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Why I can’t tell a 15-handicap he’s thinking too much

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You’re thinking too much. Just hit it. Stop thinking about it. Paralysis by analysis. 

Does any of this sound familiar? If you’ve ever been to a driving range or played at your local course, I’ll bet you’ve heard it. The spirit of the message is always the same: that too many golfers are caught up in mechanics and thoughts to be able to swing and play golf freely. And it’s a great idea for the maximum enjoyment of golf, so long as you are not concerned with results.

If your goal in playing golf is to enjoy your time with friends, the fresh air, the bucolic setting and all the rest, I suggest you:

  1. Hit the ball.
  2. Go find it.
  3. Repeat steps one and two.

If your golf goals have to do with improving your shot quality, shooting lower scores or competing against your peers, however, you may not have the liberty of not thinking. That is, you may have to focus on certain motions UNTIL they become ingrained enough to be executed instinctively. 

This can be Pandora’s box of golf if one is not careful. Any experienced teacher would agree that too much thinking is not a good thing, however, to get to the point of non-thinking — the Zen of golf if you will — you will likely have to think. There may very well come a point when the body begins to act intuitively, but it has been my experience that the time and point where this occurs is sometimes later in one’s development.

There are many examples of this. 

Let’s start with the grip. When we hand a golf clubs to people who have never played golf, they rarely hold it “correctly,” by which I mean functionally. So we show them how it should be held, and at first, it appears quite strange. They practice it over and over again until it feels natural, until they do it without thinking. I have been playing golf for some 55 years so I grip the club instinctively, but I you that at one time I had to think about how to do it.

Now ask the same people to make a backswing. Again, they won’t make anything resembling getting to the top of the swing in a favorable position to start down. I teach them the sequence, and then they practice it (and think about it) until it becomes more natural. And on it goes.

I can remember my early days of driving a car. Hands at 10 and 2, clutch in, shift, brake, etc. It was all quite confusing, to the point where I’d have to pull off the road, gather my thoughts and start again. I had to learn to drive the car. I did this by thinking about how to do it, practicing it and then executing it. Now I drive home and have no idea how I even got there, or where my hands or feet were. The point is this: muscles, tendons, joints, etc., do not act on their own. They need to be programmed — told what to do by the brain — at least for a period of time, which brings me to my role as teacher.

I cannot tell someone with a terrible grip to just go play or stop thinking so much. I cannot teach the art of mindless golf to someone standing at the golf ball in such a way as to not allow them to make anything resembling a swing. I MUST correct the grip and the posture if they wish to improve; it’s as simple as that. If you’re a regular reader of my work, you know that everyone is quite different in their method, but the commonality is at some point all golfers will need to focus (think) about making a new move if the one they’re making is not getting the desired results they want or expect.

I also teach professional golfers and highly skilled amateurs who have reached the point of instinctive golf. And yes, it’s true that at times they do get in their own road by thinking too much. It’s an entirely different animal and is worthy of a whole other discussion. The vast majority of golfers, however, especially those who took up the game later in life, may have to accept the fact that some processing — some thinking about how to do certain things — will always be a part of their routine. They do not have the liberty of mindless golf, at least not to the degree that those more accomplished players who have played since a very young age (and often with good guidance) do. But once a move or position has become instinctive, swing away.

One more point on this. The setup and the swing, although quite closely related, are separate parts of a golf game. So let’s say you take a lesson and the instructor recommends a grip change, a ball position change and re-routes your back swing. After you learn the new grip and ball position, you can free your mind. You are fully operative at that point, and free to practice the new takeaway until it becomes instinctive.

Questions? Concerns? Post your comments below. If you’re interested in my online swing analysis program you can contact me at dennisclarkgolf@gmail.com

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Dennis Clark is a PGA Master Professional. Clark has taught the game of golf for more than 30 years to golfers all across the country, and is recognized as one of the leading teachers in the country by all the major golf publications. He is also is a seven-time PGA award winner who has earned the following distinctions: -- Teacher of the Year, Philadelphia Section PGA -- Teacher of the Year, Golfers Journal -- Top Teacher in Pennsylvania, Golf Magazine -- Top Teacher in Mid Atlantic Region, Golf Digest -- Earned PGA Advanced Specialty certification in Teaching/Coaching Golf -- Achieved Master Professional Status (held by less than 2 percent of PGA members) -- PGA Merchandiser of the Year, Tri State Section PGA -- Golf Professional of the Year, Tri State Section PGA -- Presidents Plaque Award for Promotion and Growth of the Game of Golf -- Junior Golf Leader, Tri State section PGA -- Served on Tri State PGA Board of Directors. Clark is also former Director of Golf and Instruction at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort. He now directs his own school, The Dennis Clark Golf Academy at the JW Marriott Marco Island in Naples, Fla.. He can be reached at dennisclarkgolf@gmail.com

