA tour.
The most interesting notion of this story is Nick Flanagan's rise to greatness in a relatively short amount of time. To date, there is only one other notable player to reach greatness in such a short amount of time, hall of famer Gary Player, who started playing at age fifteen. To illustrate this idea about the time it takes to reach heights of greatness, Krampe & Ericsson (1996) conducted research with expert musicians. They discovered that professional pianists all shared a similar characteristic. They all spent a certain amount of time within their passion. The authors found that the "best" performers spent approximately 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, the "good" players spent approximately 8,000 hours, and the amateurs practiced approximately 2,000 hours. The sport of golf is no exception to this rule, because the time required for golfers to achieve "elite" or near elite status is ten years or 10,000 hours of intense involvement.
In the movie Karate Kid, Daniel Laruso (Ralph Machio) begins his training with Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) by finishing his seemingly endless yard work: "wax on, wax off," "sand the floor," "paint the fence," and "paint the house." It's only after Daniel revolts from all of the hard work that Mr. Miyagi finally reveals the method behind his training and Daniel puts together his arsenal of defense. Mr. Miyagi knew there was no shortcut other than the hours of repetition necessary to mimic and essentially overlearn the movements. Malcom Gladwell's best-seller Outliers translates the 10,000 hour rule into everyday examples by citing Bill Gates's never-ending hours of computer programming to the Beatles' constant nightly playing in clubs in England before they appeared on the Ed Sullivan show. Likewise, musicians such as Taylor Swift, John Mayer, and The Jackson Five became so successful because they practiced every day after school while their friends were playing.
UCLA head golf coach Derek Freeman often discussed the notion of 10,000 hours with his players. He won the NCAA championship in 2008 and orchestrated an undefeated 2008 fall campaign. He commented that the 10,000-hour conversation opened his players' eyes. In order to reach 10,000 hours, he juxtaposed what they currently did and what they had to do. He provided them the benefit of the doubt, assuming each of them effectively practiced two hours a day for five days a week, factoring in a combined two weeks off per year, equated to five hundred hours per year. Because these players are intelligent undergrads at a prestigious university, they ascertained quickly that they would have to work twice as hard as they currently did if they wanted to eventually turn professional.
Obviously, 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is a lot of time, but it is only required for the most elite. While most (of us) will not approach the elite level of play, we may have other goals of winning a collegiate tournament, club championship, amateur tournament, sectional tournament, or Friday afternoon money game. Because numerous hours of practice and play are required, there does not appear to be any shortcut to this process; however, one notion that is not addressed in the literature is why some players get more out of their practice than others.
The sport of golf is difficult. It involves many inherent aspects that are out of the golfer's control. For instance, control of the golf ball in flight is nearly impossible. Even the best mechanical devices designed for the sole purpose of driving or putting the golf ball cannot produce completely consistent golf shots. Thus, it is practically impossible to land a shot in an exact location. Even professionals are faced with a high degree of failure and inconsistency.
No other sport has a target so disproportional to the field of play. Compared to the game of pool (small target/small playing field) or soccer (large target/large playing field); Golf requires the performer to "score" a very small target within an enormous playing field. For example, the field of play in golf can range from 6,600 to 7,400 yards, with each hole only four inches across.
Golf is also the only sport in which one cannot practice on the actual field before play begins. All other sports (e.g., basketball, soccer, football, baseball, and hockey) allow an orientation time to test the field of play. However, in golf, greens and fairways can firm up quickly, and wind directions can often change one's game plan or increase one's level of doubt. Uneven lies, divots, different cuts of rough, wind, direction, and in-between distances are all examples of variable factors within the actual course of play, but there are rarely-if ever-opportunities to practice with them.
Golf takes time. It has more "downtime" than any other sport. In the course of making seventy-two "shots," the average time per round of actual performance is approximately twelve minutes. As a result, there is an inordinate amount of time to think between shots, which unfortunately can be counterproductive to performance. If one adds the variable of slow play, it can affect the entire day on the course.
Perfection often occurs during practice. This paradox manifests itself on the range but is almost impossible to achieve during play. Again, think about the impossibility of hitting a shot to the exact location on the green. On the practice range, perfection or near perfection occurs often, because the range is a secure place devoid of pressure; however, expectations increase on the course because of that perfection achieved on the range. Golfers can groove the swing and execute perfect draws, fades, and more. If a shot is not executed properly, then another ball is quickly put into play until the desired outcome is achieved. These ephemeral episodes of perfection only add to the difficulty and frustration of actual play, because perfection on the course still remains impossible. What about the absurdity of an ace? A hole-in-one, one of the best shots that can occur, still counts one stroke against your score.
The harder one tries in golf, the worse one will usually do. This notion is repeated often throughout the game. When one tries to "muscle" a drive, it usually changes the technical soundness of the swing, resulting in a miss-hit. Pressure moments usually cause us to "try harder" which results in playing too tightly and "holding" onto the shot. Also, whenever we try to post a certain score and to "prove" ourselves, we usually play worse. Likewise, an accomplished player who is struggling with putting is usually just trying too hard to make it. The harder we try, the worse we usually do.
The numbers don't lie. One of the mental difficulties within the game is posting a bad score. Similar to standing atop a difficult ski slope, there is "no place to hide," and while the score does not lie, it does not tell the whole story. The posted score does not state that we played great except for one poor hole or that we really battled or that we were just in bad spots for most of the course. The increasing difficulty when we continually post poor scores is that we inherently know it does not reflect our true performance. As a result of spending a great deal of time within golf, part of our identity becomes a "golfer." When we play poorly or post a bad score, it is logical that our "self" takes a hit, too.
Why Mental Toughness Training?