31 Comments

31 Comments

  1. Steven

    Nov 16, 2016 at 1:39 pm

    Great advice Dennis. I am a little biased because I tend to think a ton about the swing. When people say a golfer is overthinking, my guess is the golfer is trying to think about too many different things at once. Incremental improvement with focused thinking on a limited number of changes is necessary to make changes. If it takes 21 days of conscious choices to break a habit, then changing a small thing in a rapid golf swing would take similar conscious thoughts over a significant amount of time.

  2. Mongoose

    Nov 15, 2016 at 1:41 pm

    Also watching the golf channel for instruction, geez what a joke…

  3. Grizz01

    Nov 14, 2016 at 4:32 pm

    I’ve been playing golf for 47 years. The more I watch/read the instructions from professionals, the more I see them actually making the game harder/difficult. A person only has so much talent/ability. These guy just keep pushing it… they just an’t look at a student and say… “That’s the best its going to get for you.” They got to keep them coming back to pay the bills. The game is not as difficult as you all make it out to be.

    • Dennis Clark

      Nov 16, 2016 at 9:23 am

      Actually, I appreciate your cynicism, but having done this work for 35+ years I’ve got a long line of people who want to see me for help with their game. The LAST THING I want is for anyone to come back; one and done! Point them in the right direction — now go tell someone else I’ve helped you. That’s my marketing model. A good teaching pro’s day has fresh faces every day and a new problem to solve every hour. Thanks.

    • RCCM

      Nov 17, 2016 at 10:27 am

      Caveat, I’m not an instructor. So many people who throw shade at instructors are the same ones who are unable to accept any new movement or setup position in their golf game. You can give golfers the correct instruction but you can’t give them the mental fortitude to put it into practice. I see it with my friends, and I’ve been through it myself.

      The real battle is not finding and getting the correct instruction, the real battle is getting the student to accept the instruction and practice new and uncomfortable feelings. The difference between those who will get better and those who will not is between the ears.

      If you’re not willing to be uncomfortable, you will not get better.

  4. Martin Chuck

    Nov 14, 2016 at 12:44 pm

    Dennis, great article. I’ve been teaching for 30 years, and when I hear somebody with a high handicap tell me they’re thinking too much, I say “good, now I have you right where I want you.” With my golf school students, I will ask the group if any of them have played a musical instrument. I find those that have suffered through the learning and skill development of a musical instrument understand the process of learning. That can apply to golf really nicely. On the other hand, The “athlete” just expects to do something because of their physical skills in other areas. That’s problematic 🙂

    • Dennis Clark

      Nov 14, 2016 at 4:09 pm

      Hi Martin, as a 20-handicap guitar player and singer I can soooo relate to that. Patience is a learned skill and one of ther few times we get to practice it is when challenging ourselves with learning a new task. Ive worked with some of the greatest athletes ever, Dr. J. MJ, (taught in AC New jersey for some time and many of them would come on casino outings) and they can’t believe they cant hit that little white ball just sitting still in front of them! The less physically talented, as you mentioned, are not as shocked by slices and and ground balls!

  5. Modog

    Nov 14, 2016 at 11:14 am

    tried to tell a 22 h/cap to keep it simple. pick the club, 1 practice swing and hit it, no overthinking. he said how do you turn off your brain. couldn’t answer.

    • Dennis Clark

      Nov 14, 2016 at 4:00 pm

      Mo…”brain dead” bodies do not move. For obvious reasons. Every movement we make has to start in the brain. It can become instinct but needs programming first! So as much as i would prefer non-thought it wouldn’t help me learn a skill! Thx for reading.

  6. Bob Jones

    Nov 14, 2016 at 10:52 am

    What this means to me is to set up feeling the shot, not the stroke. I don’t know if a recreational golfer can ever have enough repetitions to get to that point. I’m not there, and I’ve been playing for almost 60 years.

  7. Cap

    Nov 14, 2016 at 10:46 am

    So much truth here. I recently read an article about how ones fondness for pseudo-intellectual quotes (‘By blossoming, we dream.’ or ‘You and I are dreamweavers of the quantum soup’ etc.) is inversely proportional to their IQ. Well, golf has it’s own lexicon of bollocks babble–golfisms, if you will. We’ve all heard them: ‘keep your head down’, ‘hold the club like a baby bird’, ‘take 2 weeks off then quit the game’ (actually, this is pretty solid). Much like psycho-babble quotes, golfisms are appealing because they are concise and have an element of truth. In fact, they might even work for you provided you don’t spend too much time thinking about ‘buts’ and ‘ifs’. But an effective golf swing is a shape-shifting beast. People are built differently both mentally and physically and even a layman who sees Arnie’s swing next to Hogan’s can tell you that there may very well be more than one way to play the game. The reality is, there are precious few blanket statements when it comes to the golf swing and if you read the time-worn clichés as gospel, you’ll probably never see the light.

    • Double Mocha Man

      Nov 14, 2016 at 11:48 am

      Good post. If I ever hear the phrases again, “Keep your head down, you’re hitting behind the ball, swing easy…” I will hurl. Both my stomach contents and the club I happen to be holding at the time.

      • Dennis Clark

        Nov 14, 2016 at 4:20 pm

        Mocha, LOL. here’s one for ya…In over 35 years of teaching I have NEVER seen a student “pick up their head”. They come to the tee swearing that’s the problem, then look at the video and are SHOCKED that their head is down and they are looking right at the golf ball! John Jacobs used to tell me that he heard so much about keeping the head down, he thought the object of the game was to kick the ball.

    • Dennis Clark

      Nov 14, 2016 at 3:54 pm

      Very true Cap. If you hear keep your down, keep your left arm straight, slow your swing down, walk away. A lot of the psycho babble is because that person knows nothing else to say…There are NO, as in ZERO things that apply to every single golfer other than the ballistics of impact! How to get there is a highly individual matter! Thx for reading.

  8. Gary

    Nov 14, 2016 at 9:52 am

    Don’t expect so much of yourself no matter what level of player you are. Yes, you can visualize your shots but don’t fantasize about them. Play to a level that is within EASY reach, not a level that is far beyond your ability. The one thing you can focus your attention on is balance…you should strive to keep your balance no matter how good or bad the contact with the ball might be. By keeping your balance, you will become more consistent with your quality of hits.

  9. 4Right

    Nov 13, 2016 at 8:10 pm

    Tell them to stop reading Golf Digest, and Golf magazine. Taking the cookie cutter lessons and thinking their way to 115…

  10. Egor

    Nov 13, 2016 at 4:43 pm

    Thanks for the unstoppable autoplay videos on mobile devices.

    ¯\_(?)_/¯

  11. SOL

    Nov 12, 2016 at 10:48 pm

    Stages of Learning:
    1. Unconscious Incompetence – you don’t know what you don’t know
    2. Conscious Incompetence – you don’t know how to do what you know about
    3. Conscious Competence – you know what to do and can do it, but you have to think about it consciously
    4. Unconscious Competence – you have fully ingrained the correct movements and can execute without consciously thinking about them

  12. Double Mocha Man

    Nov 12, 2016 at 8:44 pm

    I play with 15 handicappers and they always have swing keys but they are the wrong ones. One guy, bless his heart, is an attorney so his swing keys are absolutely right. You can’t even question them.

  13. J.

    Nov 12, 2016 at 7:32 pm

    This even rings true when someone is custom fit for clubs.. You can pay for golf equipment, but if you have a horrible swing.. then.. go see an instructor with a Trackman.

  14. Hugh

    Nov 12, 2016 at 4:44 pm

    Even just one thought that is easily repeated to give you focus and commitment to each shot has worked for me. Very good article and rings true to all of my customers that use our driving range.

  15. Rors

    Nov 12, 2016 at 1:23 pm

    I think with the evolution of flight scope, swing instruction has become more a science now. Instructors have a vast amount of information based on different numbers they see on data they collect. So in my opinion students gets intimidated with information, thus think swing not golf. Instructors need to be very creative when teaching, getting to know the student and theirs goals. I would never teach a recreational golfer the same as a top junior, or college player. My lesson plan would be more around him correcting mistakes made on the course, plus not trying to transform their swing other than to enhance it… Great article and it brings up many opinions, which this is mine… Thanks for reading, and would love to read yours…

    • Dennis Clark

      Nov 12, 2016 at 5:53 pm

      swings and students are like fingerprints,with no two alike…over nearly 40 years and 30K lessons, I never plan a day or lesson. I react to what i see instinctively and correct (or not) from there. The principles of instruction are finite, the methods of presentation infinite. Thx for your interest.

  16. Smokin' Gun

    Nov 12, 2016 at 1:06 pm

    Caveman golf… Hit ball, find ball, hit ball again…

    • Shanker

      Nov 14, 2016 at 12:21 pm

      Sometimes the 2nd part is the hardest to achieve!!!