"The will to prepare is greater than the will to win."-Bobby Knight
Coach Vincent, NCAA coach of the year in 1999, has won forty-three tournaments as head coach at Washington University, UCLA, and Duke University combined. At the beginning of each season, he discussed with his collegiate golfers how every player who has reached the Division I level believed that his way of playing and preparing was the only way that worked. Because Coach Vincent encountered this attitude often, he reiterated the importance of building mental toughness.
Mental toughness has a variety of definitions and personal meanings, such as bouncing back, being resilient, persevering, etc., but this book encompasses mental toughness into two distinct components:
Coping with struggle Performing well under pressure
This book is intended to build mental toughness through how we prepare. In order for us to become mentally tough, we should establish practices and competitions that allow us to cope with struggle and perform well under pressure.
There is a vast difference between golf and most other sports in terms of the challenges faced. Athletes in physically painful sports know that they will hurt at some point during the competition. Swimmers know that their body will be burning during the last twenty-five meters. Runners know their legs will feel like "Jell-o" during the last kick, and cyclists know that their lungs will soon enough be on "fire." Consequently, these types of coaches and athletes train the body to push past their current physical thresholds in order to handle and overcome the pain in competition.
Whereas golfers may face some physical challenges, their main obstacles are most often mental challenges, for the sport is so technically driven. In golf, the major mental challenges are playing golf swing not golf, losses of proper focus, and result-oriented thinking. However, most golfers rarely address training for these mental challenges. Their practice regimen consists of grooving swings and putting strokes with little or no devotion to developing mental toughness.
While athletes in physically painful sports know that they will encounter pain, golfers may actually believe that they will not face mental challenges during competitions. They often think that if their golf swing is developed properly, then they won't need mental training. However, all golfers can benefit from building mental toughness.
Few great golfers will earn their living playing professional golf. The route of "making a living" playing professional golf is honestly a sadistic journey. Playing well in the final stage of qualifying school (Q-school) is one of the only routes to the PGA Tour. The sport offers no guarantees and only limited reimbursement contracts. Golf makes no distinctions based on swing, equipment, type of school, and everyone has to pay to play. In professional golf specifically, one's amateur career is unimportant, and it makes no difference if someone previously won the United States Amateur or U.S. Amateur Public Links championship. Players can be extremely out of shape, have a horrible diet, smoke, and even drink excessive amounts of alcohol. The sport of golf holds no bias toward what anyone wears, how they act, or how they speak. Unfortunately, you can also have the dullest personality or just be a plain jerk. Of course, desirable and virtuous qualities are important to being a good person, but they are not required for success.
There are only two requirements for success in golf at any level: (1) executing golf shots and (2) making putts. While these are the only skills needed, the issue is timing, and these skills must be executed when it matters most. Birdie putts can't only be dropped on the front-nine, and low rounds mustn't be limited to casual rounds. The execution of golf shots and putts must be achieved during pressure moments. Similar to regular home golf matches, the bet really only matters when we press or the bet is pressed against us. Herein lays the paradox, because most practice is set up to pursue greatness through perfecting the golf swing. A lack of mental toughness (no matter how pretty the swing) won't allow the golfer to execute when needed most.
Searching or Practicing?
"The goal is to be physically loose and mentally tight." -Arthur Ashe
Randy Wylie, PGA professional and volunteer coach at the University of Tennessee, was a consummate journeyman professional. After he played at Texas A&M, he played on various tours for nine years and even made the cut at two U.S. Opens. At dinner one evening, he spoke at length with Camilo Villegas during the beginning of Camilo's career on the PGA tour. While at Florida, Camilo's team won the NCAA championship, so Randy Wylie asked Camilo how he made it to the PGA tour while his teammates were playing on the Nationwide and mini-tours.
Camilo Villegas understood the parts of his game that he needed to execute properly to play well. He explained that when he played poorly, he examined what he did incorrectly and returned to practice, but he also commented that he avoided changing swing mechanics or "searching" for a key. On the other hand, after his former teammates played poorly, they would "search" for and experiment with different swing cues or swings instead of practicing.
How many of us are searching for a perfect swing or cue more often than we are actually practicing? In golf, defeat will occur often, so we should examine our outlook on setbacks and recommit ourselves to practicing rather than searching.
The Human Taproot
"[Golf] is not about shooting a record-low score or playing your best every day. It's about getting it in the clubhouse if you don't have it." -Sean O'Hair
The dandelion is an interesting plant. It is generally revered by young children, because it is plentiful and because it is one flower that they can play with instead of just admiring like most others. At the same time, it is hated by most homeowners, because they believe it is just an annoying weed. Regardless of one's attitude toward the dandelion, it is a very hardy plant. It sprouts very quickly in most types of soil, growing in many climates, with little or lots of rainfall. It also does not seem to need the approval of its owner to grow successfully.
Mental toughness is akin to the hardiness factor in plants, which is a plant's ability to survive in adverse growing conditions. The measurement of a plant's hardiness includes its ability to withstand drought, wind, cold, and heat. The process of gardeners developing strains of hardy plants and shrubs involves the process of "hardening" them to the elements. Ironically, the hardiest types of plants (i.e., weeds and dandelions) are usually the most undesirable to the typical homeowners.
The common trait among all hardy plants, however, is the taproot. The taproot looks similar to a carrot or turnip and grows vertically down as opposed to branching off horizontally. It distributes water where needed, and it makes the plant very difficult to displace, because it will continue to resprout. Thus, developing mental toughness begins with developing a human taproot.
Excerpted from Mental Toughness Training for Golf by Rob Bell Copyright © 2010 by Dr. Rob Bell. Excerpted by permission.
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