  17. Pingback: Why I can’t tell a 15-handicap he’s thinking too much – Swing Update

  18. acemandrake

    Nov 12, 2016 at 11:41 am

    Correct. I started playing at 9 (I’m now 59) with good instruction.

    The more you play the more “natural” and instinctive the game becomes (playing golf NOT golf swing).

    Now if I can just get out of my own way…:)

    • Dennis Clark

      Nov 12, 2016 at 5:47 pm

      Thats the point, you can play “golf not golf swing” from 50 years of playing not everyone can. Thx

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Instruction

Champ or choker? 5 ways to keep from being the latter

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Golf can be a lonely game. Rarely in sports are you more on an island while battling fears, doubts, and inner demons in the effort not to choke — especially on the biggest stages. But even if we’ve never been a champ, or played in a major championship, we’ve all been there, battling those same demons, and that’s why most of us can relate so well with some of golf’s most infamous chokes.

The pinnacle of these ignoble events was likely on the final hole at Carnoustie, in the ‘99 British Open, when Jean Van de Velde gave up a three-shot lead in a tragic comedy of bad shots (and even worse judgment), a scene that saw him take off his shoes and socks and wade deep into the Barry Burn before finally coming to his senses. Van de Velde ultimately lost in a playoff to Paul Lawrie, earning his place in golfing infamy, but when it comes to choking away victory on the biggest stage, he certainly wasn’t alone.

In the 1966 U.S. Open at Olympic Club, Arnold Palmer lost a seven-shot lead to Billy Casper on the final nine holes. Ed Sneed blew a five-shot lead on the final day of the ’79 Masters that was a three-shot lead with three to play by missing very short putts on each of the last three holes. Greg Norman’s infamous collapse at the 1996 Masters should be counted as well, when he threw away a six-shot lead with an atrocious 78 on the final day, allowing Nick Faldo to win.

And the champions of this generation haven’t proven immune either. Rory McIlroy coughed up a four-shot lead on the final day at Augusta in the 2011 Masters, ultimately carding an 80. And Dustin Johnson has a hat trick of tight-collar escapades in majors, losing the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by shooting a final-round 78 after starting with a three-shot lead, and the 2010 PGA by committing a rules violation when he had the lead on the final hole, and the 2015 U.S. Open to Jordan Spieth when he three-putted the final hole from just 15 feet. And speaking of Spieth, his final round collapse at Amen Corner on the back nine at the 2016 Masters, when he gave up a five-shot lead by going bogey-bogey-quadruple-bogey after putting two balls in the water at the dreaded 12th, is how that year’s event will forever be remembered.

Now golfers aren’t alone when it comes to choking. Athletes in nearly every sport fear it, suffer from it, and work their entire careers to avoid being associated with it. It wouldn’t be too far a stretch to say that a large percentage of athletes would rather be known as a cheat, a thief, and a liar before being known as a choker. Our sports culture reveres the clutch athlete, the player who can handle the biggest moments on the biggest stage and rise to the occasion time and again. And possibly because most of us can’t, we look up to those who can handle those pressure-packed situations like almost no other. And we cast aspersions upon those who can’t, labeling some who’ve done it even once as chokers, and those who have a habit of self-sabotage as choke artists. We are fascinated by those who can succeed in the spotlight, and, as sports fans, frustrated by those who wither when the lights are brightest. And the awareness of this is so pervasive that avoiding having to wear the choker label can arguably be in and of itself the greatest pressure.

As a result of this preoccupation with choking, scientists have studied it quite a bit. And some are finally beginning to identify its causes and how to avoid it. And while it sounds like a gross oversimplification, much of this study seems to conclude that choking ultimately comes down to simply this… Thinking too much. When athletes get nervous about their performance they stop doing whatever it is they do instinctively and essentially fall into the trap of trying not to make mistakes. They begin to desperately try and control whatever the necessary motions they need to make to a higher degree than normal and, in the process, the fluidity of those motions is lost along with their grace and talent.

Now that’s a layman’s description of what happens, but let’s use putting to explain what’s going on a little more scientifically. When people first learn to putt, they have numerous things to consider. They need to assess the break of the green, what line they will use, and at what speed they will need to roll the ball in order for it follow their intended path. They must also ensure their stroke is not only straight enough to send the ball upon the intended line, but the right size so that it rolls it at the intended speed. For a new golfer, this is more than challenging enough to require the majority of their focus and attention, and at first this necessary. By focusing on their stroke mechanics, as well as the other necessary elements they are trying accomplish, they can avoid mistakes and make better putts.

Once they’ve played for a while, though, and possess the requisite skill to putt, everything changes. Analyzing the stroke at this point is wasted mental energy as the brain almost automatically computes the necessary break and speed needed for a successful putt. Complex learned motor skills like putting are controlled by the cerebellum, and trying to consciously control these skills shifts control to the slower, more deliberate prefrontal cortex, causing a performance drop. If you look at the brain waves of athletes during performance, those of beginners tend to have erratic dips and spikes as well as wildly inconsistent rhythm, the neural signature of a mind engaging in conscious thought. By contrast, expert athletes’ minds look almost eerily serene, showcasing a mental tranquility that ignores disruption or interruption from the outside world, highlighting the fact that in optimal performance those who succeed essentially don’t think, they just do.

This is why studies show that experienced golfers who are forced to think about technique hit significantly worse shots. Once our technique is embedded we instead want to rely on the automatic brain. Conscious thought essentially erases years of practice, and this is what often happens when athletes start to choke. They begin to second-guess their skill, and the part of the brain that monitors their behavior begins to interfere with the types of actions that are normally made without thinking. Before long, performance spirals, as failures mount and increasing doubt about the ability to perform begin to rise.

So why are golfers so much more apt to choke than other athletes? Well, unlike most reactionary sports, we’ve unfortunately got a lot of available time to engage in all that unnecessary thinking. This means we have a proverbial minefield of potential mind-traps out there waiting for us to step on. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If we take cues from the available research, we can devise habits, routines, and strategies to help short-circuit the choking phenomenon, and potentially avoid becoming another Van de Velde the next time the chips are down.

  1. Practice Desired Outcome Focus – It’s essentially impossible (and a bad habit) to try and not do something. Telling yourself not to hit it left in the hazard, or to stay away from the bunker right is a really bad idea, and there are studies backing that up. Shift your focus instead to what your desired outcome is.
  2. Practice Positive Visualization – Positive visualization is a great tactic to use to avoid choking. Get in the habit of mentally rehearsing a positive image of the skill you want to perform, or better yet, a successful image of the shot you want to make like a high fade towards the tallest pine at the corner of the dogleg.
  3. Practice Implicit Learning – This is learning through observation, rather than the step-by-step instruction manual approach, and its practitioners have been observed in studies to be much less susceptible to choking than their overly analytical counterparts.
  4. Practice a Pre-Shot Routine – Players who have a disciplined performance routine that allows them to become engrossed in the process, shifting their mind away from too much outcome thinking, have also proven to be much less susceptible to choking.
  5. Embrace Distraction – Athletes asked to listen to sounds or words unrelated to the actions they are performing rarely show the type of drop-off in performance in high pressure situations than those who are actually focused on what they are doing. So, next time listen close to all those birds chirping, partners yakking, or clubs jangling with a welcoming ear, instead of an instinctive complaint.

While these practices can really help you start understanding what to do if you want to become an actual champ, learning a few lessons from the foibles of some of those would-be champs can be helpful as well. When Palmer melted down in ’66, it was because he got over-confident and began firing at pins in an attempt to break Ben Hogan’s Open scoring record. As things started to unravel, though, he got tight, surly, and uncharacteristically dour in the effort to get things under control.

When Norman’s bid for his first green jacket began to fall apart like the proverbial cheap suit, he too got tight, making one uncharacteristically poor decision (and swing) after another in attempt to get things under control. When Rory McIlroy collapsed, he approached the entire day of the final round differently then he did typically, thinking he needed to be more serious and stoic in his quest to nail down his first ever major and it backfired.

And for Van de Velde, the succession of agonizingly poor decisions, beginning essentially on the 18th tee of the final hole, was actually his attempt to not do anything different when common sense dictated he should have. When asked about it in an interview fifteen years later he said,

“What do you want me to say? I should have played it differently? I believe that…with what I do and the way that I do it, day in, day out… that I played it correctly. I hope that people learned that it’s a game and there’s bigger things in life. Winning with grace is pretty easy. Losing with it is a lot harder.”

Quite a profound statement form someone nearly unequally qualified in the game to make it. Bravo Jean. You may not have ended up a champ, but you certainly won’t find me calling you a choker.

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WATCH: How slow-motion training can lead to more power and consistency

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Eddie Fernandes has made big changes to his swing (and his power and consistency have gone up) by mastering the key moves in slow motion before he speeds them up. Everyone should use this kind of slow motion training to make real changes to their swing!

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WATCH: What you really need to know to control the direction of your shots

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In this video, Top-100 Teacher Tom Stickney shows you how to better control the direction of your shots by understanding how both the club face and swing path determine where your ball goes.

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